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After Stalin died on 5th March 1953, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union (USSR), a position he held until 1964. How did he differ from Stalin? What were Khrushchev's objectives and policies? TermDefinitionCommunist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)The political party formed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian RevolutionCentral Committee of the Communist PartyThe leading body of…

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After Stalin died on 5th March 1953, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union (USSR), a position he held until 1964. How did he differ from Stalin? What were Khrushchev's objectives and policies?

Key Definitions

Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)
The political party formed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution
Central Committee of the Communist Party
The leading body of the USSR government within the CPSU
Members of the Central Committee elected the Politburo and the Secretariat members.
The highest level of policymakers in the Soviet Communist party
The head of Politburo was the General Secretary/Party Leader. The Politburo was meant to report to Central Committee, but it often overshadowed it.
The agency that managed the daily operations of the CPSU, leaving policy-making to the Politburo
The Presidium replaced Politburo in 1952
Khrushchev took power in 1953 and became Premier of the Presidium. He also became Party leader due to Politburo's dissolution.
People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD)
The Soviet police force
It also had a secret police division that carried out the Great Purge for Stalin.
Committee for State Security (KGB)
The new Soviet secret police formed in March 1954 by Khrushchev

Who was Nikita Khrushchev?

Khrushchev Photograph of Nikita Khrushchev during WWII StudySmarterNikita Khrushchev served as a Lieutenant General in the Red Army during WWII. People favoured him for his service to the USSR. (Source: wikicommons.org)

Before we look at how Khrushchev's leadership affected the Soviet Union, let's learn about who he was.

  • Nikita Khrushchev was born in 1894 near the Ukrainian border to a peasant family. His simple beginnings gave him popularity with the peasant population.
  • In 1918, Khrushchev joined the Communist Party and fought in the Red Army during the Russian Revolution.
  • After the war, Khrushchev became a member of the Central Committee in 1934.
  • When he was elected into the Politburo in 1938, Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Kyiv City Committee, overseeing Stalin’s purges in Ukraine for 11 years before returning to Moscow.
  • After this, he served as a Lieutenant General in the Second World War, surviving on the Eastern Front, despite communist commissars being specifically targeted by the Nazis.

Up to this point, however, Khrushchev was still a minor player on the Soviet stage. This later became an advantage, as his rivals at home and abroad consistently underestimated him. Historian William Taubman claims that “no one realised that between 1949 and 1953 [Khrushchev] had begun to think of himself as Stalin’s successor”.

How did Khrushchev Come to Power?

Stalin's death was a momentous, transformative occasion. Leaders in the West held their breath to see who would lead the USSR after him, unsure whether Stalin’s policies would be continued.

Stalin did not designate the next leader of the Soviet Union. Still, many in the Communist Party suspected that Georgy Malenkov, Second Secretary of the Communist Party, would succeed him. So, how did Khrushchev end up on top?

Malenkov, Beria and Molotov

Khrushchev.Stalin's Body.StudySmarter OriginalGeorgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov were photographed close to Stalin's body at his funeral. Placement in official photographs was important for Communist propaganda to show the proximity of power. (Source: wikicommons.org)

Immediately after Stalin’s death, Georgy Malenkov acted as leader of the Soviet Union, forming a triumvirate (three leaders) with Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov.

  • Within less than 24 hours of Stalin's death, the new leadership made sweeping changes to the structure of the USSR's government. Khrushchev was appointed as Secretariat of the Central Committee.
  • Their actions caused alarm amongst most politicians in the Presidium and Central Committee. The Presidium forced Malenkov to give up his role as the ranking Secretary of the Central Committee in an attempt to curb his power. He remained Premier and ‘first among equals’ within the collective leadership.
  • Eventually, Malenkov, Beria and Molotov were removed from power entirely.

Khrushchev criticised Stalin's supporters and the "regime of terror". He used his rivals' Stalinism to oust them from their positions in government. By specifically blaming Stalin for the USSR's failings, Khrushchev protected the communist ideology and packaged his policies as a return to Leninism.

What Were Khrushchev’s Reforms?

