70 years ago, Nikita Khrushchev headed the Communist Party, although no one took him seriously after Stalinʼs death. This is how he defeated his competitors Malenkov and Beria and seized power in the USSR

Serhii Pyvovarov
Yevhen Spirin
70 years ago, Nikita Khrushchev headed the Communist Party, although no one took him seriously after Stalinʼs death. This is how he defeated his competitors Malenkov and Beria and seized power in the USSR

Nikita Khrushchev during a visit to East Berlin in August 1957, where he was greeted as the full head of the USSR.

On September 7, 1953, six months after the death of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. But at that time the government had more power than the party organs. And the main contenders for the role of the new leader were Stalinʼs right-hand man in the Council of Ministers of the USSR Georgy Malenkov and the head of the Soviet special services Lavrentiy Beria. Khrushchev had a good political career under Stalin, but at first he was not taken seriously. Malenkov and Beria underestimated their opponent, for which the former paid with his political career, and the latter with his life. Babel recalls how the former head of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR, Nikita Khrushchev, defeated his most influential competitors in a behind-the-scenes struggle and became the sole ruler of the USSR.

March 1953: Malenkov, Beria, Khrushchev

Since 1941, Joseph Stalin combined two main positions in the USSR — the head of the party and the head of the government. It was from his presentation that the actual supreme body of state power then became not the party, but the government — the Council of Peopleʼs Commissars, and later the Council of Ministers of the USSR.

By the beginning of the 1950s, Stalinʼs health had deteriorated to such an extent that he could no longer devote enough time to state affairs. In February 1951, the Politburo of the Central Committee passed a resolution that his closest associates, Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, and Mykola Bulganin, had the right to preside over meetings of the Council of Ministers instead of Stalin and sign documents on his behalf.

Lavrentiy Beria (far left) and Georgy Malenkov (right of Beria) walk with Joseph Stalin (center) through Red Square in Moscow, June 1946.

Nikita Khrushchev was one of the members of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPSU at that time. He made a successful career in the party: he managed to be the chairman of the Moscow Regional Committee and the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian SSR several times. In the leadership, Khrushchev developed the image of a weak, but energetic and faithful executor. Therefore, he was not considered seriously as a contender for the position of the countryʼs leader in the event of Stalinʼs death.

First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine Mykyta Khrushchev (center) at the opening ceremony of the monument to Taras Shevchenko, 1939.

On March 1, 1953, Stalin suffered a stroke, and it became clear that he would not last long. On the evening of March 5, at a short meeting of the countryʼs governing bodies, his relatives shared power. Malenkov received the most important position at that time — head of the government, Beria became his first deputy and head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Khrushchev was given a less significant position as head of the party apparatus — the Secretariat of the Central Committee. Stalin died an hour after the meeting, stripped of all leadership positions.

In his memoirs, Khrushchev wrote that in the last years of his life, Stalin called Bulganin his likely successor as head of the USSR government. However, Bulganin never had real power. He was an old party member who from time to time "plugged" holes in various ministries and departments. At meetings of the Council of Ministers, his words usually did not carry any weight, and he simply voted in the same way as Malenkov and Beria. This is how Bulganin was remembered by his contemporary, the head of affairs of the Radmin at that time Mykhailo Smirtyukov: "He had an unenviable role on our political scene — a submissive performer. I completed it and became completely unnecessary to anyone."

Who claimed the highest power in the country could be judged by the arrangement of officials at Stalinʼs funeral. The funeral procession was led by Malenkov and Beria, and Khrushchev walked only in the third row.

Summary: Immediately after Stalinʼs death, Malenkov and Beria became the main competitors in the struggle for power, while Khrushchev remained in the shadows.

Stalinʼs funeral in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev — far right, March 9, 1953.

Summer — autumn 1953: Malenkov, ̶B̶e̶r̶i̶ya̶, Khrushchev

From the 1930s and 1940s, Malenkov and Beria formed a kind of alliance: they jointly initiated purges, eliminated competitors in the struggle for the highest power in the country. In the last years of Stalinʼs life, the two of them ruled the Soviet Union, but after his death, their union fell apart. Malenkov defiantly occupied Stalinʼs office. However, Beria, who headed the Soviet special services and concentrated enormous power in his hands, was not going to take a back seat. At that time, the state security authorities had the last word regarding any reshuffles: party, state or economic personnel. Beria liked to keep officials in fear, and few meetings of the Council of Ministers with his participation went without reprimanding any of the ministers.

