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Leadership Succession and Political Violence in the USSR Following Stalin’s Death

  • Mark Kramer

Abstract

Robert Conquest is best known for his books on the Stalinist terror of the 1930s and the devastating famine in Soviet Ukraine, but he first made his name by analyzing leadership succession and political power in the Soviet Union. In his landmark book on Soviet high politics, Power and Policy in the USSR, Conquest explained how new political leaders emerged and consolidated their power against potential rivals.1 Because no formal arrangements for transferring power existed in the Soviet Union, changes of political leadership were carried out through furtive political struggles and cutthroat maneuvering, which occasionally produced unexpected results. The instability engendered by the lack of institutionalized processes of political succession became evident as early as January 1924 when the death of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Bolsheviks, created a political vacuum. Josif Stalin’s consolidation of power in Moscow through a series of violent moves against his rivals in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in show trials and executions of former colleagues, underscored the potential role of violence in Soviet leadership struggles.

Keywords

Communist Party State Security Soviet Government Union Republic Soviet Leader 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Robert Conquest, Power and Policy in the USSR: The Study of Soviet Dynastics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 145–163. See also A. V. Pyzhikov, “Poslednie mesyatsy diktatora (1952–1953 gody),” Otechestvennaya istoriya (Moscow), No. 2 (March–April 2002): 152–158.Google Scholar
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    On this point, see V. P. Naumov, “Kistorii sekretnogo doklada N. S. Khrushcheva na XX S’ezda KPSS,” Novaya i noveishaya istoriya (Moscow), No. 4 (July–August 1996): 152–153.Google Scholar
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    For an extraordinary account of Stalin’s campaign against Molotov and of Beria’s possible role in it, which draws from still-classified materials from Stalin’s personal fond, see Vladimir Pechatnov, “‘Soyuzniki nazhimayut na tebya dlya togo, chtoby slomit’ u tebya volyu …’: Perepiska Stalina s Molotovym i drugimi chlenami Politbyuro na vneshnepoliticheskim voprosam v sentyabre-dekabre 1945 g.,” Istochnik, No. 2 (1999): 70–85, esp. 83. This matter was raised at the July 1953 plenum of the CPSU Central Committee by several speakers; see, for example, “Doklad tov. G. M. Malenkova” and “Rech’ tov. V. A. Malysheva,” both from “Plenum Tsentral’nogo Komiteta KPSS, 2–7 iyulya 1953 g.,” July 1953 (Strictly Secret), in RGANI, 2/1/45/5, 40.Google Scholar
  13. 60.
    For a very useful discussion of Beria’s changes of personnel at the MVD, based on new archival sources, see Nikita Petrov, Pervyi predsedatel’ KGB Ivan Serov (Moscow: Materik, 2005), pp. 133–140. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  14. David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev, and George Bailey, Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 151–162. Although Murphy, Kondrashev, and Bailey rely much too heavily and uncritically on the top secret bill of indictment against Beria (a document that is at best tendentious and misleading, and at times flatly inaccurate, as discussed below), their account is illuminating.Google Scholar
  15. 64.
    V P. Naumov, “Byl li zagovor Berii? Novye dokumenty o sobytiyakh 1953 g.,” Novaya i noveishaya istoriya (Moscow), No. 5 (September–October 1998): p. 23 (emphasis added). My interpretations diverge sharply from Naumov’s on several points, but his article is worth reading. See also his earlier assessment, coauthored withGoogle Scholar
  16. Aleksandr Korotkov, “Beriya: tainyi i yavnyi,” Moskovskie novosti (Moscow), No. 19 (May 17–24, 1998): 21, which gave a brief, preliminary look at his findings.Google Scholar
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  23. 72.
    These directives were recounted by Vitalii Chernyavskii, who served as the Soviet intelligence station chief in Bucharest in June 1953, in a lengthy interview in 2005. See Leonid Mlechin, “Moi pervyi nachal’nik podpolkovnik Chernyavskii,” Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie (Moscow), No. 26 (July 15, 2005): 7.Google Scholar
  24. 75.
    See K. S. Moskalenko, “Kak byl arestovan Beriya,” Moskovskie novosti (Moscow), No. 22 (June 10, 1990), pp. 10–11. Moskalenko writes that “after Beria’s arrest, during a routine report to Malenkov, he [Malenkov] happened to tell me and Cde. R. A. Rudenko, the General Procurator, that ‘before turning to K. S. Moskalenko to carry out this operation, we [Malenkov and Khrushchev] approached one of the Marshals of the Soviet Union, but he refused to do it.’ Who this marshal was, Comrade Rudenko and I didn’t ask.” The context suggests that it may have been Aleksandr Vasilevskii, who was then a deputy defense minister. (Vasilevskii and Bulganin alternated as defense minister from 1947 to 1955: Bulganin was minister from 1947 to 1949, Vasilevskii was minister from 1949 to March 1953, and Bulganin returned to the ministerial post in March 1953.) Moskalenko writes that when he suggested bringing Vasilevskii into the operation, Bulganin “for some reason immediately rejected this proposal.”Google Scholar
  25. 82.
