Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
The process of destalinization refers to the elimination of the “cult of personality” and the destruction of the Stalinist political system created under Joseph Stalin during the early to mid-1900s. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders undertook multiple policies that were aimed at returning the Soviet Union back to Leninist policies. These leaders included Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev.
In order to understand the process of destalinization that took place following Stalin’s death, it is important to first understand the political system of Stalinism. Stalinism, by definition, was Joseph Stalin’s method of rule over the Soviet Union that incorporated terror and totalitarianism to the highest levels. Under his rule, Stalin transformed the Comintern from one that sought world revolution to one that would help create a personal dictatorship (Hoffman, 14). Through the many years of dictatorial rule, Stalin collectivized agriculture, incorporated the use of Purges in order to destroy potential enemies, and drastically reformed both economic and political policies within the Soviet Union.
With the death of Stalin in 1953, however, Nikita Khrushchev assumed control over the Soviet Union. At the 20th CPSU, which has been largely considered the most important congress following the death of Lenin, Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders began pushing for decentralization of power within the Soviet Union. Attacking Stalin’s former policies, Khrushchev and many other Soviet leaders began discrediting Stalin by making assertions that Stalin had “perverted the first principles of Lenin” through his tyrannical rule and crimes he had committed against his own party (Kenney, 576). As a result of Stalin’s terrifying dictatorship, Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders began pushing for collective leadership in order to avoid a repeat of Stalin’s era. Thus, it is here that the process of destalinization, essentially, began.
The death of Stalin marked an end to a personal dictatorship and the rebirth of a “party dictatorship” (Hoffman, 21). The next few years under Khrushchev, therefore, would prove to be a time of relative peace when compared to the years prior. Realizing the threat and tremendous devastation posed by nuclear weapons, Khrushchev immediately began pushing for peaceful coexistence among Western powers. Under Khrushchev’s leadership, the Soviet Union attempted to establish diplomatic ties with the West, as well as East-West trade and technological transfers. Essentially, Khrushchev’s leadership centered around improving Soviet-American relations, to a certain degree, while also improving what he dubbed as “Soviet backwardness.” Khrushchev would attempt to remedy this “backwardness” through educational, industrial, and agricultural reforms.
Peaceful coexistence with Western powers, however, would be short-lived under Khrushchev. While peace negotiations had first appeared relatively successful, the crisis in Berlin, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis, would damper any peaceful advancement made by the Soviet Union and Western powers. The tremendous pressure faced in both cases from the United States would prove to be humiliating defeats for the Soviet Union and, eventually, resulted in the dismissal of Khrushchev from his position of power.
“Voluntarily” retiring, Khrushchev left office in 1964 and transferred control of the Soviet Union over to Leonid Brezhnev. Continuing where Khrushchev, essentially, left off, Brezhnev continued to implement “peaceful coexistence policies” aimed at improving Soviet-American relations. Under Brezhnev, a period of détente ensued in which both the Soviet Union and Western powers experienced a period of relaxing tensions that favored peace. Brezhnev accomplished this by implementing a far more favorable and/or stable international environment through a build-up of nuclear arms (means of nuclear determent), and through the push for nuclear parity and anti-ballistic missile treaties (SALT-I). In addition to improved relations with the United States, Brezhnev also pushed for peace negotiations throughout Western Europe as well.
Building upon this period of détente, Brezhnev initiated what would come to be known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine.” Through this doctrine, Brezhnev embodied a concept of “limited sovereignty” (Mitchell, 190). Through this concept, Brezhnev urged Communists to stand firm against enemies of socialism in order to strengthen the role of the Communist Party and intensify the ideological warfare against bourgeois ideology. Contrasting significantly with former Soviet leaders, this doctrine advocated imperialist pursuits as well. To Brezhnev, “socialist development required the subduing of other countries that were not fully developed in socialism” (Mitchell, 200). Brezhnev would put this new ideology to the test with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan soon after the implementation of this new doctrine.
With decolonization taking place across the globe, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev took advantage of this opportunity to spread its influence into Afghanistan and India. Faced with rapidly increasing tensions with the Chinese, the period between 1964-1982 can be characterized as one of Soviet consolidation and military growth. The Soviet Union, in response, became an imperial regime that would use force to expand its power and/or to ensure that its satellite states did not try to break ties with Moscow. With this new imperial ideology, invading Afghanistan due to substantial uprisings that were taking place in the country was seen as a necessary step towards Soviet security according to the Brezhnev doctrine. The invasion of Afghanistan, however, would prove to be a pivotal point in the eventual collapse of the Soviet system. Much like the Vietnam War’s impact on the United States, Afghanistan would prove to be Russia’s “Vietnam.”
