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A Nicer USSR?

Joseph Stalin didn’t mellow in his old age. He got meaner. As the years passed, the United States slowly pulled away from western Europe as America became convinced that the western nations were going to be fine. Stalin, on the other hand, did no such thing in eastern Europe. In fact, as the Cold War wound down, Stalin tightened his grip on the satellite states and at home.

Rather than rewarding his war-torn nation for their valiant efforts against the German invaders, Stalin purged the Soviet Union again. This time the enemy was capitalism. For Stalin, war always loomed as long as capitalism lived. Therefore, he started the labor camps again and purged the Soviets of those who showed an inclination toward the evils of capitalism, western ideas, and Judaism. In the states under his influence, national leaders mirrored Stalin through collectivization of farms, reduction of civil liberties, and attacking unwanted ideologies. The only eastern state that escaped the influence of the Soviet Union was Yugoslavia under Josip Tito (1892-1980). Finally, in 1953, the “man of steel” died, leaving a mess for his successors to sort out.

No More Stalin

Stalin died after suffering an apparent stroke. After dinner with several prominent Communists, Stalin retired to his room and didn’t get up in the morning. Finally, the following evening, guards found him in bad shape in his bed. Rather than rushing medical help to Stalin, the ministers took their time.

Define Your Terms

Cult of personality is a phrase coined by Khrushchev to describe the unnatural praise and worship of an individual who purports to be a liberator or savior; examples include Stalin, Hitler, Tito, Castro, and Saddam Hussein.

Stalin finally died days later.

Some years later, theories surfaced that in fact Stalin had been murdered by one of the ministers. Although there is no way to be sure, it is reasonable to think that the ministers feared falling victim to Stalin’s purges. While Stalin was alive, he created what has become known as a cult of personality. Stalin promoted himself as much or more than he did the Fatherland and communism. Despite his oppression, people worshipped Stalin because of indoctrination and propaganda.

With Stalin out of the way, people finally started to say out loud what many had been thinking for years: things had to change. After his death, there was no clear- cut successor. Rather, a power struggle ensued between the conservative, old-school Communists who wanted to keep things the way they had always been and the reform-minded Communists who recognized that Stalin had done more harm than good for the Soviets. Among those who cried for reform the loudest was Nikita Khrushchev.


After Stalin’s death, the power struggle turned ugly. The reform-minded Communists led by Khrushchev had as their main rival Lavrenty Beria (1899-1953), a rather unsavory fellow with myriad allegations against him. Khrushchev charged him with being on the British intelligence payroll and Beria eventually was tried and executed.

Khrushchev emerged in 1955 as the new leader of the Soviet Union. He went to work right away denouncing Stalin and the cruel form of communism he practiced. Khrushchev’s most famous tirade against Stalin occurred in 1956 at the Twentieth Party Congress. In his speech, Khrushchev shocked the delegates with his indictment of Stalin’s genocide, his torture and execution of loyal Communists, and his failures in both foreign and domestic policy. Khrushchev genuinely wanted to repair the damage that had been done in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, he wanted to undermine the power, authority, and public image of the hard-line Stalinists who opposed him politically. He recruited new party members and placed new members in leadership positions. Khrushchev made economic moves that improved life for the workers and resulted in an improved standard of living.

Khrushchev didn’t stop with domestic policy. He initially wanted to reform the belligerent foreign policy that had left the Soviets isolated from the west. He shocked many within his party when he mentioned the possibility of a peaceful relationship with the west and the hated capitalists. What he meant, though, was that he perceived of the west as rivals rather than enemies. He seemed to change his tune, though, when he told the Western Diplomats in 1956, “We will bury you.” However, his approach to the west remained basically the same. His tirade probably did not mean that the Soviet Union would kill the west but rather that the Soviets would still be around when the west, figuratively speaking, died. Then, in 1961, he gave East Germany his blessings for the construction of the Berlin Wall, a huge concrete wall that separated East and West Berlin.

East Germany began construction on the Berlin Wall, or Die Berliner Mauer, technically without the help of the Soviets. Workers constructed a barbed wire barrier around the three western sectors of Berlin. The barrier actually lay some distance inside East Berlin’s territory so that in 1962 a second barrier could and would be constructed (also still on East Berlin’s territory), creating a “No Man’s Land” or “Death Strip” between the two barriers. Though the Berlin Wall kept East Berliners from entering West Berlin, East Germany claimed the Wall was to protect East Berlin from western aggression; its name was the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall.

Would You Believe?

The U.S.-Soviet relationship took a major hit in 1960 when the Soviets shot down a U.S. U2 spy plane over Soviet air space. The United States claimed that the plane was a NASA research plane, but Khrushchev had the plane, the pilot, the camera, and the film. The United States had been caught red-handed by the Reds.

By the time the Wall was completed in 1975, it stood approximately 10 feet high, more than three feet wide, and about 100 miles long. Bunkers, watchtowers, and armed guards reinforced the concrete wall. The three points through which people could pass from one side to another were Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. During its existence, only about 5,000 people managed to escape to West Berlin. Nearly 200 died trying.