    As with Khrushchev’s memoir, all of the newer firsthand accounts of the Beria affair must be treated with great circumspection. Some of the authors had their own bitter scores to settle, and several who had little or no firsthand knowledge of the plotting were unduly influenced by Khrushchev’s account, which they obviously had seen before writing their own versions. Of particular interest is the portion of Mikoyan’s memoir that deals with the events of late June 1953, “Konets Berii,” Ll. 70–74. Also invaluable are the recollections of several military officers who arrested Beria. See the testimony of Colonel (later General) Ivan Zub in “Zadanie osobogo svoistva: Istoriya i sud’by” (3 parts), Krasnaya zvezda (Moscow), March 18, 19, and 20, 1988, pp. 3, 6, and 4, respectively; the recollections of Colonel-General (later Marshal) Kirill Moskalenko in “Kak byl arestovan Beriya” (republished in abridged form in Nekrasov’s book, as cited above); and the brief but interesting account by Marshal Georgii Zhukov, “Riskovannaya operatsiya” (also cited above). In April 1985, before these accounts were published, Zub and two of the other five officers, General Aleksei Baksov and Colonel Viktor Yuferev, wrote a top secret letter to the CPSU Central Committee briefly reviewing the events of June 26, 1953. The letter was declassified in 1992 and published in “Net neobkhodimosti govorit’ o nashikh boevykh zaslugakh …,” Rodina (Moscow), No. 10 (November 1992): 64. Other firsthand observations well worth consulting are Shepilov, “Vospominaniya,” pp. 3–20; Mukhitdinov, Gody, provedennye v kremle, pp. 95–119; Mátyás Rákosi, Visszaemlékezések (Budapest: Napvilag, 1997), pp. 437–478; and the comments by Molotov recorded in Chuev, ed., Sto sorok besed s Molotovym, pp. 335–336. Unfortunately, the relevant section of Lazar’Google Scholar
  26. Kaganovich’s memoir, Pamyatnye zapiski rabochego, kommunista-bol’shevika, profsoyuznogo, partiinogo i sovetsko-gosudarstvennogo rabotnika (Moscow: Vagrius, 1996), pp. 499–502, is vacuous and sheds no new light on the affair. Some of the other new accounts, especially those by children of the main actors, are too fanciful or unreliable to be of any real use. Books in this last category includeGoogle Scholar
  27. Sergo Beria, Lavrentii Beriya: Moi otets (Moscow: Sovremennik, 1994);Google Scholar
  28. A. G. Malenkov, O moem ottse Georgii Malenkove (Moscow: NTTS Tekhnoekos, 1992); andGoogle Scholar
  29. Pavel Sudoplatov, Spetsoperatsii: Lubyanka i Kreml’, 1930–1950 gody (Moscow: Olma-press, 1997), which is a slightly expanded version of the controversial book published in English in 1994.Google Scholar
  30. 88.
    The resolution adopted on March 5, 1953, specified that the Presidium of the USSR Council of Ministers would consist of the chairman, first deputy chairmen, and deputy chairmen of the Council of Ministers. However, from March 5 until December 7, 1953, the Council of Ministers had no deputy chairmen. Hence, the Presidium of the Council consisted of only five standing members. See Vladimir Ivkin, “Rukovoditeli Sovetskogo pravitel’stva (1923–1991): Istoriko-biograficheskaya spravka,” Istochnik (Moscow), No. 4 (1996): 152–192, esp. 157–163.Google Scholar
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    This order is recounted by both Colonel Zub in “Zadanie osobogo svoistva” (part 2), p. 6, and Major Hizhnyak Gurevich, an adjutant to Moskalenko who was responsible for guarding Beria during the whole period of his captivity, in Mark Franchetti, “Kremlin Guard Reveals How He Shot Hated Beria,” The Times (London), January 4, 1998, p. 3.Google Scholar
  32. 122.
    Materials from the investigation and trial of Beria are scattered among several archives in the Moscow area: the Russian Presidential Archive (APRF), the Main Archive of the Russian Ministry of Defense (TsAMO), the Special Archive of the Main Military Procuracy in Russia (Osobyi arkhiv Glavnoi voennoi prokuratury RF, or OAGVP), and the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB). Among the specific collections are dozens of dela (files) in APRF, 3/24. The dela I saw in this opis’ were 435–471, some of which were marked “sekretno” in parentheses after the file number, indicating that they were from a separate part of the archive that houses the most sensitive materials. From TsAMO, I obtained one file of documents, “Materialy k voprosu o prestupnoi deyatel’nosti Beriya,” 15/178612ss/86, but other materials stored there are inaccessible. The full trial documents are in OAGVP (and copies of many are in the APRF files cited above), but the OAGVP files are off limits. Some portions of the trial materials were released and published in 1989–1991. See M. I. Kuchava, “Iz dnevnika chlena Spetsial’nogo sudebnogo prisutstviya,” and V. F. Nekrasov, “Final (po materialam sudebnogo protsessa),” both in Nekrasov, ed., Beriya: Konets kar’ery, pp. 296–300 and 381–415, respectively; and the seven-part series of materials published by B. S. Popov and V. G. Oppokov, “Berievshchina,” Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal (Moscow), Nos. 5 and 7 (May and July 1989), pp. 38–41 and 82–87, respectively; Nos. 1, 3, and 5 (January, March, and May 1990), pp. 68–78, 81–90 and 85–90, respectively; and Nos. 1 and 10 (January and October 1991), pp. 44–56 and 56–62, respectively. The archives have declined to predict when (or whether) the full set of documents might be released.Google Scholar

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© Paul Hollander 2008

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  • Mark Kramer

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