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10-08-2015, 21:00

From Stalin to Khrushchev

World War II devastated the Soviet Union. Twenty million citizens lost their lives, and cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, and Leningrad suffered enormous physical destruction. As the lands that had been occupied by the German forces were liberated, the Soviet government turned its attention to restoring their economic structures. Nevertheless, in 1945, agricultural production was only 60 percent and steel output only 50 percent of prewar levels. The Soviet people faced incredibly difficult conditions: they worked longer hours; they ate less; they were illhoused and poorly clothed. In the immediate postwar years, the Soviet Union removed goods and materials from occupied Germany and extorted valuable raw materials from its satellite states in Eastern Europe. More important, however, to create a new industrial base, Stalin returned to the method he had used in the 1930s—the extraction of development capital from Soviet labor. Working hard for little pay and for precious few consumer goods, Soviet laborers were expected to produce goods for export with little in return for themselves. The incoming capital from abroad could then be used to purchase machinery and Western technology. The loss of millions of men in the war meant that much of this tremendous workload fell to Soviet women, who performed almost 40 percent of the heavy manual labor. The pace of economic recovery in the Soviet Union was impressive. By 1947, Russian industrial production had attained 1939 levels; three years later, it had surpassed those levels by 40 percent. New power plants, canals, and giant factories were built, while new industrial enterprises and oil fields were established in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Stalin’s new five-year plan, announced in 1946, reached its goals in less than five years. Although Stalin’s economic recovery policy was successful in promoting growth in heavy industry, primarily for the benefit of the military, consumer goods remained scarce. The development of thermonuclear weapons, MIG fighters, and the first space satellite (Sputnik) in the 1950s may have elevated the Soviet state’s reputation as a world power abroad, but domestically, the Soviet people were shortchanged. Heavy industry grew at a rate three times that of personal consumption. Moreover, the housing shortage was acute, with living conditions especially difficult in the overcrowded cities. When World War II ended, Stalin had been in power for more than fifteen years. During that time, he had removed all opposition to his rule and remained the undisputed master of the Soviet Union. Increasingly distrustful of competitors, Stalin exercised sole authority and pitted his subordinates against one another. One of these subordinates, Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police, controlled a force of several hundred thousand agents, leaving Stalin’s colleagues completely cowed. As Stalin remarked mockingly on one occasion, “When I die, the imperialists will strangle all of you like a litter of kittens.” 1 Stalin’s morbid suspicions added to the constantly increasing repression of the regime. In 1946, government decrees subordinated all forms of literary and scientific expression to the political needs of the state. Along with the anti-intellectual campaign came political terror. By the late 1940s, there were an estimated nine million people in Siberian concentration camps. Distrust of potential threats to his power even spread to some of his closest colleagues. In 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, his presumed successor and head of the Leningrad party organization, died under mysterious circumstances, presumably at Stalin’s order. Within weeks, the Leningrad party organization was purged of several top leaders, many of whom were charged with traitorous connections with Western intelligence agencies. In succeeding years, Stalin directed his suspicion at other members of the inner circle, including Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Known as “Old Stone Butt” in the West for his stubborn defense of Soviet security interests, Molotov had been Stalin’s loyal lieutenant since the early years of Stalin’s rise to power. Now Stalin distrusted Molotov and had his Jewish wife placed in a Siberian concentration camp. Stalin died in 1953 and, after some bitter infighting within the party leadership, was succeeded by Georgy Malenkov, a veteran administrator and ambitious member of the Politburo. Malenkov came to power with a clear agenda. In foreign affairs, he hoped to promote an easing of Cold War tensions and improve relations with the Western powers. For Moscow’s Eastern European allies, he advocated a “new course” in their mutual relations and a decline in Stalinist methods of rule. Inside the Soviet Union, he hoped to reduce defense expenditures and assign a higher priority to improving the standard of living. Such goals were laudable and probably had the support of the majority of the Russian people, but they were not necessarily appealing to key pressure groups within the Soviet Union—the army, the Communist Party, the managerial elite, and the security services (now known as the Committee on Government Security, or KGB). In 1953, Malenkov was removed from his position as prime minister, and power shifted to his rival, the new party general secretary, Nikita Khrushchev. During his struggle for power with Malenkov, Khrushchev had outmaneuvered him by calling for heightened defense expenditures and a continuing emphasis on heavy industry. Once in power, however, Khrushchev showed the political dexterity displayed by many an American politician and reversed his priorities. He now resumed the efforts of his predecessor to reduce tensions with the West and improve the standard of living of the Russian people. He moved vigorously to improve the performance of the Soviet economy and revitalize Soviet society. By nature, Khrushchev was a man of enormous energy as well as an innovator. In an attempt to release the stranglehold of the central bureaucracy over the national economy, he abolished dozens of government ministries and split up the party and government apparatus. Khru- shchev also attempted to rejuvenate the stagnant agricultural sector, long the Achilles heel of the Soviet economy. He attempted to spur production by increasing profit incentives and opened “virgin lands” in Soviet Kazakhstan to bring thousands of acres of new land under cultivation. Like any innovator, Khrushchev had to overcome the inherently conservative instincts of the Soviet bureaucracy, as well as of the mass of the Soviet population. His plan to remove the “dead hand” of the state, however laudable in intent, alienated much of the Soviet official class, and his effort to split the party angered those who saw it as the central force in the Soviet system. Khrushchev’s agricultural schemes inspired similar opposition. Although the Kazakhstan wheat lands would eventually demonstrate their importance in the overall agricultural picture, progress was slow, and his effort to persuade the Russian people to eat more corn (an idea he had apparently picked up during a visit to the United States) led to the mocking nickname of “Cornman.” Disappointing agricultural production, combined with high military spending, hurt the Soviet economy. The industrial growth rate, which had soared in the early 1950s, now declined dramatically from 13 percent in 1953 to 7.5 percent in 1964. Khrushchev was probably best known for his policy of destalinization. Khrushchev had risen in the party hierarchy as a Stalin protégé, but he had been deeply disturbed by his mentor’s excesses and, once in a position of authority, moved to excise the Stalinist legacy from Soviet society. The campaign began at the Twentieth National Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956, when Khrushchev gave a long speech criticizing some of Stalin’s major shortcomings. The speech had apparently not been intended for public distribution, but it was quickly leaked to the Western press and created a sensation throughout the world (see the box on p. 159). During the next few years, Khrushchev encouraged more freedom of expression for writers, artists, and composers, arguing that “readers should be given the chance to make their own judgments” regarding the acceptability of controversial literature and that “police measures shouldn’t be used.” 2 At Khrushchev’s order, thousands of prisoners were released from concentration camps. Khrushchev’s personality, however, did not endear him to higher Soviet officials, who frowned at his tendency to crack jokes and play the clown. Nor were the higher members of the party bureaucracy pleased when Khrushchev tried to curb their privileges. Foreign policy failures further damaged Khrushchev’s reputation among his colleagues. His plan to place missiles in Cuba was the final straw (see Chapter 7). While he was away on vacation in 1964, a special meeting of the Soviet Politburo voted him out of office (because of “deteriorating health”) and forced him into retirement. Although a group of leaders succeeded him, real power came into the hands of Leonid Brezhnev (1906 –1982), the “trusted” supporter of Khrushchev who had engineered his downfall.

 

 

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