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Malenkov - Stalin's Successor

The death of Joseph Stalin on March 5, 1953 generated a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the West. A list of possible successors was provided - two of the names played an immediate role in the governance of the Soviet Union: Georgy Malenkov (1902 – 1988) - who ruled until he was replaced by Nikolai Bulganin (1895 – 1975). Bulganin ran the shop until he, too, was replaced by Stalin's right-hand man: Nikita Khrushchev (1894 – 1971) - who was known widely as "the hangman of the Ukraine".

Malenkov's ambitions seemed to fulfill themselves upon Stalin's death on 5 March 1953. He was considered the most important member of the Secretariat and, with Beria's support, Malenkov became Premier of the Soviet Union. However, on 13 March 1953 he had to resign from the Secretariat due to the opposition of other members of the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee. While Malenkov headed the government, Nikita Khrushchev, another of the secretaries, eventually assumed supreme leadership of the party as First Secretary of the CPSU in September 1953, ushering in a period of a Malenkov - Khrushchev duumvirate.

Malenkov was regarded by many as the successor to Stalin. The announcements regarding Stalin's condition on 04 March 1952, indicating as they did that the Soviet Union would soon be without its leader immediately focused attention on Malenkov as the most likely successor. His career had moved steadily forward since Zhdanov's death in August 1948. He was the senior member of the Party Secretariat, the position from which Stalin originally consolidated his power. He was the only man other than Stalin who was a member of all three of the highest bodies of the Party and Government - the Politburo, the Secretariat, and the Collegium of the Council of Ministers (Deputy Chairmen).

Malenkov had delivered the key address at the XIXth Party Congress, and subsequently, as might have been expected, it had been accorded much publicity throughout the Communist world. The replacement of the Politburo by a Presidium, the composition of which apparently favored Malenkov if it favored any of the old Politburo members, also seemed to contribute to his leading position. This was even more true of the enlarged Secretariat. Thus it was commonly expected that Malenkov would attempt to fill the void left by Stalin.

Stalin had allowed Malenkov's influence to grow, that Malenkov had achieved predominance by capably handling the intricate affairs of the apparatus in the name of Stalin, and that Malenkov's influence had become quite strong in the last two years of Stalin's life. Stalin, despite whatever infirmity may have gripped him, must have been aware of and allowed this personal rise to take place, a rise which culminated in Malenkov's leading role at the Party Congress. Stalin therefore appeared to approve of this Malenkov preeminence and had done nothing to stop it.

By the time of the death of Stalin, Malenkov firmly took the position of the second person in the party and the state. After Stalin's death on 05 March 1953, Malenkov became Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. Already in March 1953 at the first closed session of the Presidium of the Central Committee, he stated the need to "stop the policy of the cult of personality and go to the collective leadership of the country", reminding members of the CC as Stalin himself strongly criticized them for the implanted around the cult. However, any significant reaction to the proposal was not followed by Malenkov.

Stalin's death left Malenkov with his power intact. This power evidently was not great enough, however, to withstand the pressure of the other Soviet leaders, who apparently moved at an early moment to restrict it. It appears reasonable to assume that Malenkov gave in to their pressure -- whether direct or indirect, spoken or unspoken -- and withdrew from the Secretariat. It is probably true that in so doing he immediately began to take steps to minimize the role of the Secretariat. There is some evidence that this has been the case. It is probably true that the other Soviet leaders wholeheartedly approved of these attempts.

On 7 March, Moscow radio announced that in order to prevent "panic and disarray," a major reorganization of the Party and Government had been made at a joint meeting of the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. Malenkov became Premier (Chairman of the Council of Ministers). Voroshilov was given the honor of titular head of state. The Party's Presidium was reduced to ten men, eight of whom bad been members of Stalin's Politburo. Here, too, Malenkov's name came first, indicating his ascendancy. Most observers had expected that Malenkov would be accorded Stalin's title as "General Secretary" but this was not the case. Khrushchev was listed as chairman of the Committee for organizing Stalin's funeral.

The funeral ceremony presented the Soviet leadership to the world as a triumvirate: Malenkov, evidently the primus inter pares; Beria, close behind and giving Malenkov a sort of half-hearted blessing; and Molotov, running a relatively poor third.

A meeting of the Central Committee was held on 14 March 1952, at which Malenkov was "released" from the duties of Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. A Secretariat of the CPSU Central Committee was elected with Comrades N.S.Khrushchev, N.A.Suslov, P.N.Pospelov, N.N.Shatalin, and S.D.Ignatiev. Khrushchev was listed first. Malenkov thus abandoned direct control of the Party Secretariat - something which Stalin in his lifetime had never done. Stalin had used the office of General Secretary to achieve absolute dictatorship.

Malenkov, in submitting the nominations of the government appointments to the Supreme Soviet on 15 March 1953, referred to the principle of collective leadership. He stated that "the strength of our leadership rests in its collective, cohesive and moral-ethical nature. We regard strictest observance of this supreme principle as a guarantee of correct leadership of the country and a most important condition of our further successful progress along the path of building communism in our country."

The lack of any significant inside knowledge of Kremlin politics did not absolve CIA’s analysts of the task of explaining the implications of Stalin’s death. Within days of the event they had produced SE-39, Probable Consequences of the Death of Stalin and of the Elevation of Malenkov to Leadership in the USSR. This “special estimate” foresaw no immediate challenge to Georgi Malenkov since he had been at senior levels for years and the transition had seemed smooth, but it warned that “A struggle for power could develop within the Soviet hierarchy at any time.” It also declared that “The USSR is politically more vulnerable today than before Stalin’s death.” It followed that not self-evidently clear statement by declaring that difficult policy decisions and rivalry for personal power could lead to reduced Soviet strength and reduced cohesion in the international communist movement.

Malenkov, on May 15, 1953, two months after the death of Stalin, made the big decision to assist in the industrialization of China, which in fact was the beginning of a period of "great friendship" (usually dating back 1953-1957).

Policy reforms initiated by Malenkov, continued, but began to lose chances of success. In August 1953, at the session of the Supreme Council Malenkov made a proposal to halve the agricultural tax, write off the arrears of previous years, as well as change the principle of taxation of residents of villages. Malenkov put forward the thesis of peaceful coexistence between the two systems, advocated the development of light and food industries, for the fight against privilege and bureaucracy of the party and state apparatus, noting the "complete neglect of the people " and the "bribery and corruption of moral character communists".

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Page last modified: 02-05-2016 14:26:46 ZULU