Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the late 1950’s, Leonid Brezhnev received a series of promotions within the Soviet Communist Party, becoming a key ally of Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. His fortunes declined along with Khrushchev’s in the early 1960’s, but he recovered and ultimately replaced his political patron as the head of the party and the leader of the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

Leonid Brezhnev, an ethnic Russian born in the Ukraine, came from a working-class background. Trained as an industrial engineer, he joined the Communist Party in 1931 at age twenty-five. He gradually assumed local and regional party responsibilities, eventually becoming party head of the Moldavian Republic in 1950. Significant promotions in the early 1950’s placed him in key positions on the ruling Communist Party Presidium (later known as the Politburo) and also made him a member of the important Central Committee and Secretariat of the party. Communist Party, Soviet;and Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] Soviet leadership;Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] [kw]Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks (1955-1964) [kw]Communist Ranks, Brezhnev Rises in (1955-1964) Communist Party, Soviet;and Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] Soviet leadership;Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] [g]Europe;1955-1964: Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks[04750] [g]Soviet Union;1955-1964: Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks[04750] [c]Government and politics;1955-1964: Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks[04750] Brezhnev, Leonid Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;and Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;and Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] Voroshilov, Kliment

These promotions occurred during the last years of Joseph Stalin, but Stalin’s death in 1953 resulted in Brezhnev’s removal from the party Presidium. The new party leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev, however, soon realized that Brezhnev could be useful to his administration. Therefore, in 1955, Brezhnev was appointed as the party head in Kazakhstan. He was given the responsibility for implementing sweeping economic programs in Soviet Central Asia, including the famous “Virgin Lands” project.

The next year, Brezhnev became a nonvoting member of the Communist Party Presidium. He held other key assignments in the late 1950’s primarily related to defense and space issues. He was named a full voting member of the party Presidium in 1957 after supporting Khrushchev in blocking an effort to remove him from power. Brezhnev added to his party responsibilities as a secretary of the Central Committee in 1959. As these promotions show, Brezhnev was being cultivated by Khrushchev as a strategic ally, placed at the highest political levels to bolster Khrushchev’s own position.

By 1960, however, both Brezhnev and Khrushchev had experienced a reversal of fortunes. In the aftermath of the U-2 spy plane incident, in which an American surveillance plane was shot down over Soviet territory in May of 1960, the party’s Central Committee sought to limit Khrushchev’s authority. The committee added several new members of the party Presidium and changed the size and leadership of the party’s important administrative body, the Secretariat. Frol Kozlov Kozlov, Frol assumed the direction of that significant and powerful part of the institutional apparatus. Soon after, in July, the Central Committee removed Brezhnev from the Secretariat, a step widely interpreted as a demotion.

In May, 1960, the party leaders selected Brezhnev to be the new chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature (not to be confused with the party Presidium). He replaced the elderly Kliment Voroshilov, then nearly eighty. This position, without requiring a national election to determine the winner, is sometimes referred to as the “president of the Soviet Union.” Despite its impressive-sounding title, however, the office had limited authority since the Supreme Soviet historically had minimal political influence or independence in national policy making. The Communist Party always provided the guiding authority. This assignment further revealed a decline in Brezhnev’s political status, but he remained on the party Presidium, still a member of the inner leadership core of the Communist Party. This gave him a voice at the center of power and time to hope for a future improvement in his career.

As the Soviet Union’s head of state, Brezhnev’s primary responsibility was to perform ceremonial duties and to attend public functions. He made numerous state visits to nations in Asia, Europe, and Africa, allowing him for the first time to see other countries firsthand and meet many foreign leaders. His skill as a diplomat added to Brezhnev’s public image and stature, revealing a gregarious personality and a businesslike manner that impressed many. He also traveled throughout the Soviet Union, gaining more knowledge about the nation and making useful contacts with public officials.

During Brezhnev’s tenure as president, the Soviet Union made impressive and important progress in its space programs. This included placing the first human (Yuri Gagarin) in Earth orbit in 1961, followed by succeeding cosmonaut missions. Brezhnev received a major award, Hero of Socialist Labor, for his connection with the Soviet space program.

However, these years also revealed serious problems facing the Soviet Union. The nation’s economic performance was uneven at best and poor at worst. Khrushchev’s scheme to reorganize the Communist Party’s structure created ill will and opposition among party members. The authorities imposed controversial controls on intellectuals and cultural life.

