Leadership Transition and Policy Change in the USSR after Stalin

By Tompson, William | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Leadership Transition and Policy Change in the USSR after Stalin


Tompson, William, Kritika


Luc Duhamel, The KGB Campaign against Corruption in Moscow, 1982-1987. xviii + 249 pp. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0822961086. $26.95.

Jeremy Smith and Melanie Ilic, eds., Khrushchev in the Kremlin: Policy and Government in the Soviet Union, 1953-1964. xx + 249 pp. New York: Routledge, 2011. ISBN 0415476488. $44.95.

One of the characteristic features of Soviet leadership transitions was the rectification campaign, a maneuver undertaken by the Communist Party after the death of a leader to adjust course and rectify errors. Given its claim to a monopoly of truth as well as power, such rectification could be problematic for the Party, but the death or removal of a leader created an opportunity for some necessary adjustments, accompanied in most cases by a bit of scapegoating. Exposing the errors and crimes of the past created an opening to do something new. To be sure, the designated scapegoats were often genuinely responsible for many of the things for which they were blamed, but that was hardly the point--especially since their successors were frequently implicated, too. The point was that their guilt relieved their successors, and the Party as a whole, of the burden of responsibility. Yet the process was never easy or simple. Whether the focus was on repression and crimes committed by the security organs or mistakes in foreign affairs or economic management, such campaigns often threatened many among the living, and they raised the risk that the rectification process itself might go too far, undermining the regime's legitimacy and stability.

These dynamics were in many ways critical in shaping the contours of high and low politics in the post-Stalin and post-Brezhnev periods, and the two volumes reviewed here illustrate, albeit in very different contexts, the ways in which leaders and social groups sought to confront the legacies of the past while securing their interests for the future. The two books also demonstrate the continuing wealth of material to emerge from former Soviet archives, even if it is now close to two decades since the Russian authorities began to tighten up control over access to Soviet party and state documents. If the first wave of archival work to emerge in the 1990s focused on filling gaps in our knowledge of key figures and events, particularly in the period before 1953, (1) later work, including the books under review here, demonstrates how much we can still learn about day-to-day governance and low, as well as high, politics.

Khrushchev in the Kremlin is part of a two-volume set emerging from a project on "Policy and Governance in the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev," which ran from 2005 to 2008 under the aegis of the University of Birmingham's Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES). (2) Overall, it is an unusually successful edited collection. The dozen papers included in the book present a great deal of new material, much of it from archival and other primary sources. Perhaps more striking is the degree to which most of them also succeed in presenting new angles on the material, even when looking at issues that have long been the focus of scholarly attention. Some provide unexpected twists by examining issues within the longer run of Soviet and post-Soviet history, while others (most notably J. N. Westwood's contribution on the railways) identify novel but very sensible international comparisons to put developments in the USSR under Khrushchev into a broader context (e.g., Robert Davies and Melanie Ilic on housing). Running through most of them--as befits a volume focused on an activist leader like Khrushchev--is a concern with the persistent gap between the leader's ambitions and what "street level" bureaucrats actually delivered. A further striking, and important, theme highlighted by the authors is the degree to which, despite Khrushchev's removal in 1964 and the reversal of many of his high-profile policies, a large number of Khrushchevian innovations were preserved and further developed under Brezhnev. …

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