Soviet chairman of the
Council of Ministers
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F or many years, Aleksey Kosygin played an important role in government administration and economic planning for the Soviet Union. At the peak of his power, he served sixteen years as chairman of the Council of Ministers, a top leadership position in the Soviet Union. He attempted to reform the failing Soviet economic system, but because of strong resistance from other Soviet leaders, he had little success in this effort. He was also involved in several key foreign affairs issues, including the Vietnam War (1954–75) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Unlike many other Soviet leaders, Kosygin's overall philosophy regarding government policy involved using pragmatism, or common sense, rather than communist ideology as the basis for his decision making.
Early years and education
Aleksey Nikolayevich Kosygin was born to a working-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city later known as Leningrad. His father was a lathe operator in a local factory. Young Aleksey became caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when Vladimir I. Lenin (1870–1924) and his communist followers took control of the Russian government. Communism is a system of government in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls nearly all aspects of people's lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and businesses is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all.
In 1919, at age fifteen, Kosygin volunteered for the Red Army, which was defending the Bolsheviks' newly established communist government against forces who were trying to retake control of the government. The Red Army and the Bolsheviks prevailed, and in 1921 Kosygin joined the Komsomol, a government youth organization. Along with many other Soviet youths, he entered the recently established Communist Party technical education system in Leningrad, which taught basic education and political doctrine. At the Leningrad Cooperative Technicum trade school, Kosygin learned how to organize and manage cooperatives. Cooperatives are farmlands owned by the government but managed by farmers; the farmers share in the production and profits.
Following graduation in 1924, Kosygin moved to Siberia, in the eastern Soviet Union, to help create a cooperative work system within the state-controlled economy. Kosygin became head of the Siberian Association cooperatives, and he formally joined the Communist Party in 1927. While in Siberia, he married; he and his wife would have two children. In 1930, after six years in Siberia, Kosygin returned to Leningrad and entered the Leningrad Textile Institute. Completing his education there in 1935, he worked his way up in the Leningrad textile plants from shop foreman to factory manager.
Early political career and war years
By the late 1930s, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) had completed a series of murderous purges of top Communist Party leaders. As a result, the party had many job openings for the new generation of educated young men in the Soviet Union. Promotion in the Communist Party could be very rapid for any young party member who impressed Stalin. Kosygin was fortunate enough to do just that, and by 1938, he began serving in various party positions. He was first appointed head of Leningrad's Industrial Transport Department. He was also appointed mayor of Leningrad and elected to the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet legislative body. By January 1939, at age thirty-four, he was appointed to a top position in the textile industry of the Soviet Union and elected as a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee. (The Central Committee in the Communist Party was an important administrative body that oversaw day-to-day party activities.)
Kosygin quickly gained national prominence. In 1940, he was named deputy chairman of Sovnarkom, renamed the Council of Ministers in 1946. The council was responsible for the economic planning of Soviet industry. In this position, Kosygin became known for his sensible management style and conservative workmanlike approach. Though he was an impeccable dresser in his leadership roles, Kosygin was comfortable among factory workers. He was serious, knowledgeable, tough-minded, and skillful.
Kosygin played a critical role for the Soviets throughout World War II (1939–45). He directed the Soviet war economy and evacuated industries and workers eastward, away from the advancing German army. For example, in January 1942, he heroically helped five hundred thousand inhabitants of Leningrad elude a massive German blockade of the city by leading them across a frozen lake to safety. The city had been under siege for six months.
Khrushchev and Brezhnev years
After the war, Kosygin continued to direct Soviet economic planning as deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. In March 1946, he became a candidate for the Politburo, the last official step before gaining full voting membership. The Politburo was the executive body of the Central Committee; its members were responsible for making important national policy decisions. In 1948, Kosygin served as Soviet minister of finance in addition to his other roles. Kosygin worked to help the Soviet economy recover from the ravages of war; this included rebuilding the defense industry. Perhaps because he focused on administration rather than party politics and ideology, Kosygin was able to barely escape one of Stalin's Communist Party purges in 1948. Having survived the purge, Kosygin moved up to full membership in the Politburo. In 1949, he was named minister of food and light industry.
