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During its 69-year history, the Soviet Union usually had a de facto leader who would not necessarily be head of state but would lead while holding an office such as premier or general secretary. Under the 1977 Constitution, the chairman of the Council of Ministers, or premier, was the head of government and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was the head of state. The office of the chairman of the Council of Ministers was comparable to a prime minister in the First World whereas the office of the chairman of the Presidium was comparable to a president. In the ideology of Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Soviet state was a collegiate body of the vanguard party (as described in What Is To Be Done?).
Following Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1920s, the post of the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party became synonymous with leader of the Soviet Union, because the post controlled both the Communist Party and the Soviet government both indirectly via party membership and via the tradition of a single person holding two highest posts in the party and in the government. The post of the general secretary was abolished in 1952 under Stalin and later re-established by Nikita Khrushchev under the name of the first secretary. In 1966, Leonid Brezhnev reverted the office title to its former name. Being the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the office of the general secretary was the highest in the Soviet Union until 1990. The post of general secretary lacked clear guidelines of succession, so after the death or removal of a Soviet leader the successor usually needed the support of the Political Bureau (Politburo), the Central Committee, or another government or party apparatus to both take and stay in power. The President of the Soviet Union, an office created in March 1990, replaced the general secretary as the highest Soviet political office.
Contemporaneously to the establishment of the office of the president, representatives of the Congress of People's Deputies voted to remove Article 6 from the Soviet constitution which stated that the Soviet Union was a one-party state controlled by the Communist Party which in turn played the leading role in society. This vote weakened the party and its hegemony over the Soviet Union and its people. Upon death, resignation, or removal from office of an incumbent president, the Vice President of the Soviet Union would assume the office, though the Soviet Union dissolved before this was actually tested. After the failed coup in August 1991, the vice president was replaced by an elected member of the State Council of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Lenin was voted the chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union (Sovnarkom) on 30 December 1922 by the Congress of Soviets. At the age of 53, his health declined from the effects of two bullet wounds, later aggravated by three strokes which culminated with his death in 1924. Irrespective of his health status in his final days, Lenin was already losing much of his power to Joseph Stalin. Alexei Rykov succeeded Lenin as chairman of the Sovnarkom and although he was de jure the most powerful person in the country, in fact, all power was concentrated in the hands of the "troika" - the union of three influential party figures: Grigory Zinoviev, Joseph Stalin, and Lev Kamenev. Stalin continued to increase his influence in the party, and by the end of the 1920s, he became the sole dictator of the USSR, defeating all his political opponents. The post of general secretary of the party, which was held by Stalin, became the most important post in the Soviet hierarchy
Stalin's early policies pushed for rapid industrialisation, nationalisation of private industry and the collectivisation of private plots created under Lenin's New Economic Policy. As leader of the Politburo, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power by 1938 after the Great Purge, a series of campaigns of political murder, repression and persecution. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, but by December the Soviet Army managed to stop the attack just shy of Moscow. On Stalin's orders, the Soviet Union launched a counter-attack on Nazi Germany which finally succeeded in 1945. Stalin died in March 1953 and his death triggered a power struggle in which Nikita Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious against Georgy Malenkov.
