The Communist Party lacked rules for decision-making and even titles sometimes had little meaning. There were few rules and when there were rules they were often not followed. Personalities were generally of greater importance than policies. Seniority also seems to be important with former leaders and party elders often wielding their power behind the scenes. Things always tend to get interesting before People's Congress, where leaders were anointed and the results of backroom maneuvering were on display.

Communist politics was characterized by backroom deals, alliance building, maneuvering against rivals, power shifts among individuals and alliances, compromises among enemies, and purges. Much of what went on was murky and occured behind the scenes. Much of what occured in public seemed only to be an affirmation of what had occurred in secret. Ian Buruma wrote on Project Syndicate: “Everything takes place out of sight. Because leaders cannot be ousted through elections, other means must be found to resolve political conflicts. Sometimes, that entails deliberate public spectacles.” [Source: Ian Buruma, Project Syndicate, May 4, 2012]

Understanding the intricate workings of a government was difficult, especially in Communist Party countries, where information related to leadership and decision making was often kept secret. In examining the workings of a nation's foreign policy, at least three dimensions could be discerned: the structure of the organizations involved, the nature of the decision-making process, and the ways in which policy was implemented. These three dimensions were interrelated, and the processes of formulating and carrying out policy were often more complex than the structure of organizations would indicate. [Source: Library of Congress]

A great deal of time was taken up by sitting through lengthy meetings which accomplished little and sifting through lengthy documents and paperwork that were largely waste time. A top heavy approach to decision making required layers of approval before a decision was made. Government workers were not elected and often felt little pressure to respond to public concerns.

Choosing New Leaders

There were no set rules on how leaders were selected or how long leaders they could serve. The decision-making process behind choosing leaders was very secretive and subject to abrupt changes, and rarely went smoothly. Often the leader who was on the way out anointed another leader before he went. The anointed leaders often did not survive. Often there was a transition period as the old leader was phased out and potential successors jockied for position and phased in, followed by a power struggle once the old leader died. Historian Richard Pipes wrote that “one reached the top through conspiracy and by concealing one's aspirations to power. The population at large had as much influence in events as the chorus in a Greek drama."

Leaders seemed to be picked in behind-the-scenes horse-trading session of which few details were known to outsiders. Decisions were worked out before they were brought before the legislature where they were approved in carefully scripted legislative elections. Pie Minxon, a Princeton University professor, told the Washington Post, "Leaders were chosen because of their personal connections and relationships with their superiors, or on their technical training or background."

Fang Lizhi wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The top leaders in the Communist system were selected through processes of competition among elite interest groups and had little to do with Chinese people who were outside those circles. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the leaders who rise to the top were focused intensely on the political and economic interests of the power elite. We cannot expect that leaders selected in this way will feel concern for ordinary people. The internal promotion process was considered highly secret, though analysts say the leadership goes to great lengths to avoid uncertainty and seeks to anoint successors long in advance to minimize political infighting in the one-party state. [Source: Michael Wine, New York Times, October 18, 2010]

Power Struggle After Lenin

Lenin failed to name a successor. The power struggle for the leadership of the Soviet Union began after he suffered his first stroke. Before the died, Lenin warned against Joseph Stalin as his successor and probably would have been successful in ousting him if he had not been incapacitated by the strokes. In his last will—issued in December 1924 and known as "Lenin's Statement”— Lenis said: "I propose to the comrades to find some way of removing Stalin from his position and appointing somebody else who differs in all respects...someone more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate to his comrades, less capricious."

But Lenin became temporarily incapacitated after the stroke in May 1922, the unity of the Politburo fractured, and a troika (triumvirate) formed by Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigoriy Zinov'yev assumed leadership in opposition to Trotsky. Lenin recovered late in 1922 and found fault with the troika, and particularly with Stalin. In Lenin's view, Stalin had used coercion to force non-Russian republics to join the Soviet Union, he was uncouth, and he was accumulating too much power through his office of general secretary. Although Lenin recommended that Stalin be removed from that position, the Politburo decided not to take action, and Stalin still was in office when Lenin died in January 1924.

After Lenin's death, Alexsei Rykov (executed 1938) and V.M Molotov were technically the leaders of the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin, was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Leon Trotsky was the Minister of War. Power in the party and the soviets was concentrated in the three-man triumverant of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, with Stalin calling the shots. As party secretary Stalin controlled appointees and used the position to install people loyal to him and launched a drive to enlist new Communist party members, diluting the power of Trotsky and other rivals.

Stalin Becomes Leader of the Soviet Union

Debate over the future of the economy provided the background for Soviet leaders to contend for power in the years after Lenin's death in 1924. After an initial period of confusion and experimentation and by gradually consolidating his influence and isolating his rivals within the party, the Soviet Union came under the control of Stalin in 1927. Stalin became the sole leader of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1920s. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

After Lenin's death, two conflicting schools of thought about the future of the Soviet Union arose in party debates. Left-wing communists believed that world revolution was essential to the survival of socialism in the economically backward Soviet Union. In contrast to these militant communists, the right wing of the party, recognizing that world revolution was unlikely in the immediate future, favored the gradual development of the Soviet Union through continuation of pragmatic programs like the NEP. Yet even Bukharin, one of the major right-wing theoreticians, believed that socialism could not triumph in the Soviet Union without assistance from more economically advanced socialist countries.

