During its sixty-nine-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[1] and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was the head of state.[2] The office of the chairman of the Council of Ministers was comparable to a prime minister in the First World[1] whereas the office of the chairman of the Presidium was comparable to a president.[2] In the ideology of Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Soviet state was a collegiate body of the vanguard party (see What Is To Be Done?).

Following Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1920s,[3] the post of the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party became synonymous with leader of the Soviet Union,[4] because the post controlled both the Communist Party and the Soviet government[3] 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 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,[5] the office of the general secretary was the highest in the Soviet Union until 1990.[6][incomplete short citation] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] After the failed August 1991 coup, the vice president was replaced by an elected member of the State Council of the Soviet Union.[10]


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.[11] At the age of 53, his health declined from effects of two bullet wounds, later aggravated by three strokes which culminated with his death in 1924.[12] Irrespective of his health status in his final days, Lenin was already losing much of his power to Joseph Stalin.[13] 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[14] and the collectivisation of private plots created under Lenin's New Economic Policy.[15] 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.[16] Nazi German troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941,[17] 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.[18] Stalin died in March 1953[19] and his death triggered a power struggle in which Nikita Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious against Georgy Malenkov.[20]

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 destabilising. A group known as Anti-Party Group tried to oust Khrushchev from office in 1957, but it failed.[21] As Khrushchev grew older, his erratic behavior became worse, usually making decisions without discussing or confirming them with the Politburo.[22] Leonid Brezhnev, a close companion of Khrushchev, was elected 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.[23] The Soviet Union in the post-Khrushchev 1960s was governed by a collective leadership.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] Yuri Andropov (aged 68 at the time) succeeded Brezhnev in his post as general secretary in 1982. In 1983, Andropov was hospitalised 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.[27] 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.[28]

At the age of 54, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to the general secretariat by the Politburo on 11 March 1985.[29] 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 a 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.[30] 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.[31]

List of leaders

The following list includes persons who held the top leadership position of the Soviet Union from its founding in 1922 until its 1991 dissolution. Note that † denotes leaders who died in office.

Portrait Period Congress(es) Notes Political office Policies Heads of government Heads of state
Vladimir Lenin
30 December 1922[32]

21 January 1924[13]
Ever since the Bolsheviks' inception, Lenin had served as their de facto leader.[32] 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.[33] Chairman of Sovnarkom Leninism
Russian Civil War (1917–23)
War communism (1918–21)
New Economic Policy (1921–28)
Himself Mikhail Kalinin
Joseph Stalin
21 January 1924[13]

5 March 1953[34]
Following the death of Lenin, Stalin initially ruled as part of a troika alongside Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. [35][incomplete short citation][34] 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.[36] General Secretary of the Communist Party
Socialism in one country
Collectivization (1928–40)
Forced industrialization (1929–41)
Great Terror (1936–38)
Alexei Rykov

Vyacheslav Molotov


Mikhail Kalinin

Nikolay Shvernik

Georgy Malenkov
5 March 1953[37][38]

14 September 1953
After Stalin's death, Malenkov succeeded him in all his titles but was forced to resign most of them within a month by the Politburo.[39] Shortly thereafter, he found himself locked in a power struggle against Nikita Khrushchev that led to his removal as Premier in 1955.[40] Chairman of the
Council of Ministers
Himself Nikolay Shvernik

Kliment Voroshilov

Nikita Khrushchev
14 September 1953

14 October 1964[42]
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." First Secretary of the
Communist Party
Khrushchev Thaw
De-Stalinization (1956–64)
Anti-religious campaign (1958–64)
Sino-Soviet split (1956–66)
Georgy Malenkov

Nikolai Bulganin


Kliment Voroshilov

Leonid Brezhnev

Anastas Mikoyan

Leonid Brezhnev
14 October 1964[42]

10 November 1982[43]
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.[23] At his death in 1982, he received a state funeral. General Secretary of the Communist Party Era of Stagnation
Collective leadership
Kosygin reforms (1965–70)
Brezhnev Doctrine (1968–81)
Cold War détente (1969–79)
1973 economic reform
1979 economic reform
Alexei Kosygin

Nikolai Tikhonov

Anastas Mikoyan

Nikolai Podgorny


Yuri Andropov
File:Yuri Andropov - Soviet Life, August 1983.jpg 10 November 1982[44]

9 February 1984[45]
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[25] and Chairman of the Presidium from 16 June 1983 to 9 February 1984.[46] Nikolai Tikhonov Himself
Konstantin Chernenko
File:Konstantin Chernenko (cropped).jpg 9 February 1984[47]

10 March 1985
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[48] and Chairman of the Presidium from 11 April 1984 to 10 March 1985.[49] Nikolai Tikhonov Himself
Mikhail Gorbachev
(born 1931)[50]
10 March 1985[22]

25 December 1991[51]
Served as General Secretary from 11 March 1985[49] and resigned on 24 August 1991,[52][53] Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1 October[48] 1988 until the office was renamed to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25 May 1989 to 15 March 1990[49] and President of the Soviet Union from 15 March 1990[54] to 25 December 1991.[55][51] The day following Gorbachev's resignation as president, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.[56] President
New political thinking
500 Days program (planned)
Nikolai Tikhonov

Nikolai Ryzhkov

Valentin Pavlov

Ivan Silayev

Andrei Gromyko


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;[38] the interval between Nikita Khrushchev's fall and Leonid Brezhnev's consolidation of power;[23] and the ailing Konstantin Chernenko's tenure as General Secretary[57]—the Soviet Union was governed by an oligarchy known as a troika (i.e."triumvirate"),[58] whereby policymaking depended on the consensus of three chief figures within the Politburo.