Khrushchev denounced Stalin on two occasions, first in 1956 and then in 1962. His policy of de-Stalinisation earned him many enemies within the party, especially from old Stalinist appointees. Many saw this approach as destructive and destabilizing. A group known as Anti-Party Group tried to oust Khrushchev from office in 1957, but it failed. As Khrushchev grew older, his erratic behavior became worse, usually making decisions without discussing or confirming them with the Politburo. Leonid Brezhnev, a close companion of Khrushchev, was elected the first secretary the same day of Khrushchev's removal from power. Alexei Kosygin became the new premier and Anastas Mikoyan kept his office as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. On the orders of the Politburo, Mikoyan was forced to retire in 1965, and Nikolai Podgorny took over the office of chairman of the Presidium. The Soviet Union in the post-Khrushchev 1960s was governed by a collective leadership. Henry A. Kissinger, the American National Security Advisor, mistakenly believed that Kosygin was the leader of the Soviet Union and that he was at the helm of Soviet foreign policy because he represented the Soviet Union at the 1967 Glassboro Summit Conference. The "Era of Stagnation", a derogatory term coined by Mikhail Gorbachev, was a period marked by low socio-economic efficiency in the country and a gerontocracy ruling the country. Yuri Andropov (aged 68 at the time) succeeded Brezhnev in his post as general secretary in 1982. In 1983, Andropov was hospitalized and rarely met up at work to chair the politburo meetings due to his declining health. Nikolai Tikhonov usually chaired the meetings in his place. Following Andropov's death fifteen months after his appointment, an even older leader, 72-year-old Konstantin Chernenko, was elected to the general secretariat. His rule lasted for little more than a year until his death thirteen months later on 10 March 1985.
At the age of 54, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to the general secretariat by Politburo on 11 March 1985. In May 1985, Gorbachev publicly admitted the slowing down of the economic development and inadequate living standards, being the first Soviet leader to do so while also beginning a series of fundamental reforms. From 1986 to around 1988, he dismantled central planning, allowed state enterprises to set their own outputs, enabled private investment in businesses not previously permitted to be privately owned, and allowed foreign investment, among other measures. He also opened up the management of and decision-making within the Soviet Union and allowed greater public discussion and criticism, along with the warming of relationships with the West. These twin policies were known as perestroika (literally meaning "reconstruction", though it varies) and glasnost ("openness" and "transparency"), respectively. The dismantling of the principal defining features of Soviet communism in 1988 and 1989 in the Soviet Union led to the unintended consequence of the Soviet Union breaking up after the failed August 1991 coup led by Gennady Yanayev.
List of leaders
Note: that † denotes leaders who died in office.
|30 December 1922
21 January 1924†
|Chairman of Sovnarkom||Himself||Mikhail Kalinin||Leninism|
• Russian Civil War (1917–23)
• War communism (1918–21)
• New Economic Policy (1921–28)
|Ever since the Bolsheviks' inception, Lenin had served as their de facto leader. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin became leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) from 1917 and leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1922 until his death.|
|21 January 1924
5 March 1953†
|General Secretary of the Communist Party
Chairman of the
Council of Ministers
• Socialism in one country
• Collectivization (1928–40)
• Forced industrialization (1929–41)
• Great Terror (1936–38)
|Following the death of Lenin, Stalin initially ruled as part of a troika alongside Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev.  However, by April 1925, this arrangement broke down as Stalin consolidated power to become the Soviet Union's absolute dictator. He also held the post of the Minister of Defence from 19 July 1941 to 3 March 1947 and chaired the State Defense Committee during World War II.|
|5 March 1953
14 September 1953
|—||Chairman of the
Council of Ministers
|After Stalin's death, Malenkov ruled as part of a troika alongside Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov, succeeding Stalin in all his titles, but was forced to resign most of them within a month by the Politburo. The troika would ultimately break down when Beria was arrested later that year.  Shortly thereafter, he found himself locked in a power struggle against Nikita Khrushchev that led to his removal as Premier in 1955.|
|14 September 1953
14 October 1964
|First Secretary of the
• De-Stalinization (1956–64)
• Anti-religious campaign (1958–64)
• Sino-Soviet split (1956–66)
