Khrushchev's "Second" First Secretaries: Career Trajectories after the Unification of Oblast Party Organizations

Article excerpt

When, on 17 October 1964, Pravda provided an indirect explanation for the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from his positions as first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, it cited among his weaknesses his "subjectivism and drift in communist construction, harebrained scheming, half-baked conclusions and hasty decisions, and actions divorced from reality, bragging and bluster, attraction to rule by flat, unwillingness to take into account what science and practical experience have already worked out." (1) An examination of the personnel aspects of the infamous 1962 decision by Khrushchev to bifurcate the apparatus of the CPSU at the regional level into parallel industrial and agricultural organizations, each headed by a different obkom first secretary, certainly lends credence to these assessments of Khrushchev.

The 1962 splitting of the party apparatus emerges in the analysis below as a desperate, ill-conceived effort to regain the administrative initiative in the aftermath of the essentially failed 1957 sovnarkhoz (short for sovety narodnogo kboziaistva, councils of the national economy) reforms designed to devolve economic decision making away from the central all-union ministries. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary by Soviet authorities at the time, the evidence provided by the series of personnel decisions connected with the party bifurcation process between 1962 and Khrushchev's ouster from power in October 1964 does in fact reveal a haphazard and ill-considered approach to economic management, a lack of planning, and an essentially "rambunctious, shotgun initiative style of leadership." (2) That this bifurcation of the regional party apparatus was the first of Khrushchev's policies to be reversed in the aftermath of his removal from power lends support to the notion that the conspirators of 1964 viewed this course as especially wrong-headed or, in the words frequently cited to describe Khrushchev's reforms, a "harebrained scheme" (prozhekterstvo). It likewise suggests a substantially administrative motive for the conspiracy to remove Khrushchev from power.

Embarking in November 1962 on a plan to restructure the party institutions of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev pushed through reforms that by early 1963 had bifurcated 75 of the country's 136 regional communist party committees into separate agricultural and industrial organs, each with its own obkom first secretary. (3) Overnight, the number of obkom first secretaries--key "proving ground" positions in the CPSU and Soviet hierarchy--grew from 136 to 211, with 150 of this latter number now confined to sharing power with a "second" first secretary. (4) Sixteen incumbent obkom first secretaries were uprooted from their posts altogether, while 59 incumbent obkom first secretaries had their regional political prerogatives and supervisory jurisdictions suddenly and drastically reduced, with the assignment now to focus exclusively either on agricultural or industrial affairs. Many of these 75 incumbents had come to Khrushchev's rescue as members of the CPSU Central Committee during the 1957 "anti-party group" challenge, yet this administrative upheaval significantly destabilized their career prospects. (5)

These worries on the part of Khrushchev's erstwhile supporters, in combination with the failure of his reforms to produce anything like the enhanced efficiency he was hoping for, go much of the way to explain Why he was so easily toppled by his Presidium colleagues in October 1964. Indeed, it is noteworthy that immediately upon Khrushchev's ouster in late October 1964 his successors set about to eradicate the reform and reconstitute the original pre-reform party structure in the regions. (6) By mid-December 1964, the requisite paperwork had been pushed through and the five-week period from 29 December 1964 to 3 February 1965 witnessed the rapid reconstitution of the pre-1963 status quo: 75 obkom first secretaries--1 for each oblast--were named to head the reunified regional party organs, (7) and 75 individuals who had served as "tandem" obkom first secretary during the period of bifurcation were assigned other work. …