Khrushchev Falls from Power

Nikita S. Khrushchev fell from power and was replaced as Communist Party secretary by Leonid Brezhnev and as premier by Aleksey Kosygin. The event marked the first peaceful removal of a living Soviet leader and established a new sense of normality in Soviet politics.

Summary of Event

On March 5, 1953, longtime Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died after an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin, who became general secretary of the Communist Party Communist Party, Soviet;destalinization of the Soviet Union in 1922, had assumed power within the Politburo after Vladimir Ilich Lenin died in 1924. A struggle for power continued in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In his drive to consolidate control, Stalin conducted extensive purges of the Communist Party and the citizenry in the 1930’s. In 1941, he assumed the title of chairman of the Council of Ministers, or premier, becoming head of the government as well as of the party. In his final years, although unchallenged as a leader, Stalin conducted several purges, ascertaining that potential successors would be subservient. Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]
[kw]Khrushchev Falls from Power (Oct. 13-14, 1964)
[kw]Power, Khrushchev Falls from (Oct. 13-14, 1964)
Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]
[g]Europe;Oct. 13-14, 1964: Khrushchev Falls from Power[08220]
[g]Soviet Union;Oct. 13-14, 1964: Khrushchev Falls from Power[08220]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 13-14, 1964: Khrushchev Falls from Power[08220]
[c]Cold War;Oct. 13-14, 1964: Khrushchev Falls from Power[08220]
Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;fall from power
Brezhnev, Leonid
Kosygin, Aleksey
Podgorny, Nikolay
Suslov, Mikhail
Shelepin, Aleksandr
Semichastny, Vladimir

In the aftermath of Stalin’s death, there was a power struggle among the members of the Politburo, which was then known as the Communist Party Presidium. The leadership was reluctant to allow one man to head the party and government as Stalin had done. Georgi M. Malenkov Malenkov, Georgi M. served as premier from 1953 to 1955, and Nikita S. Khrushchev served as first secretary of the Communist Party from 1953 to 1964. Although Malenkov was removed as premier in 1955, he remained a member of the Presidium. Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin Bulganin, Nikolai Aleksandrovich succeeded Malenkov as premier in 1955 and served until 1957, but the power struggle continued, as Malenkov and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich , among others, opposed Khrushchev’s policies and growing power.

In June of 1957, the Presidium voted to remove Khrushchev, who appealed the vote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and emerged victorious. His rivals were labeled the antiparty group, dismissed from the party, and given other assignments or retired. In early 1958, Khrushchev was named premier of the Soviet government as well as head of the party. Nevertheless, the memory of Stalin’s absolute dictatorship and ruthless methods was too vivid and too deep to allow Khrushchev to become more than “first among equals” within the Presidium, the highest decision-making body in the country.

Khrushchev faced opposition within the Soviet leadership elite in his remaining years in power. He initiated new policies, reorganized the party, and reshuffled the leadership, but rarely without opposition. On the domestic front, Khrushchev reversed the Soviet Union’s traditional economic priorities by spending more on consumer goods production and less on heavy industry and defense. Khrushchev initiated decentralization of governmental control over economic planning and decision making by creating 107 economic regions, each operated by a regional economic council supervised by the Communist Party. In 1962, the regional party organizations were subdivided into agricultural and industrial sectors, further decentralizing power.

Khrushchev launched the first of several campaigns for de-Stalinization Destalinization in 1956, criticizing Stalin’s crimes against the party, but not challenging Stalin’s policies of economic development. He denounced terror but was not always consistent in exposing past evils. Khrushchev was instrumental in rehabilitating many of Stalin’s victims, and in the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella about the Stalinist prison camps, Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963). In the early 1960’s, Khrushchev conducted another de-Stalinization campaign, removing Stalin’s name and statues from many streets, towns, and institutions. Stalingrad became Volgograd, and Stalin was removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state.

A literary and intellectual “thaw” during the Khrushchev era relaxed somewhat the severe censorship Censorship;Soviet Union of the Stalin era in literature and films. Although Khrushchev permitted publication of some books critical of the system, Boris Pasternak’s internationally acclaimed novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958) was not published in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev’s foreign policy Cold War;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev] was innovative yet inconsistent. His redefinition of the policy of “peaceful coexistence” involved better relations with the West and developing nations. He advocated a policy of rapprochement and reduced tension between communist and capitalist states, emphasizing peaceful economic competition instead of the confrontations of the Cold War.

The emphasis on economic competition with the West reflected de-emphasis of the military competition and a reduction of defense spending in the Soviet Union. Improved Soviet relations with developing nations were seen as part of global competition with the West for the loyalty of neutral nations. Khrushchev liberalized Stalin’s rigid policies toward Eastern Europe but also formed the Warsaw Pact to legitimize continuing Soviet military presence there. At the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev declared that there were “many roads to socialism.” Several states of Eastern Europe, foremost among them Hungary, tested the limits of Soviet intentions during the next few months. The Hungarian Revolution of October, 1956, challenged Soviet and Warsaw Pact influence and was forcefully suppressed.

Khrushchev’s policies and reforms had the air of spontaneous improvisations. His policies were usually bold but not well organized—a series of ad hoc measures to rectify pressing problems rather than methodical, carefully articulated solutions. To most observers, it seemed Khrushchev was pursuing his goals by a series of zigzags, and critics complained that his goals were seldom achieved. Khrushchev’s critics comprised a sizable segment of the Communist Party leadership, since his innovative policies had run roughshod over many vested interests.