Following the death of Stalin in March 1953, Kosygin lost his Politburo position because the group was reduced from twenty-five to ten members. Under the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry), he continued to hold important economic positions, including his role as minister of food and light industry. In 1957, when Khrushchev strengthened his party leadership position, Kosygin regained his earlier position as deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers. He also rejoined the Politburo. Kosygin had hopes of moving up to chairman of the council; however, in 1958 Khrushchev took the position for himself. The relationship between the two was never particularly friendly, but Khrushchev did name Kosygin head of the Soviet economic planning commission, called Gosplan, in 1959 and 1960.
As the Soviet economy declined, Khrushchev lost political support. He was finally ousted from power in late 1964. Kosygin reportedly played a role in Khrushchev's ouster. In place of Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982; see entry) took over party leadership, and Kosygin finally became chairman of the Council of Ministers. They were now the top two officials in the Soviet Union. Kosygin was fully in charge of economic policies and essentially ran the nation's government while Brezhnev tended to party matters. The two worked smoothly together, even as Brezhnev steadily took over most of the decision making for the country. Kosygin became more and more involved in foreign affairs as a troubleshooter. He traveled to Beijing, China, in September 1969 to negotiate a border settlement that would ease tensions between the two communist countries.
Kosygin was very concerned about the continued decline of the Soviet economy. He believed that the Soviet central economic planning system needed basic reform, so he proposed to decentralize production, particularly in agriculture. As early as 1965, he attempted to introduce the basics of a free market economy, or economic conditions dictated by open competition, into the communist system. He favored monetary rewards for factory managers and workers, believing that higher pay would increase industrial production efficiency. He also pushed for acquisition of Western technology to modernize the Soviet economy.
Many Soviet officials were highly uncomfortable with Kosygin's proposals for reform. In addition, both Kosygin and Khrushchev had earlier wanted to increase emphasis on the production of consumer goods and light industry. But Brezhnev, Khrushchev's successor, wanted to increase military spending and conduct a massive buildup of arms. When Czechoslovakia attempted to radically reform its communist system in 1968, Soviet communist leaders militarily crushed the Czech reform movement and tabled Kosygin's ideas. However, Kosygin would continue to warn of major problems as Soviet productivity fell and the economy in general deteriorated through the 1970s.
End of career
After suppressing Czechoslovakia's reform movement, Brezhnev steadily gained greater control of the Soviet government and would eventually take over Kosygin's foreign affairs responsibilities. Kosygin remained chairman of the Council of Ministers until October 1980, when he resigned because of ill health. He had suffered two heart attacks in the 1970s. Despite Kosygin's many years of service to the Soviet Union, Brezhnev gave no tribute to Kosygin upon his retirement. When Kosygin died in December at age seventy-six, no official government notice was published for two days. However, his ashes were buried at the Kremlin wall, near the ashes of other deceased Soviet leaders. Just as Kosygin had warned, the Soviet economy would continue its decline, a decline that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union only a decade later.
For More Information
Linden, Carl A. Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
McNeal, Robert H. The Bolshevik Tradition: Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975.
Owen, Richard. Crisis in the Kremlin: Soviet Succession and the Rise of Gorbachev. London: Gollanz, 1986.
Tatu, Michel. Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin. New York: Viking Press, 1969.
Even though Aleksey Kosygin's primary role in the Soviet government was to head economic planning, he also tackled several key foreign issues. One was the Vietnam War (1954–75). The war involved U.S. efforts to protect noncommunist South Vietnam from takeover by communist-ruled North Vietnam. As U.S. casualties mounted in the escalating war, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry) was increasingly anxious to negotiate for peace with North Vietnam; he hoped the Soviets would assist by bringing their fellow communist country to the negotiating table. However, while a Soviet delegation including Kosygin was visiting North Vietnam, the United States began intensive bombing of the region. Despite Johnson's urgent invitations to the Soviets, Kosygin, irate over the U.S. bombing campaign, would not speak to U.S. officials for two years. Finally, in 1967, even as the war raged on, Kosygin agreed to meet.
Kosygin traveled to the United States in June as part of the Soviet United Nations delegation, and he met with Johnson at Glassboro State College in Glass-boro, New Jersey, over a weekend. Though the talks were friendly, the two leaders reached few agreements on the Vietnam War. Kosygin believed it was inappropriate for the United States to be militarily involved in the internal affairs of Vietnam.
Despite Kosygin's hard-line position against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the Glassboro talks helped improve the relationship between the two leaders. This ultimately led to the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968, which prohibited the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. Kosygin and Johnson also agreed to begin strategic arms limitation talks. However, the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which both Kosygin and the United States strongly opposed, delayed arms control talks.