Khrushchev’s political ideology differed markedly from Stalinism, making him stand out as a reformer.

Political reform

Khrushchev’s policies tried to humanise socialism:

  • He tried to stamp out corruption and ensure fairer socialism by ending a scheme that allowed politicians to discretely earn more money on top of their wages.
  • To demonstrate the move away from Stalinism, Khrushchev released 7 million prisoners from the Gulags, prosecuted members of the NKVD for the purges, and downsized the Red Army.
  • He restructured the Communist Party along administrative lines, which was broadly seen as a failure because it led to increased political tensions and the alienation of many party members.
  • A new criminal code introduced in 1958 greatly diminished the power of the new secret police (KGB) and curtailed the state's use of terror.

Khrushchev's Secret Speech

Khrushchev Photograph of CPSU in 1956 during Khrushchev's secret speech StudySmarter

Khrushchev delivering his secret speech in 1956 to the CPSU (Source: wikicommons.org)

In February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress. Though the speech was not made public until 1989, it was disseminated to local party officials and activists. Some key points from the speech are as follows:

  • Khrushchev openly criticised Stalin, shattering the cult of personality built over two decades of totalitarian rule.
  • Khrushchev specifically criticised Stalin’s failure to prepare for war, irrational deportation of ethnic minorities, and use of mass terror during the purges.
  • Khrushchev spoke about Lenin’s suppressed testament, in which Lenin cited his concerns about Stalin’s ability to govern. He hence advocated a return to Leninism.

Khrushchev’s campaign for ‘de-Stalinisation’ marked the beginning of a period of liberalisation known as the ‘Khrushchev Thaw.

In response to the Secret Speech, Poland underwent a revolution in October 1956 against the Stalinist conditions imposed by Soviet control. Khrushchev eventually agreed to the new governance of Gomułka, which gave Poland new freedoms as a satellite state. Whilst addressing Western representatives at a speech at the Polish embassy in Moscow in November 1956, Khrushchev criticised Western involvement in the communist success in Poland. He proclaimed, "we will bury you", referencing Communism's superiority over Capitalism.

Economic reform

In 1953, agricultural output was low, and Khrushchev focused on increasing food production. He decentralised control by allowing local leaders to have a say in industrial and agricultural policy.

Industrial ministries in Moscow were replaced with regional economic councils, providing more autonomy over industrial quotas.

  • Khrushchev placed great emphasis on manufacturing consumer goods, whereas Stalin had emphasised heavy industry.
  • He aimed to increase the standard of living for Soviet citizens, acting as strong propaganda for communism against capitalism.
  • Khrushchev improved working conditions for industrial labourers by introducing a minimum wage, improved pensions, shorter working weeks and a worker housing programme.

Khruschev's agricultural policy revolved around one crop: corn.

Khruschev Corn Campaign

For Khrushchev, corn was the answer to Soviet agricultural problems, and it was also vital for competing with the US.

To improve corn cultivation, Khruschev:

  • incentivised peasants by reducing taxes, increasing wages and reducing grain requisitions to sell more corn;
  • pushed collective farms to increase efficiency;
  • introduced the 1954 Virgin Lands Scheme which opened over 70 million acres of land in Siberia for corn cultivation.

Improved corn cultivation would, according to Khruschev, enable more meat production with corn used as food for livestock.

Overall, Khruschev's corn campaign was a failure. Although there were initial successes, the crops eventually failed due to poor land quality and climate conditions.

Social Reform

Khrushchev’s social policies allowed for much more social freedom and better living standards. In 1958, 100 million citizens were living below the poverty line. By 1967, this number had been reduced to 30 million people.

  • Following Lenin's belief in the strong connection between education and the workforce, Khrushchev reformed the education system, abolishing fees, extending required school by a year, and increasing access to schools.
  • Khrushchev constructed public housing estates to remedy the shortage of residences that occurred during rapid industrialisation and the Second World War. He aimed to build 12 million apartments and 7 million houses in more rural areas.

In moving away from the repression of Stalin’s regime, Khrushchev inspired a flourishing of the arts, culture and, indirectly, widespread hopes for even greater freedom.

