General Secretary

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Top position in the Communist Party

Prior to the revolution, Vladimir I. Lenin, the head of the Bolshevik faction, had a secretary, Elena Stasova. After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, Lenin gave the position of secretary in the ruling Communist Party of Russia to Yakov Sverdlov, a man with a phenomenal memory. After Sverdlov's death in 1919, three people shared the position of secretary. In 1922, in recognition of the expanding party organization and the complexity of the newly formed USSR, a general secretary was appointed. Josef Stalin, who had several other administrative assignments, became general secretary, and used it to build a power base within the party. Lenin, before his death, realized Stalin had become too powerful and issued a warning in his Last Testament that Stalin be removed. However, skillful use of the patronage powers of the general secretary solidified Stalin's position. After Stalin's death in 1953, the position was renamed first secretary of the Communist Party (CPSU) in an attempt to reduce its significance. Nonetheless, Nikita S. Khrushchev (19531964) succeeded in using the position of first secretary to become the single most powerful leader in the USSR. Khrushchev's successor, Leonid I. Brezhnev (19641982) restored the title of general secretary and emerged as the most important political figure in the post-Khrushchev era. Mikhail S. Gorbachev, working as unofficial second secretary under general secretaries Yuri V. Andropov (198284) and Konstantin U. Chernenko (198485), solidified his position as their successor in 1985. Gorbachev subsequently reorganized the presidency in 198889, and transferred his attention to that post. After the 1991 coup, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary, one of several steps signaling the end of the CPSU.

The position of general secretary was the most influential role in leadership for most of the Soviet period. Its role was closely associated with the rise of Stalin and the end of the position was also a signal of the end of the Soviet system.

See also: communist party of the soviet union; succession of leadership, soviet


Hough, Jerry F. and Fainsod, Merle. (1979). How the Soviet Union Is Governed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smith, Gordon B. (1988). Soviet Politics: Continuity and Contradiction. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Norma C. Noonan

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General Secretary

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General Secretary