Tenure Notes
May 1922[59]

April 1925[60]
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.



A man in a shirt with dark, curly hair A man in a dark suit, light shirt and dark tie, smiling 13 March 1953[38]

26 June 1953[63]
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.[64] It dissolved after Beria was arrested and dismissed from the leadership on 26 June 1953.[41] 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[42]

16 June 1977[23]
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.[65] It was ultimately dissolved in 1977 after Brezhnev took Podgorny's place as head of state.[23]



File:Konstantin Chernenko (cropped).jpg 13 February 1984[66]

20 December 1984
Despite succeeding Yuri Andropov as the nominal leader of the Soviet Union, Chernenko was unable to consolidate power due to his poor health[67] and lack of popularity among the party elite.[68] This resulted in the formation of a troika representing the Soviet leadership's "Old Guard" comprising Chernenko as well as Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.[69][70] This arrangement lasted until Ustinov's death in December 1984 which made way for Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in March 1985.




See also


  1. ^ As a revolutionary, then as leader of the Soviet Russia.



  1. ^ a b Armstrong 1986, p. 169.
  2. ^ a b Armstrong 1986, p. 165.
  3. ^ a b Armstrong 1986, p. 98.
  4. ^ Armstrong 1986, p. 93.
  5. ^ Ginsburgs, Ajani & van den Berg 1989, p. 500.
  6. ^ Armstrong 1989, p. 22.
  7. ^ Brown 1996, p. 195.
  8. ^ Brown 1996, p. 196.
  9. ^ Brown 1996, p. 275.
  10. ^ 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 14 July 2015.
  11. ^ Lenin 1920, p. 516.
  12. ^ Clark 1988, p. 373.
  13. ^ a b c d e Brown 2009, p. 59.
  14. ^ Brown 2009, p. 62.
  15. ^ Brown 2009, p. 63.
  16. ^ Brown 2009, p. 72.
  17. ^ Brown 2009, p. 90.
  18. ^ Brown 2009, p. 148.
  19. ^ Brown 2009, p. 194.
  20. ^ Brown 2009, pp. 231–33.
  21. ^ Brown 2009, p. 246.
  22. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 378.
  23. ^ a b c d e Brown 2009, p. 402.
  24. ^ Bacon & Sandle 2002, p. 13.
  25. ^ a b Brown 2009, p. 403.
  26. ^ Brown 2009, p. 398.
  27. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 146.
  28. ^ Brown 2009, p. 481.
  29. ^ Brown 2009, p. 487.
  30. ^ Brown 2009, p. 489.
  31. ^ Brown 2009, p. 503.
  32. ^ a b c Brown 2009, p. 53.
  33. ^ Sakwa 1999, pp. 140–143.
  34. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 323.
  35. ^ Service 1986, pp. 231–32.
  36. ^ Green & Reeves 1993, p. 196.
  37. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 331.
  38. ^ a b c d e f Service 2009, p. 332.
  39. ^ Cook 2001, p. 163.
  40. ^ Hill 1993, p. 61.
  41. ^ a b Taubman 2003, p. 258.
  42. ^ a b c d e f g Service 2009, p. 377.
  43. ^ Service 2009, p. 426.
  44. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 428.
  45. ^ Service 2009, p. 433.
  46. ^ Paxton 2004, p. 234.
  47. ^ a b c Service 2009, p. 434.
  48. ^ a b Europa Publications Limited 2004, p. 302.
  49. ^ a b c Paxton 2004, p. 235.
  50. ^ Service 2009, p. 435.
  51. ^ a b Paxton 2004, p. 237.
  52. ^ Service 2009, p. 503.
  53. ^ 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.
  54. ^ Paxton 2004, p. 236.
  55. ^ "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"".
  56. ^ Gorbachev 1996, p. 771.
  57. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang Succession In Moscow: Siberian Peasant Who Won Power; Konstantin Chernenko, A Brezhnev Protege, Led Brief Regime. The New York Times, New York, 1984-03-12
  58. ^ Tinggaard & Svendsen 2009, p. 460.
  59. ^ Reim 2002, pp. 18–19.
  60. ^ Rappaport 1999, pp. 141 & 326.
  61. ^ Rappaport 1999, p. 140.
  62. ^ Rappaport 1999, p. 325.
  63. ^ Andrew & Gordievsky 1990, pp. 423–24.
  64. ^ Marlowe 2005, p. 140.
  65. ^ Bacon & Sandle 2002, pp. 13–14.
  66. ^ Service, Robert. The End of the Cold War:1985-1991., First Edition, Public Affairs, New York, 2015, p.105
  67. ^ Kenez 1999, p. 244.
  68. ^ Mitchell 1990, pp. 121–122.
  69. ^ Bialer 1986, p. 105.
  70. ^ Thatcher, Gary. "Moscow's 'Safe Choice' Kremlin Reaffirms Preference for Seasoned Officials by Naming Sokolov to Top Soviet Defense Post". The Christian Science Monitor. 1984-12-24.
  71. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 184.
  72. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 185.