These domestic conditions were compounded by three major crises in Soviet foreign policy during the period: the Sino-Soviet split, in which the ideological differences between Soviet Russia and communist China became apparent (1960-1961), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), in which nuclear brinkmanship between the Soviet Union and the United States threatened to escalate into military conflict. These challenges, intensified by Khrushchev’s erratic and blustering leadership after a decade in power, motivated several of his closest associates to discuss removing him from power in late 1963. They were not yet well enough organized, however, and feared the consequences of Khrushchev’s wrath should the bid to replace him fail. They knew that the unsuccessful 1957 attempt had not only resulted in Brezhnev’s placement on the party Presidium as a reward for his loyalty but also in Khrushchev’s elimination from power of all those who had sought to remove him.

Brezhnev’s precise role in the developing opposition to Khrushchev in 1963 is still debated by scholars. However, several incidents suggest that Brezhnev gradually gained more authority as both he and the party moved toward the final break with Khrushchev. Kozlov, widely believed to be Khrushchev’s intended successor as party head, became seriously ill in the spring of 1963. His departure from the political scene led to Brezhnev’s election in June, 1963, to a new assignment in the party’s Secretariat, this time with the vitally important responsibility to oversee party personnel matters. This put him at the center of power once again and in a stronger position to turn against Khrushchev. His position as Soviet president was officially terminated on July 15, 1964. In September, the party leadership assigned him to oversee the Soviet Union’s defense industry, another key appointment. Brezhnev clearly was on the move again.

During 1964, the anti-Khrushchev conspirators prepared carefully before openly confronting the premier. The dramatic moment came on October 13, 1964, following Khrushchev’s return to Moscow from his vacation on the Black Sea coast. At a meeting of the party Presidium, the plotters cited Khrushchev’s numerous failures and inadequacies, and they demanded his immediate resignation. Brezhnev actively participated in the meeting. Khrushchev put up a fight, but he could not overcome those determined to oust him from power. On October 14, the party’s Central Committee confirmed the decision and Khrushchev was removed as first secretary.

Two days later, the Soviet media announced that Khrushchev had voluntarily asked to be relieved of his duties because of his age and poor health, an explanation that virtually no one believed, either at the time or since. The media also named the new leaders who assumed the positions that Khrushchev had held jointly: Aleksey Kosygin Kosygin, Aleksey became premier and Brezhnev became first secretary of the Communist Party (the title would be changed to general secretary two years later). This transfer of power was immediate and complete, without the involvement or approval of the Soviet people.


Leonid Brezhnev was an important example of a new generation of Communist Party leaders in the Soviet Union after Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev. A steady personality and competent administrator who usually succeeded in his efforts, Brezhnev gained valuable experience at nearly all levels of the nation’s political life and party bureaucracy prior to October, 1964, when he took power as first secretary.

During this period of political apprenticeship and ascendancy, Brezhnev astutely balanced his ambition with caution in seeking to advance his own career. He carefully developed good relations with most of the party’s most powerful figures, gaining their confidence and avoiding antagonizing those who might later oppose his political aspirations. He accepted demotions, as in 1960 when he became president, without outward complaint. He usually supported Khrushchev as party leader but by 1963-1964 realized that the country needed new leadership and direction. This realization led him to abandon his loyalty to his mentor, showing little mercy in the rough world of Soviet politics.

Brezhnev was a logical consensus choice to lead the party after Khrushchev’s ouster, but only time would tell if he had the intellect and ability to effectively guide his nation in future decades. He was the only Soviet president eventually to become the head of the Communist Party (although later party heads Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev would all become president after first assuming control of the party). Brezhnev’s assumption of the position of first secretary, then, was a remarkable transition from a figurehead position to one of real power in the Soviet Union. Communist Party, Soviet;and Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev] Soviet leadership;Leonid Brezhnev[Brezhnev]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dornberg, John. Brezhnev: The Masks of Power. New York: Basic Books, 1974. Comprehensive biography covers Brezhnev’s life and party career from the 1940’s to the early 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyland, William. The Fall of Khrushchev. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968. Detailed presentation of Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964, portraying Brezhnev as one of the three primary plotters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khrushchev, Sergei. Khrushchev on Khrushchev. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Revealing account, by Khrushchev’s son, of the October, 1964, conspiracy to oust his father in which Brezhnev participated as a central player.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tatu, Michael. Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin. New York: Viking, 1969. Lengthy account of Communist Party leadership; traces Brezhnev’s rise to taking power as first secretary of the Communist Party.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003. Scholarly assessment of Khrushchev includes Brezhnev’s career during the 1950’s to 1964, as he moved into higher party leadership positions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkogonov, Dmitri. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. New York: Free Press, 1998. Provides a significant personality profile and detailed political assessment of Brezhnev, by a Russian historian who was a Soviet general during the Brezhnev era.

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Communists Raise the Berlin Wall

Cuban Missile Crisis

Khrushchev Falls from Power

Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations

Categories: History