RUSSIA UNDER KHRUSHCHEV
When Stalin died, he left a gaping void to be filled by one of many ambitious Party members. At first, Stalin’s position seemed to go to his top security advisor, Lavrenti Beria, who, reportedly, was overjoyed at the news of Stalin’s death. However, Nikita Khrushchev, a loyal member of the Party, gained the position of party chief and turned the people against Beria and his political ally Malenkov, both of whom were known as “ Stalin’s man.” It was this title that worked against the success of Beria and Malenkov; the Russian people were unwilling to risk a repetition of the same Reign of Terror, which caused such intense suffering. Beria was executed in December of 1953 and Malenkov was forced to resign from his previous position as premier in 1955.
With all traces of competition eliminated, Nikita Khrushchev launched a campaign of gradual steps of healing for Russia. He began a period of de-Stalinization, an attempt to remove all the deep scars Stalin left in the economy of Russia and the minds of its people. Workers toppled the all of statues of Stalin. His body was buried outside the Kremlin wall. During the anti-Stalinist movements, 1.5 million members of the old government were killed. Khrushchev also strove to improve the USSR’s shaky relationship with the United State and levy the economic burden on a starving people who lived in extreme poverty amidst the leftover rubbles of World War II. Between 1953 and 1963, he reduced the size of the Russian army to provide money for adequate housing.
However, as poet Anna Akhmatova wrote during this period, Russia still consisted of two classes, “two Russsias staring eye to eye”: the oppressors and the oppressed. While Khrushchev vehemently denounced Stalin’s crimes, he took no steps to eliminate the massive corruption that was rotting the core of the government. He had vowed to “tell the truth to the people”, but chose to ignore the thousands of pleas for the expansion of human rights in Russia from all classes of society. The KGB, the secret police, which evolved from the Cheka police of Stalin’s time, was very much alive and especially active in persecuting numerous dissidents who had looked hopefully to reforms guaranteeing more rights for the people. In view of the values important to the democratic world, Russia was making slow progress.
In 1956, Hungary, which previously been under Soviet control, rebelled. Mobs of Hungarians stormed Budapest, angrily protesting Communist rule and demanding their freedom. Khrushchev responded by immediately sending Soviet troops into self-liberated Hungary, re-imposing it under Soviet rule.
Near the middle of Khrushchev’s rule, the Cold War, a period of intense military and ideological rivalry, as well as the space race, had started between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1961, tension between the Soviet Union and the West was raised by a series of nuclear tests in the Soviet Union and by Russia’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962. Nuclear war seemed imminent; both superpowers flexed their muscles threateningly to display their titanic strength, which could launch the world into a cycle of massive death and destruction. However, tensions lessened when the Russia, realizing that its navy could not take on that of the United States, backed off from naval confrontation. Even so, the Cold War was far from over. Khrushchev, however, fell out of favor with the government in 1964, because his eagerness to involve Russia in dangerous international affairs, and was forced to resign by the Central Committee.
Leonid Brezhnev, who succeeded Khruschev in 1964, was more repressive in terms of domestic policy and human rights than his predecessor. The Cold War was still going on, and the testing and production of nuclear weapons occurred on a large scale. During this period, though the Russian economy was in “stagnation”, dissent activities increased and discontentment seethed. The government increased censorship on writing and the KGB made enormous numbers of arrests of dissidents, putting some on show trials for the public. In reality, none of the political prisoners were given fair trials and most were sentenced to interminable years in either labor camps or exile.
In 1968, one of Russia’ s satellite nations, Czechoslovakia, was experiencing its “Prague Spring”, a period of new ideas under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek. That summer, Brezhnev invaded Czechoslovakia with armed forces, violently putting it under tight rein. He maintained, in the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968, that the Soviet Union had the right to “intervene in the domestic affairs of any Soviet bloc nation if Communist rule was threatened.” Because of his fear of losing territory and power to social and economic reforms, Brezhnev restricted freedom and human rights even more.
In 1977, the “Breznev Constitution”, which formally was not unlike the constitution of the United States, was adopted by the Soviet government. The preamble stated that “the aims of the dictatorship of the proletariat having been fulfilled, the Soviet state has become the state of the whole people.” The constitution supposedly represented the will of all the people, from the worker to the intelligentsia. But was it the will of the “whole people” that their fellow citizens should be imprisoned for speaking out against the wrongs of the government? Had the Soviet Union really reached the Marx’s pure Communism, in which all the people, no matter what class, had an equal share in everything? Russia’s government was never a dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather, a dictatorship of an upper class, the Party. As it can be seen through history, every leader that had come to rule the Soviet Union cared about only two things: obtaining personal power and increasing the might of the Soviet Union. The rights of the citizens did not seem to matter, so long as the economy was not hurt and Russia, as whole, was advancing as a superpower in the world.
Gorbachev and Democratic Reforms
After Brezhnev’s death in 1982, he was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, who was in power for fifteen months before his death from illness in 1984. His former rival Konstatin Chernenko seized power and ruled until 1985, when he also died of ill health. Upon the death of Chernenko, the Politburo chose Mikhail Gorbachev, a young reformer, who, in pursuing democratic reforms, would cause the downfall of the entire Soviet system.
Gorbachev realized that the stagnation of Russia during Brezhnev’s period was caused by a lack of new ideas and wide participation of the citizens in government affairs. In 1985, Gorbachev announced glasnost, a policy of openness. The effect of the glasnost was seen immediately. Christian churches, which had previously been shut down, were opened. Many political prisoners were released from jail or called back from exile and labor camps. Restrictions on publication of all books were lifted, and the media could now criticize the government without fearing brutal retaliation by the KGB.
Next, Gorbachev gave more power to private businesses and farms; new business owners no longer had to produce goods by a set government quota, but could produce more in order to make profit. He also encouraged democratization in the government, allowing the people to vote on different candidates that they themselves selected for government positions. Gorbachev also gave more power to the individual republics under the Soviet Union.