Soviet Successors

On March 5, 1953 Soviet Russian leader Joseph Stalin died after suffering from a brain hemorrhage 4 days earlier. Stalin, who rose through the ranks under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and became the leader of the Soviet Union shortly after World War I in 1922, left behind a government that faced the difficult task of choosing a new leader among the various qualified and ambitious statesmen (Siegelbaum). This issue of succession would ultimately decide the course the Soviet Union would take during the global strife of the Cold War, and would result in changes in Soviet life, economics, and government because of the mass reforms made by Stalin’s successor (Freeze, 408).

Unlike Lenin who chose his successor, Stalin, before he stepped down in 1922 and his death in 1924, Stalin did not leave behind a clear indication of who was to succeed him (Bociurkiw, 576). This problem became apparent while Stalin was on his deathbed and during his funeral, where the three main possible successors, Georgii Malenkov, Lavrentii Beria, and Nikita Khrushchev each promoted themselves as the possible heirs to Stalin. This self-promotion began while Stalin lay dying as the main three divided themselves into a “collective leadership,” where each would be given a different form of power that would allow for them to be seen as equals. This leadership style saw Malenkov being named the new chairman of the Council of Ministers, Beria as the continued chief of the Soviet secret police, and Khrushchev as the new top secretary of the Central Committee (Siegelbaum). “Collective leadership” allowed for the men who distrusted one another, but trusted one another’s desire to preserve the regime to work together to fill the vacated, demigod-like role Stalin left (Bociurkiw, 578).

This “collective leadership” the three leaders were placed did not last long as each began to make a grab for complete power as the head of the Soviet Union. This began at Stalin’s funeral, where Malenkov and Beria gave speeches about Stalin and the glory of the Soviet Union. They were two of the three speakers at the funeral in addition to Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s longtime friend and protégé (Freeze, 409). It is notable that Khrushchev did not speak at the funeral of Joseph Stalin, as such an honor was reserved for high-ranking statesmen. This fact could have also been representative of Khrushchev’s lower position in the triumvirate-like Soviet leadership, but was not the case.

"Crowds in Line to View Stalin's Body (1953)." Death of Stalin, 1953. 2001.

Following Stalin’s funeral, all three potential successors began to call for changes and attempted to gather support from the people. Laverntii Beria, a longtime leader in the Soviet government began to call for a “liberal” change, citing issues such as civil rights, the release of prisoners including high-ranking officials, and the change to the Gulag system as primary concerns (Freeze, 410). The changes in Beria’s policies and his positions on large-scale issues worried Malenkov and Khrushchev, and they united against Beria as they deemed him too powerful and popular with the most influential people. This united front officially began on June 26, 1953, where a meeting was called to discuss the, “criminal anti-party and anti-state activities of Beria.” The main result of this meeting was the arrest of Beria and his main supporters (Freeze, 410-411).

It was on July 8, 1953 that Beria was tried and examined by the Central Committee for the third round. In this committee meeting, Khrushchev and Malenkov and their other allies testified against Beria’s actions and accuse him of being anti-Soviet and of greatly harming the state. For example, Comrade Shatalin stated that, “Beria had become so impudent, that he began to obviously circumvent at least the apparatus of the Central Committee. In many cases he appointed and removed people without permission from the Central Committee (“Beria is Condemned).” Comrade Shatalin further attacked Beria’s character by commenting on his many affairs and relations with women and summarized the entire committee feelings on the entire matter and Beria with, “What does this rogue care for the interests of the State (“Beria is Condemned).” It is important to note however that Beria had served under Stalin for over ten years and had performed the darkest actions of the Soviet government awhile serving as the head of the secret police. He was linked to concentration camps, mass deportations, and numerous purges, as well as other jobs assigned to him by Joseph Stalin (Deutscher, 235). One can state that Beria did act in the interest of the State while acting in his own interest, but that his ambition and the desires of his political opponents to not see him in power led to his downfall.

Six months after he was arrested, Beria was pronounced guilty and executed (Siegelbaum). This left Malenkov and Khrushchev as the two remaining contenders as Stalin’s successor, and their primary competition for power revolved around development and industry. Khrushchev was in favor of developing and investing in the Soviet agriculture, which had previously been ignored and under former leaders. He wanted to cultivate lands which had previously never been farmed before to increase production of food such as wheat to fight against the still persistent hunger the citizens of the Soviet Union faced. Malenkov on the other hand wanted to divert resources form agriculture and focus on light industry and the production of goods (Freeze, 411-412).

It was not until mid-1955 that the “collective leadership” officially ended with Malenkov’s resignation. In his resignation statement, Malenkov noted that, “It is now evident what important role this reform played in the task of developing agriculture (“Malenkov Resigns).” This statement, Khrushchev’s emphasis on agricultural development, and his own support from government officials and the common people allowed for Nikita Khrushchev to succeed Stalin, albeit without his large personal following and demigod like status.



“Beria is Condemned.” Soviethistory. Web. 1 April. 2018.

Bociurkiw, Bohdan R. “The Problem of Succession in the Soviet Political System: The Case of Khrushchev.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue canadienne d’Economique et de Science politique. Vol. 26, No. 4. 1960. 575-591.

Death of Stalin, 1953. “Crowds in Line to View Stalin’s Body (1953).” 2001. Web. 1 April. 2018.

Deutscher, Isaac.The Beria Affair.” International Journal. Vol. 8, No. 4. 1953. 227-239.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

“Malenkov Resigns.” Soviethistory. Web. 1 April. 2018.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Succession to Stalin.” Soviethistory. Web. 1 April. 2018.


8 thoughts on “Soviet Successors

  1. Taylor, great post! I think it’s interesting that after Stalin personally consolidated so much power that he wanted to distribute it among three people. Despite all the politics that went into determining the single leader, I think it’s important to note that agriculture was one of Khrushchev’s main platforms and helped him become Stalin’s sole successor.


  2. I actually did the same topic that you did. From what I have gathered I don’t know if you found the same thing, but it seems like it was a good thing that Beria didn’t become head of the country. From what I’ve read it looks like he would have been as bad if not worse then Stalin about the purges, even though he claimed to be a “liberal” reformer. I was wondering if you’ve seen the movie “Death of Stalin.” Its a dark yet comedic movie about these very events.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed your post Taylor. You did a great job capturing the infighting and power-hunger that existed within the “collective leadership”. It definitely highlights the volatility of a Soviet Union with more than one iconic leader, a departure from years past when there was Stalin, Lenin, and before them Tsarist regime. How different do you think the Soviet Union would’ve been if it had been Malenkov or beria who took power instead of Khruschev?


  4. I thought your post was interesting and thought provoking. It was particularly noteworthy to read about the power struggle after Stalin’s death. I wonder how the country would have been different if Beria or Malenkov would have been the successor. My guess would be to follow the economic reforms each leader would likely make. Beria would liberalize, Malenkov would fund industry, and we already know what Khrushchev did.


  5. Great post, Taylor! I like how you highlighted how up in the air the succession was initially. It’s crazy to think about how differently (for better or for worse) things could have gone had Beria or Malenkov taken power instead of Khrushchev.


  6. I feel like the guys who thought it would be a good idea to have a collective leadership did not know much about Roman history, particularly the two Triumvirates. In both cases, the group of three men did not last very long before they started to take each other out.


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