Soviet military leaders and those involved in heavy industry looked askance at the greater emphasis Khrushchev placed on consumer goods. The central planners and ministries were dubious about the decentralization of economic policy making. The party’s leaders were disturbed about the reorganization of the party organs and frequent shuffling of positions. Some party leaders believed de-Stalinization had been too rapid and disruptive. Although Khrushchev and his colleagues distanced themselves from Stalin, those leaders, including Khrushchev, who emerged into prominence during the 1930’s and 1940’s, participated in the Stalinist era policies. Some also believed that de-Stalinization was at times used as a rationale for settling current political differences.

Khrushchev’s years in power were characterized by numerous policy failures from the perspective of the other Soviet leaders. Liberalization in Eastern Europe resulted in the Hungarian Revolution, whose suppression was costly to the international prestige of the Soviet Union. The Sino-Soviet split began in the initial days of de-Stalinization and escalated throughout the Khrushchev years. Khrushchev’s failure to consult the Chinese about policy and ideological changes, the cutback of aid to China, the growing hostility between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, and the public exchange of insults between the two communist parties were, rightly or wrongly, blamed on Khrushchev by his colleagues.

Khrushchev’s policies toward the West were sometimes less than successful. The U-2 incident and subsequent collapse of the Paris Summit Conference in 1960, his failure to resolve the issue of a divided Berlin, and the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, resulting in Khrushchev’s seeming capitulation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, led the Soviet leadership to question his policies toward the West.

Khrushchev’s domestic policies fared little better. Some of his agricultural policies, including the Virgin Lands campaign, achieved mixed results. A poor harvest in 1963 led to grain purchases from the West in 1964, and some leaders attributed the crop failure to Khrushchev’s interference and inconsistencies in agricultural policy. Although economic specialists were exploring systematic economic reform, policies associated with Khrushchev often emerged as public campaigns, rather than as full-fledged plans. A notable example was his 1964 campaign to improve production and use of synthetic materials, known as “Big Chemistry.”

Criticism and opposition to Khrushchev within the Presidium mounted. Mikhail Suslov often disagreed with Khrushchev, especially with Khrushchev’s program to build the “material-technical bases of communism” in twenty years, but apparently was not a key player in the plot to remove him. Insiders have suggested the key plotters included Leonid Brezhnev and Nikolay Podgorny from the Presidium; Aleksandr Shelepin, head of the trade unions and a Presidium member; and Vladimir Semichastny, head of the KGB.

Brezhnev, a cautious man, was Khrushchev’s chosen heir but wanted power sooner rather than later. Publicly Brezhnev praised Khrushchev but privately plotted against him. In the late summer of 1964, Khrushchev vacationed in the south and then went on his fall agricultural tour. Meanwhile in Moscow, a group of top leaders planned his removal. Deputy Premier Aleksey Kosygin and Party Secretary Suslov were probably informed of plans late in the process. Khrushchev was warned of the plot, but had difficulty believing it.

On October 12, 1964, the Presidium voted to remove Khrushchev. They summoned him to a meeting in Moscow on October 13 and informed him of their decision. The Central Committee was hastily convened on October 14 and officially dismissed Khrushchev as first secretary. Suslov led the discussions at these sessions. In the subsequent negotiations, Khrushchev agreed to resign from all positions and retire. Brezhnev became first secretary of the Communist Party and Kosygin chairman of the Council of Ministers.


In the aftermath of the announcement of Khrushchev’s removal, Pravda (truth), the party’s official newspaper, on October 17, 1964, indicated that the leaders sought a return to collective leadership and an end to “harebrained scheming, immature conclusions, and hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality.” Khrushchev was the first Soviet political leader to be removed without violence and struggle, and therefore his passing from the political scene was remarkable. His successors, Brezhnev and Kosygin, initially worked well together, but their partnership later became strained.

The economic reorganization of the Khrushchev era was reversed, and major economic reforms were introduced in 1965. On balance, the Soviet economy was no more successful under Kosygin’s more measured approach to change than it was under Khrushchev’s stewardship. Soviet foreign policy was more smoothly executed under Kosygin and Brezhnev, but there were still inconsistencies. Although there was a partial retreat from de-Stalinization and the literary thaw, the Brezhnev era continued many of the Khrushchev initiatives.

In retirement, Khrushchev lived in the Moscow region, occasionally coming into the city. After his initial shock, Khrushchev worked on his memoirs and read extensively. He died in 1971, and was buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev]

Further Reading

  • Conquest, Robert. Power and Policy in the USSR: The Struggle for Stalin’s Succession, 1945-1960. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. An overview of the power maneuvers among the Soviet elite in the postwar era.
  • Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers. 2 vols. Translated and edited by Strobe Talbott. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970-1974. Khrushchev’s memoirs give his interpretation of his twelve-year rule.
  • Khrushchev, Sergei. Khrushchev on Khrushchev: An Inside Account of the Man and His Era. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. An insider’s view of the Soviet elite, Khrushchev’s last year in power, and his political defeat.
  • Medvedev, Roy. Khrushchev: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1984. A Soviet historian’s view of Khrushchev from his early years, to his work in the Ukraine, to his years in power and afterward.
  • Richter, James G. Khrushchev’s Double Bind: International Pressures and Domestic Coalition Politics. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. An issue-oriented approach that examines both internal and international pressures faced by the Khrushchev administration.
  • Tatu, Michel. Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin. New York: Viking Press, 1969. An encyclopedic treatment of the period, 1960-1969, with a focus on the decline of Khrushchev.
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003. The first full-length American biography of Khrushchev, this massive work was assembled in close collaboration with the Soviet leader’s children and is based on interviews with his fellow politicians from the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as archival research.

Death of Stalin

Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published

Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich