This article is going to review the role former Russian leaders played in the Soviet Union starting around the turn of the 20th Century. We're going to divide these leaders into two groups, those that were considered Communist leaders, and those that held the title: President of Russia.
Americans have always been intrigued with Russia and its political leaders, especially during and after the years of the Cold War. However, many never studied Russian history in school, or completely understood the events that unfolded over the last 100 years. In this two part series, we'll run down the list of the leaders starting with Vladimir Lenin and ending with Vladimir Putin.
Even if someone doesn't agree with the political ideology of a government, it's still possible to learn from their leaders and the history of their countries. At the turn of the century, the Soviet Union's economy was based on agriculture. The strong desire of its people and leaders to become a world superpower, and achieving that goal, is a testament to the perseverance and focus of that nation.
Born in 1870, Lenin's greatest contributions were his roles as a Russian revolutionary, the leader of the Bolshevik party, and the first Premier of the Soviet Union. He was the founder of the ideology of Leninism, which was later expanded into Marxism-Leninism by Joseph Stalin.
In 1917, Lenin was elected as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars by the Russian Soviet Congress. At the time, the Soviet Union was faced with the threat of a German invasion. Lenin argued that Russia should sign a peace treaty; however, other Bolshevik leaders advocated continuing the war. As Germany launched their invasion, much of Russia's western territory was lost. This turn of events bolstered Lenin's popularity, and he gained the support of the Bolshevik leadership. Russia eventually signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918.
In August 1918, Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party attempted to assassinate Lenin. He eventually recovered from the three bullet wounds he sustained, though his health and political power declined from that point forward. Lenin was paralyzed on his right side after suffering a second stroke in December 1918.
Joseph Stalin became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922, following the death of Lenin. Stalin's policies and leadership, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology, are often considered the foundation of a political and economic system called Stalinism.
Under Stalin's rule, the Soviet Union was transformed from a nation based on agriculture to a global superpower. The industrialization of USSR was successful, and critical, to defeat the Axis invasion of World War II.
While it is certain that Stalin's social and economic policies laid the foundations for Russia's emergence as a superpower, the harshness in which this transformation took place was later repudiated by his successors in the Communist Party leadership. This became clear with the denunciation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. Stalin is generally thought to be directly, or indirectly, responsible for the death of millions of Russians.
According to Khrushchev, Stalin frequently engaged in all night partying. On March 1, 1953, after an all-night dinner, Stalin collapsed, suffering a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. He died four days later, on March 5, 1953, at the age of 73.
Khrushchev was First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964. During World War II, Khrushchev served as a political leader with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant General.
Khrushchev was generally regarded by his political enemies in the Soviet Union as an ill-mannered, uncivilized peasant, with a reputation for interrupting speakers just to insult them. Throughout the world, and within Russia, he was considered a leader with a bad temper.
In his Secret Speech, Khrushchev denounced Stalin for his cult of personality, and his regime for violating the norms of Leninist theory. Khrushchev was responsible for establishing the Warsaw Pact - an alliance between Eastern Europe and Eastern Block countries that felt threatened by NATO.
Khrushchev was also responsible for putting forth the doctrine of "Peaceful co-existence" into foreign policy, accompanied by the slogan "To catch up and overtake the West." He led the way for the Soviet space program that launched Sputnik I and Yuri Gagarin into space. He played an important role in the deployment of missiles in Cuba, which led to the Cuban missile crisis. He was also responsible for the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Leonid Brezhnev remained outwardly loyal to Khrushchev, but in 1963 he became involved in a plot to remove Khrushchev from power. In that same year, Brezhnev was named Secretary of the Central Committee, making him the likely successor to Khrushchev. In October 1964, while Khrushchev was on vacation, Brezhnev and his conspirators removed Khrushchev from office.
Under Brezhnev rule, relations with China continued to deteriorate. In 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops even fought a series of clashes along their border. Brezhnev supported the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, and in January 1969, a Soviet Army officer tried to assassinate Brezhnev.
The highlight of the Brezhnev's reign was the easing of tensions or "detente" era, and the signing of the Helsinki Act in 1975; which recognized the postwar frontiers in Eastern and Central Europe, and effectively legitimized Soviet domination over the region.
During the 1970s, the Soviet Union reached the peak of its strategic and world power due to the fact the SALT I treaty established parity in nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States. The Soviet Union extended its political influence in the Middle East and Africa. It also successfully intervened in the 1975 civil war in Angola.
The last years of Brezhnev's rule were marked by a growing personality cult, albeit different from Stalin's. The Brezhnev cult was generally seen as cynical, gaining strength with an absence of fear. His unfortunate legacy to his successors was the decision to intervene in Afghanistan in 1979. This maneuver resulted in the sudden close of the detente years, and the subsequent grain embargo of the United States. Brezhnev died of a heart attack in November 1982.
Yuri Andropov was a Soviet politician, and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from November 1982 until his untimely death just sixteen months later.
During his rule, Andropov made attempts to improve the economy and reduce political corruption. He initiated campaigns against alcohol, and struggled to increase work discipline amongst the people of Russia. Unfortunately, these campaigns were carried out using an approach that was reminiscent of Joseph Stalin's strong-handed reign.
Andropov made little progress in foreign policy as the war continued in Afghanistan. His rule was also marked by the weakening of relations with the United States. Cold War tensions were made worse by the downing of a civilian jet liner by Soviet fighters in September of 1983. Later, the United States deployed Pershing missiles in Europe in response to the Soviet deployments.
One of his most notable acts was responding to a letter from an American child named Samantha Smith, and inviting her to the Soviet Union. Smith later became known as a peace activist. After several months of failing health, Andropov died of kidney failure in February of 1984.
Konstantin Chernenko was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and led that country from February of 1984 until his death thirteen months later. Chernenko's rule represented a return to the hard-line policies of Brezhnev. He supported a larger role for the unions, pushed for reform in education, and wanted to trim bureaucracy. Unfortunately, he also escalated the Cold War with the United States.
Chernenko's poor health made him an ineffective governor of Russia. He was frequently absent from office, and his reign is generally viewed as an interim measure; while the long term struggle between conservatives and reformers continued.
Surprisingly, Chernenko's short time in office brought about some pretty significant policy changes. Chernenko gave much greater emphasis to public opinion. He used the resources of his country to invest in consumer goods, services, and agriculture.
Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered for his attempts at political and social reform that led to the end of the Cold War, and inadvertently closed the book on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
He tried to move the Communist Party, and the economy, by introducing glasnost (or openness), perestroika (or restructuring), and uskorenie (or the acceleration of economic development). The Law on Cooperatives, enacted in 1987, was the most extreme of the economic reforms - enabling private ownership of businesses in services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade.
The introduction of glasnost gave the people of Russia the freedom of speech. The news was now less controlled, and political prisoners were released. In 1987, Gorbachev called for the introduction of democratic elements into the Soviet Union's political process.
Gorbachev also sought to improve political relations and trade with the West. Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met in Iceland, which eventually led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987. In early 1989, Gorbachev completed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan.
The loosening of Soviet control over Eastern Europe effectively ended the Cold War, and Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. The democratization of the USSR stripped away the power of the Communist Party and Gorbachev. Yeltsin was elected as president of Russia in June 1991, and Gorbachev was forced to resign on December 25, 1991 as the USSR disintegrated.
Our next article in this series will pick up where this one leaves off, and continue with Russian Presidential Leaders.
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