The second secretary was the number-two position at every level, from top to bottom, of the administrative apparatus (secretariat) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). From Central Committee headquarters ("the Center") in Moscow at the top to the republics, provinces, and cities below, secretariats were the Party's hands-on executive organs. They controlled the work of more than 200,000 full-time officials and employees, known collectively as the nomenklatura. The second secretaries were key figures because at every level of authority they controlled the appointment of Party and government officials.
The topmost secretary in Moscow was general secretary, or sometimes called the first secretary. The latter term was likewise applied to local number-one secretaries at the middle and lower rungs of the Party hierarchy. Second-in-command in these secretariats was the second secretary. His function was to administer crucial personnel matters throughout the given political-administrative region or locale in the USSR. In republics or other units where the first secretary was drawn from a titular ethnic group, the second secretary was always a Russian for oversight.
The second secretary had the authority to appoint and dismiss nomenklaturists at the various levels of Party and government rule. Any number of Party functionaries who were later promoted from below to Moscow Center earned their status by having served as second secretaries.
In Josef Stalin's time, one of the most powerful officials of this kind was Georgy Malenkov, who functioned largely as Stalin's number-two man-in-charge of personnel, or de facto second secretary. Like other second secretaries, top to bottom, Malenkov was also a member of the Party's most important political organ, the Politburo, which at the local levels was called the "Buro." After Stalin's death in March 1953, Malenkov functioned briefly as first secretary and then was transferred to the office of prime minister of the USSR.
It was not unusual for former secretaries, especially second secretaries, to assume high government office at some level of Party or state administration. Any number of important Party officials and members of the central Politburo were first secretaries at one time or another, and many were also once second secretaries on lower rungs of the Party hierarchy.
In the final period of Soviet rule (after 1985), Yegor Ligachev was perhaps the best-known second secretary. After serving as a second secretary in various provincial administration, he was transferred to Moscow in 1983. There, because he was in charge of personnel affairs at the top, Ligachev became the second most powerful figure in the party when Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985. Ligachev was soon embroiled in policy and personnel disputes with both Gorbachev and the then first secretary of the Moscow Party apparatus, Boris Yeltsin. As second secretary, Ligachev remained a key figure in the regime down to the demise of communist and Soviet rule in Russia in late 1991.
See also: communist party of the soviet union; general secretary; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich
Reshetar, John S. (1971). The Soviet Polity Government and Politics in the USSR. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Weeks, Albert L. (1987). The Soviet Nomenklatura: A Comprehensive Roster of Soviet Civilian and Military Officials. Washington, DC: Washington Institute Press.
Albert L. Weeks