|In September 1953, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as leader of the Soviet Union upon becoming the First Secretary of the Communist Party. He consolidated his power further after becoming Chairman of the Council of Ministers on 27 March 1958. While he was vacationing in Abkhazia, Khrushchev was called by Leonid Brezhnev to return to Moscow for a special meeting of the Presidium to be held on 13 October 1964. At the most fiery session since the so-called "anti-party group" crisis of 1957, he was fired from all his posts but was publicly allowed to retire for reasons of "advanced age and ill health."|
|14 October 1964
10 November 1982†
|General Secretary of the Communist Party||Alexei Kosygin
|Era of Stagnation|
• Collective leadership
• Kosygin reforms (1965–70)
• Brezhnev Doctrine (1968–81)
• Cold War détente (1969–79)
• 1973 economic reform
• 1979 economic reform
|In October 1964, Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Despite being the head of the nation's ruling Party, he initially led the Soviet Union as part of a troika alongside Premier Alexei Kosygin and Presidium Chairman Nikolai Podgorny. However, by the 1970s, Brezhnev consolidated power to become the regime's undisputed leader. In 1977, Brezhnev officially replaced Podgorny as Chairman of the Presidium. At his death in 1982, he received a state funeral.|
|10 November 1982
9 February 1984†
|—||General Secretary of the Communist Party||Nikolai Tikhonov||Himself|
|General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium from 16 June 1983 to 9 February 1984.|
|9 February 1984
10 March 1985†
|—||General Secretary of the Communist Party||Nikolai Tikhonov||Himself|
|General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium from 11 April 1984 to 10 March 1985. Due to his health, he initially ruled as part of a troika alongside Andrei Gromyko and Dmitry Ustinov. However, this arrangement broke down when Ustinov died a few months later.|
|10 March 1985
25 December 1991
General Secretary of the Communist Party
• New political thinking
• 500 Days program (planned)
|Served as General Secretary from 11 March 1985 and resigned on 24 August 1991,[b] Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1 October 1988 until the office was renamed to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25 May 1989 to 15 March 1990 and President of the Soviet Union from 15 March 1990 to 25 December 1991. The day following Gorbachev's resignation as president, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. Gorbachev was the only head of the USSR to have been born during its existence.|
List of troikas
On four occasions—the 2–3-year period between Vladimir Lenin's incapacitation and Joseph Stalin's leadership; the three months following Stalin's death; the interval between Nikita Khrushchev's fall and Leonid Brezhnev's consolidation of power; and the ailing Konstantin Chernenko's tenure as General Secretary—the Soviet Union was governed by a council known as a troika (i.e."triumvirate"), whereby policymaking depended on the consensus of three chief figures within the Politburo.
|When Vladimir Lenin suffered his first stroke in May 1922, a troika was formed to temporarily rule in his place consisting of Deputy Premier Lev Kamenev, General Secretary Joseph Stalin and Comintern Chairman Grigory Zinoviev. In March 1923, the three assumed permanent control over the country after Lenin suffered another stroke leaving him unable to govern. However, by April 1925, the triumvirate broke up due to Kamenev's and Zinoviev's opposition to Stalin's "Socialism in One Country" policy. After Stalin consolidated power in the 1930s, Kamenev and Zinoviev were ultimately murdered in the Great Purge.|
|13 March 1953
26 June 1953
|After Stalin's death on 5 March 1953, a troika assumed power consisting of Council of Ministers Chairman Georgy Malenkov, Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. It dissolved after Beria was arrested and dismissed from the leadership on 26 June 1953. Thereafter, a power struggle ensued between Malenkov and the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, that ended decisively in the latter's favor by 1955.|
|14 October 1964
16 June 1977
|Upon Khrushchev's ouster in 1964, he was replaced by a troika comprising Leonid Brezhnev as First/General Secretary, Alexei Kosygin as Premier and CC Secretary Nikolai Podgorny who went on to become Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1965. However, as Brezhnev increasingly consolidated power, the triumvirate's effectiveness as a guarantor of collective leadership steadily declined. It was ultimately dissolved in 1977 after Brezhnev took Podgorny's place as head of state.|
|13 February 1984
20 December 1984
|Despite succeeding Yuri Andropov as the nominal leader of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Chernenko was unable to consolidate power due to his poor health and lack of popularity among the party elite. This resulted in the formation of a troika representing the Soviet leadership's "Old Guard" that included Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov alongside Chernenko. This arrangement lasted until Ustinov's death in December 1984 which made way for Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in March 1985.|
- Index of Soviet Union-related articles
- List of heads of state of the Soviet Union
- List of presidents of the Russian Federation
- Premier of the Soviet Union
- President of Russia
- As a revolutionary, then as leader of Soviet Russia.
