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Malenkov and the Anti-Party Group

The expulsion of Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich from the party Presidium on June 29, 1957 marked the end of the post-Stalin experiment with collective leadership. Despite this breakthrough, however, Khrushchev could not be confident that the reconstituted Presidium would function as a rubber stamp.

There were indications of a rivalry between Malenkov and Khrushchev at least as far back as 1949 when Stalin brought Khrushchev from the Ukraine to reorganize the Moscow party organization and to join the central committee secretariat. The rivalry was intensified after Stalin's death in March 1953 when political maneuvering within the presidium began in earnest and Malenkov was forced by his colleagues to share the powers bequeathed him by Stalin. Malenkov took over the premiership, leaving Khrushchev the most powerful member of the secretariat. During the next two years, the first secretary moved constantly to the front at the expense of Malenkov. He built up his strength in the party apparatus, garnered more and more public attention for himself, became the major spokesman on agriculture and set up the virgin lands program, the initial success of which strengthened his hand politically.

As Khrushchev's prestige mounted, Malenkov's correspondingly seemed to decline. Undoubtedly, as Stalin's heir, Malenkov was regarded by many of his colleagues as the main political threat, and their fear of his ambitions may have indirectly helped Khrushchev, who was in any case the more skillful politician.

The two were not entirely alienated. Together with Khrushchev, Malenkov flew to the island of Brioni (Yugoslavia) on the night of 1 2 November 1956 to inform Josip Broz Tito of the impending (bloody) Soviet invasion of Hungary scheduled for November 4.

In 1957, Malenkov was again forced to resign due to participation in a failed attempt together with Nikolai Bulganin, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich (the so called Anti-Party Group) to depose Khrushchev.

The attempted coup against Khrushchev in June 1957 had its antecedents in the struggle for power which had been taking place in the presidium since Stalin's death in 1953. All the four principals in the June events - Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich and Khrushchev - were deeply involved in this struggle and, at first, independently of one another; but as three, the lines of the conflict came to be drawn between the first secretary, on the one hand, and Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich on the other.

In the June days, when Khrushchev achieved his greatest triumph, the party apparatus acquired an authority in Soviet society which it had not possessed for perhaps a quarter of a century. Representatives of the party apparatus, sixteen of its most powerful secretaries, were elected to two-thirds of all the places on the Khrushchev-dominated Presidium, although in Stalin's time they had not occupied more than half the Politburo seats. It seems clear that the plot of the 'anti-party group' was conceived in desperation to protect the remnants of their power against the incipient dictator, although the dimensions of their plot, and its details, remain obscure.

The speech that Khrushchev was scheduled to make in Leningrad on the day after his opponents summoned him to battle would have provided an appropriate occasion for a public denunciation of Malenkov for complicity in Stalin's recurrent massacres of Leningrad's elite. The fact that Khrushchev delivered exactly such a denunciation when he finally managed to get to Leningrad almost three weeks later obviously does not prove that he would have done something similar if the June crisis had not taken place in the interim. In conversation, Khrushchev strongly implied that he would have.

See Pravda, July 7, 1957, for the Leningrad speech in which Khrushchev said that "all the members of the anti-party group were profoundly guilty of the crude mistakes and shortcomings that took place in the past; and Malenkov, who was one of the chief organizers of the so-called Leningrad Affair, was simply afraid to come to you here in Leningrad." N. M. Shvernik, chairman of the Party Control Committee, went even further in a speech that he delivered in Leningrad at the same time. After saying that "it is now established that the 'Leningrad Affair,' in whose organization Malenkov played an active part, was fabricated," Shvernik went on to say that "the Party Control Committee has reviewed many files of former [Leningrad] party members., in order to correct violations of revolutionary legality, which were tolerated by Malenkov, Kaganovich, and Molotov during the period of mass repressions."

In explaining how Khrushchev managed to outmaneuver his opponents during the course of the June crisis, Western scholars emphasized the support he received from the armed forces and the party apparat. With rare exceptions, Khrushchev's control of the secret police is treated as inconsequential. If the KGB is mentioned at all, it is dismissed as having "hardly counted in the political balance," let alone in the balance of "frontline" forces.37 This, however, is most decidedly not the way in which the role of the KGB has been depicted by knowledgeable "insiders." All "insider" accounts of the crisis published in the West suggest that support from the KGB was an important element in tipping the balance in Khrushchev's favor.

According to Roy and Zhores Medvedev, for example, it was Serov who headed the "delegation" that demanded that the Central Committee rather than the opposition-dominated party Presidium be allowed to decide Khrushchev's fate and who threatened that any unilateral decision by the Presidium would be overridden. Similarly, Nekrich and Heller credit Serov, along with Zhukov, with helping to arrange the special flights that enabled provincial Khrushchev supporters to gather in Moscow before the Presidium could present them with a fait accompli.

One of the independents, Marshal Georgii Zhukov, clearly made Khrushchev extremely uneasy. Zhukov is always identified as a key supporter of Khrushchev in his struggle with "the anti-party group," and it is almost inconceivable that Khrushchev would have allowed him to become the first professional military officer to attain a seat on the Presidium if that were not the case." At the same time, however, Khrushchev feared "Bonapartist" proclivities within the military high command. And the very fact that he had been forced to solicit the military's help during the June crisis undoubtedly increased his anxiety. To make matters worse, Zhukov enjoyed immense respect among his brother officers and was, if anything, even more popular with rank-and-file citizens. Presumably, it was precisely these traits that made him so valuable to Khrushchev as a political ally. On 26 October 1957, TASS announced that Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov had been replaced as Minister of Defense by Marshal Rodion Ya. Malinovsky.

Since Khrushchev had refused to sacrifice Serov to the demands of either the anti-party group or of Marshal Zhukov, the December 1958 announcement of Serov's replacement by Alexander Shelepin, long-time first secretary of the Komsomol, came as something of a surprise. According to most accounts, Khrushchev initiated this changeover because he allegedly felt that Serov had outlived his usefulness and that Shelepin would make an equally pliant but less disreputable agent.

Khrushchev himself established principle that the party's Central Committee was a custodian of legitimacy, although its policy-making role remained limited. In 1957 a majority of the Presidium attempted to unseat Khrushchev and were outmaneuvered by the latter's summoning of the Central Committee and military backing to support him. This experience was not forgotten by the other leaders on this occasion (as well as in the shake-up of May 1960) and an advance sounding out of the key figures and provincial party bosses who are members of the Central Committee undoubtedly was completed before Presidium members initiated their removal action. While the vote in the Central Committee then became a perfunctory rubberstamp of a Presidium decision, the legitimizing role of the Central Committee was further institutionalized.

In 1961, Malenkov was expelled from the Communist Party and exiled within the Soviet Union. He became a manager of a hydroelectric plant in Ust'Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan.

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Page last modified: 02-05-2016 14:27:16 ZULU