In the photo from left to right: Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov and Minister of Trade Anastas Mikoyan on Red Square in Moscow, 1949.

Almost immediately after Stalinʼs death, at the end of March 1953, Beria first of all appointed his proteges to the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow and the Union republics. And then he began to single-handedly carry out reforms in the foreign and domestic policy of the USSR. Frightened by the recent purges, members of the Central Committee and Radmin were simply afraid to contradict him. Moreover, Beria planned very radical reforms. Announce a general amnesty and stop trials against political prisoners; liquidate the majority of large-scale all-Union constructions and expand the rights of the republics within the USSR; to return Königsberg to Germany, the Kuril Islands to Japan, Karelia to Finland, and generally recognize the GDR as a failed project and allow it to unite with West Germany.

At this time, Khrushchev made the first important strategic move — he brought back from oblivion the "Marshal of Victory" Georgy Zhukov, who had fallen into disgrace during Stalinʼs time. Zhukov received the position of deputy minister of defense, and Khrushchev received the support of the army, where Zhukov still had great authority. Khrushchev then formed an alliance with Malenkov and other ministers and party members who feared Beriaʼs growing influence. Beria himself, apparently, was so confident in his power and invulnerability that he simply lost his vigilance.

In the photo from left to right: Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Zhukov and the commander of the US Air Force General Nathan Twining at the air show in Moscow, June 24, 1956.

Finally, on June 26, 1953, during a meeting of the Council of Ministers, Zhukov together with a group of generals arrested Beria. "Ten people entered the office. And Malenkov gently says this, addressing Zhukov: "I suggest that you, as the head of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, detain Beria." Zhukov ordered Beria: "Hands up!" Beria rushed to his briefcase, which was lying on the windowsill behind him. I grabbed Beriaʼs hand so he couldnʼt use the weapon if it was in the briefcase. Then they checked: there were no weapons there, neither in the briefcase nor in the pockets. He simply made some kind of reflexive movement," Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs.

Beria was accused of treason, working for British intelligence and conspiracy to seize power. In December of the same year, he was shot, and then most of the heads of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law enforcement agencies appointed by him were repressed. "In the first months after Beriaʼs arrest, Malenkovʼs face simply did not leave a smile. He led the meeting loosely, joking," recalled Mykhailo Smirtyukov, the head of affairs of the Radmin at that time.

Conclusion: Khrushchev eliminated the most dangerous competitor, Beria, and received the support of the army, while Malenkov retained the main position in the state, but was left with almost no allies.

Georgy Malenkov, 1950s.

Autumn 1953 — spring 1958: ̶M̶a̶l̶e̶n̶k̶o̶v̶, ̶B̶e̶r̶i̶ya̶, Khrushchev

In August 1953, Malenkov still felt like a full-fledged ruler in the country. At the session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, he delivered a keynote speech in which he called for reforming agriculture and developing the light and food industry. But the main thing is that he continued to defend the leading role of the government, and methodically deprived party officials of their privileges. Back in May 1953, Malenkov made a tactical mistake by canceling the so-called "envelope" — additional payments, the size of which depended on the size of the family. This system was extended to all party members — from members of the Politburo to the secretaries of district committees, whose incomes have now been reduced by approximately half.

This was used by Khrushchev, who attracted the disaffected party leadership to his side. In the end, on the last day of the Autumn Plenum of the Central Committee, September 7, 1953, literally in the last minutes of work and almost without discussion, Khrushchev was unanimously elected the first secretary of the party. In essence, this meant the revival of the post of general secretary, which had been abolished shortly before Stalinʼs death.

Georgy Malenkov (left) and Nikita Khrushchev at a meeting of the Radmin, 1950s.

For some time, dual power was again established in the country. But Khrushchev gradually relegated Malenkov to the background and constantly criticized his government for bureaucracy, red tape and populism. Khrushchev promoted such rhetoric — the party leader should be the leader of the entire country.

