The Politburo, or Political Bureau, was the most important decision-making and leadership organ in the Communist Party, and has commonly been seen as equivalent to the cabinet in Western political systems. For most of the life of the Soviet system, the Politburo (called the Presidium between 1952 and 1966) was the major focus of elite political life and the arena within which all important issues of policy were decided. It was the heart of the political system.
The Politburo was formally established at the Eighth Congress of the Party in March 1919 and held its first session on April 16. Formed by the Central Committee (CC), the Politburo was to make decisions that could not await the next meeting of the CC, but over time its smaller size and more frequent meeting schedule meant that effective power drained into it and away from the CC. There had been smaller groupings of leaders before, but these had never become formalized nor had they taken an institutional form. The establishment of the Politburo was part of the regularization of the leading levels of the Party that saw the simultaneous creation of the Orgburo and Secretariat, with these latter two bodies meant to ensure the implementation of the decisions of leading Party organs, in practice mostly the Politburo.
From its formation until late 1930, the Politburo was one arena within which the conflict between Josef Stalin and his supporters on the one side and successive groups of oppositionists among the Party leadership was fought out, but with the removal of Mikhail Tomsky in 1930, the last open oppositionist disappeared from the Politburo. Henceforth the body remained largely controlled by Stalin. Its lack of institutional integrity and power is illustrated by the fact that various of its members were arrested and executed during the terror of the mid-to late 1930s. After World War II, the Politburo ceased even to meet regularly, being effectively replaced by ad hoc groupings of leaders that Stalin mobilized on particular issues and when it suited him.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, the leading Party organs resumed a more regular existence, although Nikita Khrushchev's style was not one well suited to the demands of collective leadership; he often sought to bypass the Presidium. Under Leonid Brezhnev, the Politburo became more regularized, and the overwhelming majority of national issues seem to have been discussed in that body, although an important exception was the decision to send troops into Afghanistan in 1979. For much of the Mikhail Gorbachev period, too, the Politburo was at the heart of Soviet national decision making, although the shift of the Soviet system to a presidential one and the restructuring of the Politburo at the Twenty-Eighth Congress in 1990 effectively sidelined this body as an important institution.
The Politburo was always a small body. The first Politburo consisted of five full and three candidate (or nonvoting) members; at its largest, when it was elected at the Nineteenth Congress in 1952 and was probably artificially large because Stalin was planning a further purge of the leadership (it was also envisaged that there would be a small, inner body), it comprised twenty-five full and eleven candidate members. Generally in the post-Stalin period it had between ten and fifteen full and five to nine candidates. Membership has tended to include a number of CC secretaries, leading representatives from state institutions (although the foreign and defense ministers did not become automatic members until 1973) and sometimes one or two republican party leaders. Gorbachev changed this pattern completely in 1990 by making all republican party leaders members of the Politburo along with the general secretary and his deputy, and eliminating candidate membership. It was over-whelmingly a male institution, with only two women (Ekaterina Furtseva and Alexandra Biriukova) gaining membership, and it was always dominated by ethnic Slavs, especially Russians.
While the frequency of Politburo meetings is somewhat uncertain for much of its life, it seems to have met on average about once per week in the Brezhnev period and after, with provision for a further meeting if required. Meetings were attended by all members plus a range of other people who might be called in to address specific items on the agenda. In addition, some issues were handled by circulation among the members, thereby not requiring explicit discussion at a meeting. No public differences of opinion between Politburo members were aired before the breakdown of many of the rules of Party life under Gorbachev, and public unanimity prevailed. It is not clear that votes were actually taken; issues seem to have been resolved through discussion and consensus. Whatever the process, the Politburo was the central leadership site of the Party and the Soviet system as a whole.
See also: brezhnev, leonid ilich; central committee; communist party of the soviet union; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; presidium of supreme soviet; stalin, josef vissarionovich
Laird, Roy D. (1986). The Politburo: Demographic Trends, Gorbachev and the Future. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Lowenhardt, John; Ozinga, James R.; and van Ree, Erik. (1992). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Politburo. London: UCL Press.