Succession of Leadership, Soviet

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Like other authoritarian systems, the USSR did not adopt a formal system of succession. Over time, the system developed an informal process of succession, which eventually evolved into a predictable pattern. In 1922, at the age of 52, Vladimir Lenin, the first Soviet leader, suffered a major stroke from which he never fully recovered. After his death in 1924, there was considerable struggle within the Politburo of the Communist Party before Josef Stalin emerged as the top leader. Since Lenin had functioned as chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (later called the Council of Ministers), the emergence of the general secretary as the preeminent leader was not predictable. Lenin's position was equivalent to that of prime minister. The general secretary initially had been considered an administrator with little policy responsibility. Despite the fact that Stalin led the USSR for almost thirty years, it was not clear after his death that the position of general secretary of the CPSU would remain the preeminent one. Stalin had been prime minister also since 1941, and it was hard to say where his power base lay.

After Stalin's death, Georgy Malenkov chose to be prime minister when forced to select between the positions of chairman of the Council of Ministers or general secretary of the Communist Party. The less well-known Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the top leader in the succession struggle that ensued during the next five years through his role as first (renamed from general) secretary of the Communist Party. By 1958 Khrushchev was both prime minister and first secretary, although not with the degree of power that Stalin had had before him.

Leonid Brezhnev also used the position of general secretary to rise to the top position within the collective leadership after Khrushchev was deposed. Although he wanted to be prime minister as well, the Politburo denied him that title in the interest of maintaining collective leadership. In 1977 Brezhnev became president of the USSR (chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet), a nominal position that gave him the position of chief of state in international protocol, even though his power base remained the CPSU.

With the death of Brezhnev (1982), the process flowed smoothly in the appointment of Yuri Andropov as both general secretary and president, and a short time later both titles passed to Konstantin Chernenko after Andropov's death (1984). Within the Politburo there appeared to be agreement on a successor and on giving the top leader both a party and government position.

There was nothing in either the Party Charter or the Soviet Constitution to guarantee that the process would remain the same. After the death of Chernenko in 1985, power passed to a younger generation. Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary, after serving as de facto second secretary under both Andropov and Chernenko. Gorbachev, however, did not become president. The title went to an elder statesman, Andrei Gromyko. Only in 1988 did Gorbachev assume the presidency, which was subsequently restructured as part of perestroika (restructuring) and demokratizatsiya (democratization). Gorbachev had the real power, not merely the title, of chief of state and functioned as president in both domestic and international politics.

Had the Soviet system continued, it is fair to say that succession would probably have been institutionalized in the constitution. Even under Gorbachev, however, the Soviet president was not popularly elected. Gorbachev was selected by the restructured parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies; a new Supreme Soviet, selected from the Congress, was a working parliament, not merely a rubber stamp that met once or twice per year.

Even without formal institutionalization, political succession had become predictable, especially by the 1980s when the ailing Andropov and Chernenko were successively chosen to lead the USSR. The selection process was concluded within days of the leader's death. The selection of Gorbachev seemed to be equally smooth, but when one examines the difficult road that Gorbachev pursued to undertake reform, one realizes how superficial consensus was. Gorbachev faced opposition from the conservatives and liberals within the Politburo and the CPSU throughout his tenure.

Political succession, although never formalized in writing, became, nonetheless, a well-established and even reasonably predictable process in the mature Soviet Union. The failure to establish a constitutional succession process, even after Gorbachev's democratization, was one of many contributing factors in the rapid demise of the USSR after the 1991 attempted coup.

See also: communist party of the soviet union; general secretary; politburo; prime minister


Bialer, Seweryn. (1980). Stalin's Successors: Leadership, Stability, and Change in the Soviet Union. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Breslauer, George W. (1982). Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Brown, Archie. (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

D'Agostino, Anthony. (1988). Soviet Succession Struggles: Kremlinology and the Russian Question from Lenin to Gorbachev. Boston: Allen and Unwin.

Hough, Jerry F. (1980). Soviet Leadership in Transition. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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

Mitchell, R. Judson. Getting to the Top in the USSR: Cyclical Patterns in the Leadership Succession Process. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Simmonds, George W., ed. (1967). Soviet Leaders. New York: Crowell.

Norma C. Noonan