- On 14 March 1990, the provision on the CPSU monopoly on power was removed from Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR. Thus, in the Soviet Union, a multi-party system was officially allowed and the CPSU ceased to be part of the state apparatus.
- Armstrong 1986, p. 169.
- Armstrong 1986, p. 165.
- Armstrong 1986, p. 98.
- Armstrong 1986, p. 93.
- Ginsburgs, Ajani & van den Berg 1989, p. 500.
- Armstrong 1986, p. 22.
- Brown 1996, p. 195.
- Brown 1996, p. 196.
- Brown 1996, p. 275.
- Gorbachev, M. (5 September 1991). ЗАКОН Об органах государственной власти и управления Союза ССР в переходный период [Law Regarding State Governing Bodies of the USSR in Transition] (in Russian). Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Retrieved 2015-07-14.
- Lenin 1920, p. 516.
- Clark 1988, p. 373.
- Brown 2009, p. 59.
- Brown 2009, p. 62.
- Brown 2009, p. 63.
- Brown 2009, p. 72.
- Brown 2009, p. 90.
- Brown 2009, p. 148.
- Brown 2009, p. 194.
- Brown 2009, pp. 231–33.
- Brown 2009, p. 246.
- Service 2009, p. 378.
- Brown 2009, p. 402.
- Bacon & Sandle 2002, p. 13.
- Brown 2009, p. 403.
- Brown 2009, p. 398.
- Zemtsov 1989, p. 146.
- Brown 2009, p. 481.
- Brown 2009, p. 487.
- Brown 2009, p. 489.
- Brown 2009, p. 503.
- Brown 2009, p. 53.
- Sakwa 1999, pp. 140–143.
- Service 2009, p. 323.
- Service 2009, pp. 231–32.
- Green & Reeves 1993, p. 196.
- Service 2009, p. 331.
- Service 2009, p. 332.
- Marlowe 2005, p. 140.
- Cook 2001, p. 163.
- Taubman 2003, p. 258.
- Hill 1993, p. 61.
- Service 2009, p. 377.
- Service 2009, p. 426.
- Service 2009, p. 428.
- Service 2009, p. 433.
- Paxton 2004, p. 234.
- Service 2009, p. 434.
- Europa Publications Limited 2004, p. 302.
- Paxton 2004, p. 235.
- Service 2009, p. 435.
- Paxton 2004, p. 237.
- Service 2009, p. 503.
- Paxton 2004, p. 236.
- "Указ Президента СССР от 25.12.1991 N УП-3162 "О сложении Президентом СССР полномочий Верховного Главнокомандующего Вооруженными Силами СССР и упразднении Совета обороны при Президенте СССР"".
- Gorbachev 1996, p. 771.
- Saxon, Wolfgang (12 March 1984). "Succession In Moscow: Siberian Peasant Who Won Power; Konstantin Chernenko, A Brezhnev Protege, Led Brief Regime". The New York Times.
- Tinggaard & Svendsen 2009, p. 460.
- Reim 2002, pp. 18–19.
- Rappaport 1999, pp. 141 & 326.
- Rappaport 1999, p. 140.
- Rappaport 1999, p. 325.
- Andrew & Gordievsky 1990, pp. 423–24.
- Bacon & Sandle 2002, pp. 13–14.
- Service 2015, p. 105.
- Kenez 1999, p. 244.
- Mitchell 1990, pp. 121–122.
- Bialer 1986, p. 105.
- Thatcher, Gary (24 December 1984). "Moscow's 'Safe Choice' Kremlin Reaffirms Preference for Seasoned Officials by Naming Sokolov to Top Soviet Defense Post". The Christian Science Monitor.