Khrushchev became the figurehead for Soviet socialism when he was elected Secretary of the Communist Party in September 1953 and later the Premier in 1958. He had a reputation for being blunt, and when the young John F. Kennedy was elected to the US presidency in 1961, Cold War relations deteriorated further between these two personalities.

During the 15th session of the United Nations General Assembly in October 1960, Khrushchev supposedly banged his shoe in the meeting to protest criticism against the Soviet Union. The incident lacks creditability as to whether it actually happened or not. Still, the fact the story exists in the first place tells of the Cold War situation at the time.

  • The Cold War created an ideological battle between American democracy and Russian socialism.
  • Khrushchev respected President Eisenhower and engaged in talks at Camp David in 1959 regarding the Berlin Crisis, Germany, and other Cold War issues. Although these talks did not resolve the Cold War, both parties agreed to cooperate their views.
  • However, Khrushchev passionately defended Soviet socialism at the UN meeting in 1960; it was confirmed he banged his fists and shouted during the session.

Khrushchev Nikita Khrushchev and John F Kennedy shake hands in photograph StudySmarterThe political relationship between Khrushchev and Kennedy led to a period of high tension between the US and the USSR during the Cold War. (Source: wikicommons.org)

On 20th January 1961, Kennedy was inaugurated as the President of the United States and immediately had to deal with the political tensions of the ongoing Cold War with the USSR. His relations with Khrushchev heightened these tensions due to misunderstandings, Kennedy's inexperience, and Khrushchev's desire for USSR dominance.

20th January 1961John F. Kennedy was elected as President of the United StatesKhrushchev and Eisenhower had had tolerable relations, but Kennedy was inexperienced and so was seen to be manipulatable by Khrushchev.
17-20th April 1961The U.S. failed invasion of the Bay of PigsKennedy failed to quash Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba. Khrushchev saw this as US military weakness, and built up the Soviet presence in Cuba.
4th June 1961Vienna SummitKhrushchev and Kennedy's first meeting: Kennedy cited that US and USSR forces are "equally balanced", making him look weak and playing into Khrushchev's hands. His inexperience allowed Khrushchev to be more aggressive with Soviet actions.
13th August 1961The Soviet East Berlin government constructed the Berlin WallThis was a physical metaphor for the ideological differences and poor international relations of the Cold War. Kennedy appeared weak by not deploying the US military to protest the wall.
July 1962USSR begins sending missiles to CubaKhrushchev supported the Communist revolution in Cuba and sent missile construction equipment to the country. Cuba is in US's "backyard" so this directly threatened the US.
24th October 1962Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba to stop USSR missile transportCold war tensions were at an all-time high between US and USSR, with the threat of nuclear war at its worst. Kennedy interpreted Cuban missiles as USSR policy for "first strike" rather than "MAD", prompting US nuclear tests. Khrushchev accused the US of "piracy" due to the naval blockade and treated it as an act of aggression.
28th October 1962Kennedy and Khrushchev reached agreement over CubaAfter messages between the US and USSR, Khrushchev agreed to remove missile technology from Cuba, and Kennedy (secretly) agrees to remove US missiles in Turkey.
25th July 1963Nuclear Test Ban TreatyKhrushchev and Kennedy agreed to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere, underwater, and in space.
22nd November 1963President Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) assumed the office of PresidentDespite discussions of a meeting, LBJ and Khrushchev did not meet.
October 1964Khrushchev was ousted from power Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev.

During the Cold War, the US and USSR initially followed the theory of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD) which deterred nuclear warfare because both sides would destroy each other upon launching missiles. The "first strike" policy is the belief that the attacking side can initiate nuclear war and weaken its opponent enough to survive its retaliation. MAD prevented nuclear action, but first strike considered the possibility of hot warfare.

Leonid Brezhnev eventually deposed Khrushchev in October 1964.

  • Brezhnev led a palace coup against Khrushchev because of his erratic behaviour in US-Soviet relations (Khrushchev's shoe incident), his embarrassing handling of international communist relations with Cuba and China, and his failed domestic policies.
  • Khrushchev was kept under house arrest following his deposition until his death from a heart attack on 11th September 1971.