While expanding the military, however, Brezhnev largely ignored the need for economic reform. Initially, Brezhnev invested substantial sums into the agricultural sector of the economy, but losses of harvests after its collection, transportation problems, poor storage facilities, the remoteness of numerous farms, and theft of goods would result in a heavy agricultural decline. In response, Brezhnev began revising the “Planning systems” that had been established under Stalin in order to allow for increased “market elements” to be implemented into the Soviet economy. While the Soviet economy witnessed a relatively high increase in economic growth, however, this development would be short-lived. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union began to experience a dramatic economic decline. Brezhnev’s regime would, in turn, come to be known as the “cult of stagnation.”
During the Brezhnev era, Brezhnev attempted to restore the name of Stalin, in stark contrast to that of Khrushchev who had completely denounced Stalinism. Faced with significant opposition to such policies, however, Brezhnev soon backed down to the idea of revitalizing Stalin. Nevertheless, Brezhnev would make many attempts to place himself on the same level as Stalin. In 1976, Brezhnev was even given the title of “Marshal of the Soviet Union,” which was the same title Stalin had adorned himself with several years prior. Supporting Stalinist policies, however, would have detrimental effects on the Soviet Union. Because Stalinism encompassed many “excesses,” the marginal support of such a system from Brezhnev only served to increase problems within the Soviet Union. Upon his death in 1982, the Soviet Union, following Brezhnev, was in complete disarray. The failure to destalinize, therefore, would lead to the ultimate collapse of the USSR under Gorbachev several years later.
Following the era of stagnation under Brezhnev, Mikhail Gorbachev soon came to power within the Soviet Union during the mid-1980s. Faced with economic problems, technological gaps with the West, political chaos, and republic/nationalist uprisings throughout the Soviet Union, Gorbachev understood the detrimental condition of Russia and realized a need for radical reform in order to stabilize the country. In response, Gorbachev proposed economic, political, and military alliances with Western powers, he opted out of leading the World socialist movement and proposed that the Soviet Union should integrate itself into the global capitalist system. Gorbachev, who was still a Communist at heart, implemented these changes in order to end the Cold War, gain support from Europe, and gain access to Western capital in order to deal with many of the crises facing Russia at the time. As a result of his drastic reforms, Gorbachev succeeded in destroying the postwar international order while replacing it with a new international order that created a multipolar global system, as well as laying the foundation for a genuinely global capitalist economy. Additionally, Gorbachev began implementing economic reforms aimed at “deplanning” the economy (away from the Five-year Plans implemented originally under Stalin) and began pushing for a more democratic political system within the Soviet Union.
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As a result of these radical reforms, the economic and international transformations both helped to alleviate many of the domestic problems within Russia. Additionally, the Western powers readily accepted these changes proposed by Gorbachev because it ended the Cold War and created capitalist, liberal-democratic states which were “far more stable and productive” (Bruce, 234). By creating a far more stable international order, however, Gorbachev had also succeeded in accomplishing complete destalinization. With these policies, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and was replaced by an even more powerful Russian government in the years that followed the collapse of the USSR.
"We could only solve our problems by cooperating with other countries. It would have been paradoxical not to cooperate. And therefore we needed to put an end to the Iron Curtain, to change the nature of international relations, to rid them of ideological confrontation, and particularly to end the arms race."
— Mikhail Gorbachev
A Slow but Steady Decline
In conclusion, the three periods led by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev each played significant roles in the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union. Whereas Khrushchev openly denounced Stalinist principles, Brezhnev, in turn, supported many of Stalin’s original policies. By supporting such policies, the Soviet Union, in turn, would experience a dramatic decline over the decade following Brezhnev’s death. With Gorbachev’s ascension to power in the mid-1980s, it was abundantly clear that radical reforms would have to be implemented in order to save Russia.
Bruce, Valerie. "The Soviet Union Under Gorbachev: Ending Stalinism and Ending the Cold War." International Journal 46 (Spring 1991), 220-241.
Hoffman, Erik P. "Soviet Foreign Policy Aims and Accomplishments from Lenin to Brezhnev." Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science 36 (No. 4, Soviet Foreign Policy, 1987), 10-31.
Kenney, Charles. "The Twentieth CPSU Congress and the 'New' Soviet Union." The Western Political Quarterly 9 (September 1956), 570-606.
Mitchell, R. Judson. "The Brezhnev Doctrine and Communist Ideology." The Review of Politics 34 (1972), 190-209.
Wikipedia contributors, "Joseph Stalin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Stalin&oldid=886848848 (accessed March 9, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Leonid Brezhnev," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Leonid_Brezhnev&oldid=886893197 (accessed March 9, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Mikhail Gorbachev," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mikhail_Gorbachev&oldid=886749784 (accessed March 9, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Nikita Khrushchev," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nikita_Khrushchev&oldid=886669681 (accessed March 9, 2019).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 10, 2019:
Glad you enjoyed Liz! Yeah, the Soviet era was a crazy time in history. Really fascinating stuff.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 09, 2019:
The history of the Soviet Union is a fascinating subject. Thanks for explaining the de-Stalinisation policies of Stalin's successors.