In February 1955, Khrushchev managed to convince the Plenum of the Central Committee to support the course for the development of heavy industry and, accordingly, to abandon Malenkovʼs reforms. This became the formal reason for Malenkovʼs resignation from the post of head of government. He was demoted to the position of one of the deputy heads of the Radmin and appointed as the Minister of Power Plants. The position of head of the Council of Ministers was "shut up" by Bulganin.

Nikita Khrushchev (front row, center), Georgy Malenkov (right of Khrushchev) and Mykola Bulganin (left of Khrushchev) at the February meeting of the Plenum of the Central Committee in 1955.

In February 1956, Khrushchev consolidated his leadership at the 20th Party Congress. First, he updated the composition of the Partyʼs Central Committee and the Secretariat, and then gave a historic speech on the personality cult of Stalin and mass repressions. "Khrushchev on the podium. It was obvious how worried he was. At first he giggled, spoke not very confidently, and then left. He often deviated from the text, and the improvisations were even more sharp and clear than the assessments in the report itself... There was dead silence in the hall. There was no creaking of chairs, no coughs, no whispers,” recalled Central Committee worker Oleksandr Yakovlev, who was present at the 20th Congress.

Nikita Khrushchev speaks at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, at which the cult of Stalinʼs personality was condemned. The leaders of the USSR sit behind him in the Presidium. The fourth from the left is Georgy Malenkov, to his right are Lazar Kaganovych, Mykola Bulganin, Kliment Voroshilov, February 1956.


Malenkov, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, member of the Presidium of the Central Committee Lazar Kaganovich and other "old Stalinists" perceived the report as a personal threat. Therefore, in June 1957, they made a last attempt to take power from Khrushchev. At a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPSU, they voted to remove Khrushchev from the position of First Secretary and send him into "exile" by the Minister of Agriculture. The discussion was so heated that the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Klyment Voroshilov, complained that there had never been anything like it during his entire tenure in the Politburo. And Leonid Brezhnev, one of the secretaries of the Central Committee and Khrushchevʼs closest associate, fainted from excitement and was carried out of the meeting hall.

However, Khrushchev was saved again by Zhukov, who at that time became the Minister of Defense. He declared that "the army is against this decision (on the removal of Khrushchev) and not a single tank will move without my order." After the defeat of the "anti-party group", Khrushchev did not arrest the conspirators. Molotov was sent as an ambassador to Mongolia, Malenkov was appointed director of a power plant in Kazakhstan, and Kaganovich was appointed head of a plant in the Sverdlovsk Region. They were expelled from the Central Committee, and later from the party. According to historians, after the failure of the conspiracy, Kaganovich called Khrushchev: "Nikita, what will happen to us?" Khrushchev replied: "And what would you do if yours took it? They shot me, rotted in prison?! And Iʼll just tell you: all of you go to..."

Four months later, in October 1957, Khrushchev also dismissed Marshal Zhukov, who supported him. And then he began reforming the army, primarily by reducing its funding and numbers.

After the defeat of Malenkov and his associates, Khrushchev became the sole ruler. It was formally established in March 1958, when Khrushchev was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers instead of Bulganin at the suggestion of Voroshilov. First, the former head of the government was "shut up" for the third time as the head of the board of the State Bank of the USSR. And in August 1958, Bulganin was actually sent into actual exile to Stavropol to the position of head of the Soviet State Farm.

Summary: In five years, Khrushchev seized power in the country according to Stalinʼs model — in addition to the position of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, he also assumed the position of head of the USSR Council of Ministers.

First Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Nikita Khrushchev with ears of corn in his hands during a visit to the Stalin collective farm in Stavropol Krai, 1958.

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Nikita Khrushchev. time People. Power (Memories). In 4 books. Moscow, 1999.

Fedor Burlatskyi. Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers are red, black, and white. Moscow, 2002.

Alexander Yakovlev. Memory foam. Moscow, 2000.

Yevgeny Zhirnov. After the execution of Beria, Malenkov smiled all the time. Conversation with Mikhail Smirtyukov. Kommersant Vlast magazine No. 33 dated August 22, 2011, p. 34.

Yevgeny Zhirnov. Bulganin could no longer endure Nikitaʼs constant angry outbursts. Conversation with Mikhail Smirtyukov. Magazine "Kommersant Vlast" No. 33, 22.08.2011, p. 38.

Serhii Pyvovarov
Yevhen Spirin

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