The poor relations between Khrushchev and Kennedy brought the Cold War closest to the possibility of hot warfare. Kennedy's inexperience and Khrushchev's brashness created a clash of their personalities that deteriorated international relations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Khruschev - Key Takeaways

  • Khrushchev was born in 1894 to a peasant family. He became a member of the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1934 and gained admission to the Politburo in 1938. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev rose to power as First Secretary of the CPSU in September 1953 after fighting off his rivals Malenkov, Beria and Molotov.
  • Khrushchev disagreed with many of the actions and ideologies of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. This led him to pursue a policy of de-Stalinisation during his leadership. His opponents' ties to Stalinist policies made them easy targets for Khrushchev.
  • Khrushchev made several political reforms, which broadly democratised the Bolshevik party and curtailed the use of terror. He decided to decentralise control over agriculture and industry to questionable success. Often, this led to decreased efficiency. His improvements to the standard of living increased public housing and the access to education rose.
  • Although he was significantly more lenient to the West than Stalin, Khrushchev could sometimes be unpredictable and numerous tensions occurred during his tenure. One example is the supposed shoe-banging incident at the 1960 UN assembly, demonstrating his brash behaviour.
  • Khrushchev and Kennedy's political relationship during the Cold War led to tensions between the two superpowers. Khrushchev regarded Kennedy as weak over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and this led to Soviet aggression such as the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These were the highest points of tension during the Cold War.
  • Khrushchev and Kennedy eventually reached agreements on the nuclear disarmament of Cuba and Turkey in 1963 and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. These decisions made Khrushchev look weak in the USSR and Brezhnev ousted him in 1964. Khrushchev died in 1971.

Frequently Asked Questions about Khrushchev

Khrushchev is known as the leader of the USSR who succeeded Stalin in 1953. He attempted to reform communism through a process of de-Stalinisation and led the USSR during the most tense moments of the Cold War. Khrushchev was in power during the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Khrushchev and President Kennedy's relations led to misunderstandings and the closest the Cold War got to active nuclear warfare.

When Kennedy imposed the naval blockade on Cuba in 1962 to stop Soviet shipments of nuclear equipment, Khrushchev accused America of piracy. He interpreted the blockade as an act of aggression against the USSR and claimed the US wanted to destroy humanity.

Khrushchev regarded Stalin as arbitrarily aggressive and enacting a "regime of terror". When Khrushchev took power in 1953 he deposed his rivals through their connections to Stalin, and attempted to reform communism by stamping out corruption and introducing a fairer socialism.

In response to the Secret Speech, Poland underwent a revolution in October 1956 against the Stalinist conditions imposed by Soviet control. Khrushchev eventually agreed to the new governance of Gomułka, which gave Poland new freedoms as a satellite state. Whilst addressing Western representatives at a speech at the Polish embassy in Moscow in November 1956, Khrushchev criticised Western involvement in the communist success in Poland. He proclaimed "we will bury you", referencing Communism's superiority to Capitalism.

Khrushchev entered a power struggle after the death of Stalin in 1953, emerging on top, having fully cemented his power by 1955.

Final Khrushchev Quiz

Khrushchev Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When did Joseph Stalin die?

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Who was regarded as Stalin's successor by CPSU after his death?

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Georgy Malenkov

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What was one of Khrushchev's key policies when he rose to power?

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How many prisoners did Khrushchev release from the Gulags to give socialism a "human face"?

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7 million

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When did Khrushchev deliver his "Secret Speech" to the CPSU?

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How did Khrushchev plan to reform agricultural production in the USSR?

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By addressing grain production

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How did Khrushchev improve the standard of living for Russian citizens?

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Placed greater emphasis on producing consumer goods

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When did the infamous "shoe-banging" incident supposedly occur?

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The 1960 UN General Assembly

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When was the Khrushchev-Kennedy Vienna Summit?

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4th June 1961

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Who succeeded Khrushchev as head of USSR in 1964?

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Leonid Brezhnev

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