- Zemtsov 1989, p. 184.
- Zemtsov 1989, p. 185.
- Andrew, Christopher; Gordievsky, Oleg (1990). KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0060166052.
- Armstrong, John Alexander (1986). Ideology, Politics, and Government in the Soviet Union: An Introduction. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0819154057.
- Brown, Archie (1996). The Gorbachev Factor. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-827344-8.
- Brown, Archie (2009). The Rise & Fall of Communism. Bodley Head. ISBN 978-0061138799.
- Bacon, Edwin; Sandle, Mark (2002). Brezhnev Reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0333794630.
- Bialer, Seweryn (1986). The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. ISBN 1-85043-030-6.
- Baylis, Thomas A. (1989). Governing by Committee: Collegial Leadership in Advanced Societies. State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0-88706-944-4.
- Cook, Bernard (2001). Europe since 1945: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0815313366.
- Clark, William (1988). Lenin: The Man Behind the Mask. Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0571154609.
- Duiker, William; Spielvogel, Jackson (2006). The Essential World History. Cengage Learning. p. 572. ISBN 978-0495902270.
- Europa Publications Limited (2004). Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. Routledge. ISBN 978-1857431872.
- Figes, Orlando (2014). Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History. New York City, NY: Henry Holt & Company, LLC. ISBN 978-0-8050-9131-1.
- Ginsburgs, George; Ajani, Gianmaria & van den Berg, Gerard Peter (1989). Soviet Administrative Law: Theory and Policy. Brill Publishers. ISBN 978-0792302889.
- Gorbachev, Mikhail (1996). Memoirs. University of Michigan: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0385480192.
- Green, William C.; Reeves, W. Robert (1993). The Soviet Military Encyclopedia: P–Z. University of Michigan: Westview Press. ISBN 978-0813314310.
- Gregory, Paul (2004). The Political Economy of Stalinism: Evidence from the Soviet Secret Archives. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521533676.
- Hill, Kenneth (1993). Cold War chronology: Soviet–American relations, 1945–1991. University of Michigan: Congressional Quarterly. ISBN 978-0871879219.
- Kenez, Peter (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31198-5.
- Lenin, Vladimir (1920). Collected Works. Vol. 31. p. 516.
- Marlowe, Lynn Elizabeth (2005). GED Social Studies. Research and Education Association. ISBN 978-0738601274.
- Mitchell, R. Judson (1990). Getting to the Top in the USSR: Cyclical Patterns in the Leadership Succession Process. Hoover Institution Press. ISBN 0-8179-8921-8.
- Paxton, John (2004). Leaders of Russia and the Soviet Union: from the Romanov dynasty to Vladimir Putin. CRC Press. ISBN 978-1579581329.
- Phillips, Steven (2000). Lenin and the Russian Revolution. Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-32719-4.
- Rappaport, Helen (1999). Joseph Stalin: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1576070840.
- Reim, Melanie (2002). The Stalinist Empire. Twenty-first Century Books. ISBN 978-0-7613-2558-1.
- Sakwa, Richard (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, 1917–1991. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-12290-0.
- Service, Robert (2009). History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 978-0674034938.
- Service, Robert (2005). Stalin: A Biography. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674016972.
- Service, Robert (2015). The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991 (1st ed.). New York: Public Affairs. ISBN 978-1610394994.
- Taubman, William (2003). Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393051445.
- Tinggaard Svendsen, Gert; Svendsen, Gunnar Lind Haase (2009). Handbook of Social Capital: The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics. Edward Elgar Publishing. ISBN 978-1845423230.
- Zemtsov, Ilya (1989). Chernenko: The Last Bolshevik: The Soviet Union on the Eve of Perestroika. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0887382604.
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- Succession of Power in the USSR from the Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
- Heads of State and Government of the Soviet Union (1922–1991)