Against this backdrop of contrasting perceptions of the Soviet future, the leading figures of the All-Union Communist Party competed for influence. The Kamenev-Zinov'yev-Stalin troika, although it supported the militant international program, successfully maneuvered against Trotsky. Stalin’s theory of "socialism in one country"—calling for construction of a socialist society in the Soviet Union regardless of the international situation—distanced Stalin from the left and won support from Bukharin and the party's right wing. With this support, Stalin ousted the leaders of the "Left Opposition" from their positions in 1926 and 1927 and forced Trotsky into exile in 1928. As the NEP era ended, open debate within the party became increasingly limited as Stalin gradually eliminated his opponents.

Struggle for Power After Stalin’s Death

After Stalin died in March 1953, Communist party leaders announced that the Soviet Union would be ruled by a committee headed first by Georgi M. Malenkov. At the time Khrushchev seemed like a minor member of the committee. A few days after the committee was created Malenkov "voluntarily" resigned the key post as secretary of the party but kept the title of premier.

Stalin died without naming an heir, and none of his associates had the power to make an immediate claim to supreme leadership. In the absence of an acceptable successor, Stalin's closest associates opted to rule the Soviet Union jointly, although a struggle for power took place behind the facade of collective leadership.

At first Stalin’s colleagues tried to rule jointly, with Malenkov holding the top position of prime minister. The first challenge to this arrangement occurred in 1953, when Lavrenti Beria plotted a coup. Beria was the powerful the head of Stalin's secret police and the NKVD (precursor of the KGB) and a driving force behind the Stalin-era purges, foreign intelligence, gulags and the Soviet nuclear weapons programs. While Beria was honorary chairman of Dynamo Moscow, he had players on rival teams sent to Siberia.

But Beria had made many enemies during his bloody term as security chief, and was arrested and executed by order of the Presidium. His death reduced the inordinate power of the secret police, although the party's strict control over the state security organs ended only with the demise of the Soviet Union itself. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Khrushchev Seizes Power

The power struggle lasted for four years. Khrushchev became a contender for the Communist party leadership after Beria’s execution. After the elimination of Beria, the succession struggle became more subtle. Malenkov found a formidable rival in Khrushchev, whom the Presidium elected first secretary (Stalin's title of general secretary was abolished after his death) in September 1953.

Taubman wrote: “like Stalin in the 20s,”Khrushchev “identified his cause with the Communist apparatus...and made and betrayed allies.” He eliminated his rivals one by one. In some cases he discredited rivals for colluded with Stalin while ignoring his own role.

Khrushchev is thought have played a key role in the purge of Beria. In an episode the resembled a scene from a spaghetti Western, Khrushchev supporters burst into a meeting with their weapons drawn to arrest Beria. Khrushchev was there. He carried a revolver in his pocket in case Beria pointed a gun at him. Beria was arrested in June 1953 and executed in December along with many of his supporters. Khrushchev took the title first secretary of the Communist party shortly after that.

Later he forced Malenkov to resign in February 1955. After that Khrushchev was the uncontested leader of the Soviet Union. The rivalry between Malenkov and Khrushchev manifested itself publicly in the contrast between Malenkov's support for increased production of consumer goods and Khrushchev's stand-pat backing for continued development of heavy industry. After a poor showing by light industry and agriculture, Malenkov resigned as prime minister in February 1955. Because the new prime minister, Nikolay Bulganin, had little influence or real power, the departure of Malenkov made Khrushchev the most important figure within the collective leadership. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Gorbachev’s Rise to Leader of the Soviet Union

Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985 after Chernenko's death. He was 54 when he took office and served six years as General Secretary of the Communist Party (March 1985- August 1991). In his memoirs, Gorbachev offered no information on how he managed to land the position of Secretary General. Gorbachev replaced Andrei Gromyko as president of the Soviet Union on October 1, 1988.

Gorbachev was regarded as youthful leader that was going to help revitalize the Communist party. After taking office he replaced many Brezhnev-era hardliners with younger people and launched a campaign to reform the economy and the political system. Once describing himself as a "confirmed Leninist," Gorbachev relied on KGB support to secure his political base and to carry out his reforms.

Gorbachev rose through the Communist system while remaining a closet dissident. In his time, the Communist Party was the only avenue for real advancement and he was able to rise by winning over superiors and stifling his true feelings. After becoming the first party secretary in Stavropol he was sent to Moscow and promoted to Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture. Raisa won a job as a lecturer in philosophy at Moscow University.

Gorbachev rose into the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy with the help of his patron, Yuri Andropov, the longtime head of the KGB. In his memoirs, Gorbachev described their relationship as distant and formal. Gorbachev helped Brezhnev and other aging party elite by helping them clarify their thoughts and make themselves presentable. Gorbachev wrote in Time: “With Chernenko so feeble and ill, it was I who had to preside over the Politburo session throughout most of his tenure. Thus it fell to me to convene the emergency session at his death.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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