In 1962, Khrushchev played a dangerous game of chicken when he instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis by installing nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the Soviet satellite state just 90 miles from the United States. Khrushchev removed the missiles only after President John F. Kennedy stood his ground and blockaded Cuba. For a few weeks in 1962, the world was eerily close to nuclear disaster. Khrushchev’s foreign policy greatly concerned the party.

Would You Believe?

Khrushchev, famous for his boorish temper and rude interruptions, once banged his shoe on a table during a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

Khrushchev’s kinder, gentler communism, or so his colleagues perceived it, caused quite a stir in the Soviet satellite states as the people there clamored for the relaxation of hard-line communism. This call for more liberal governments resulted in revolution in Hungary in 1956. The conservative Soviets used the Warsaw Pact troops to quickly put an end to liberal ideas in Hungary. Over the next several years, though, Khrushchev continued his policy of De-Stalinization. Conservative Communists couldn’t stomach the thought of liberal ideas creeping into eastern Europe, where the USSR had worked so hard to destroy liberalism.

The Brezhnev Doctrine

The Communist Party had had enough of Khrushchev by the early 1960s, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Party leaders deposed Khrushchev in 1964 and Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) replaced him. The hard-line Communists saw De-Stalinization as a threat to the authoritarian control Communists had always enjoyed.

To make sure they didn’t lose what they had gained, the Communist Party leaders tightened their grip. They quickly ended any talk of domestic reform and instead accentuated the positive of Stalin’s regime. The Soviets, under Brezhnev’s leadership, also began an arms race with the United States to ensure that the Soviet Union never had to back down from the United States again. Foreign policy became aggressively old-school Stalinist. In 1968, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops occupied Czechoslovakia to end the growth of liberal ideas there and put down the bold Czech leader Alexander Dubcek (1921-1992), whose “socialism with a human face” didn’t strike a pleasant chord with the Eastern Bloc.

It was after the invasion of Czechoslovakia that Brezhnev declared the Brezhnev Doctrine. Brezhnev said, the “Communist Party is responsible not only to its own people, but also to all the socialist countries, to the entire Communist movement” and “the implementation of ... ‘self-determination’ ... [thus] Czechoslovakia’s detachment from the socialist community, would have come into conflict with its own vital interests and would have been detrimental to the other socialist states.” In other words, the Soviet Union reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of any Eastern Bloc nation that seemed to be straying from communism. This wasn’t new; the same thing had happened when Stalin intervened on behalf of the Warsaw Pact, but what made the Brezhnev Doctrine special was the unilateral way in which it was intended to be implemented.

As a Matter of Fact

Part of Leonid Brezhnev's cult of personality, not to mention his fascination with himself, manifested itself with a medal fetish. Throughout Brezhnev's career he “received" medals for all sorts of feats, especially for his roles, no matter how minor, in combat. The Soviet Union also bestowed many medals on him for being a Hero of the Soviet Union. The USSR wasn't the only nation to shower Brezhnev with medals. Soviet satellite states like Afghanistan, Laos, Bulgaria, and Romania also presented the aging Brezhnev with medals. At the end of his life, Brezhnev's medal collection numbered well over 100. He wore many of them proudly on his chest for public appearances in order to enhance his public image.


Throughout Brezhnev’s administration, Soviet relations with China worsened, especially after a series of Soviet-Chinese clashes in the 1960s. Despite the conflict in Vietnam, the Chinese relationship with the United States began to improve by 1971. Brezhnev feared a Chinese-American alliance and decided not to be left out in the cold. Brezhnev began a series of negotiations with the United States, and at the beginning of the 1970s, the Cold War truly entered into the period known as détente.

Define Your Terms

Détente is the term used for the reduction of Cold War tensions.

The real sign that détente had arrived was the summit between Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon that resulted in SALT I, or the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, which froze current levels of strategic missiles. The détente continued when the Vietnam War ended in 1973. Though the era of détente culminated in progress in the 1970s, the seeds for such progress had been planted in the 1960s. The Soviet economy wasn’t up to the challenge of the arms race and the space race with the United States. Also, European politicians like West Germany’s Willy Brandt (19131992) worked relentlessly for peace. Brandt moved away from Adenauer’s policy of trading only with the west and looked eastward instead in a policy known as Ostpolitik. Brandt especially wanted to ease political tensions between the east and west, particularly between East and West Germany. Brandt also helped ease tensions when he visited Poland and offered an official apology on behalf of Germany for the atrocities of Nazi Germany. 

Détente continued into the mid-1970s with the SALT II treaty and other diplomatic negotiations between the United States and the USSR. For all the progress made during the 1960s and 1970s, though, détente ended in the late 1970s with the Iran hostage situation and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then, in 1980, the United States elected Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), a popular president bent on ending communism, escalating the arms race, and tearing down the Berlin Wall.

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