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USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots


The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, its relations with other countries and the factors that have determined its collapse.

URSS 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

6. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

7. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

The onset of the Cold War and the de facto split of Germany into two zones of influence were marked by a brief period of Stalin's dominance at the helm of the Soviet colossus. However, a few years after the first Berlin crisis, the Soviet Union's leadership was transferred to another Communist Party figure: Nikita Khrushchev.

Figure 1. A soldier of the Soviet Army cutting the chains of the capitalism [Image] - Red Avantgard
Figure 1. A soldier of the Soviet Army cutting the chains of the capitalism [Image] - Red Avantgard

The Politburo chose Nikita Khrushchev as party secretary in 1953, which constituted a watershed moment (Chamberlin, 1943). Khrushchev saw the necessity to transform the Soviet Union and repudiate Stalin's terror system. Khrushchev's chief adversaries in this reform attempt were the Orthodox, who had been firm defenders of Stalin. During the CPSU's 20th congress in 1956, Khrushchev released a confidential report condemning all of Stalin's crimes. It came as a surprise to a considerable portion of the communist world, particularly those outside the Soviet Union (Ibidem). In foreign policy, the new secretary proposed peaceful coexistence: the Soviet Union and the United States could coexist and talk. The first thaw of the Cold War was thus described as peaceful coexistence.

Khrushchev travelled extensively outside of the Soviet Union, including a trip to the United States. He was usually light-hearted and intelligent. Khrushchev's moves in foreign policy were meant to foster the development of the Soviet Union, which had a massive economic and social gap with the United States. There was a general softening of the climate of dread that had marked Stalin's reign. Khrushchev, on the other hand, made challenging promises: in his speeches, he stated that the Soviets would have a higher quality of life than the Americans in ten years, pushed the development of light industry, and strove to minimise the military budget. He also pledged more freedom of expression and the liberation of political prisoners. This sparked high hopes among the Soviet Union and its satellite republics, but these hopes were mostly dashed (Kenez, 1999).

Figure 2. Nikita Khrushchev during a speech in the soviet Duma [Photo] - Britannica
Figure 2. Nikita Khrushchev during a speech in the soviet Duma [Photo] - Britannica

With the 1955 Warsaw Pact constitution in reaction to NATO, Khrushchev's political actions put opponents in a precarious political and military position. Khrushchev's policy was to announce new areas in which to compete with the United States, resulting in a competitive cohabitation (Ibidem). He shifted the competition to other world systems, with a fundamentally different point of view than Stalin. Khrushchev was interested in the new countries that developed as a result of decolonization, new contexts in which Communist supremacy could be asserted. In practice, these principles were established at the Communist Party's XX Congress, which was the outcome of this resolution of the security crisis and the notion that a new strategy could be dared.

When discussing national highways in February 1956, Khrushchev adopted the slogan "New ways of Communism". This slogan was not a libertarian policy in Europe: socialism was already present and had to be safeguarded; the USSR had to reach up to the world and demonstrate to new countries the existence of a path other than that of Europe. The USSR used every means possible to achieve this goal. In addition to domestic issues, Khrushchev's report addressed Stalin's demise. Khrushchev emphasised all of his points of action when he presented his report to the Communist Party Congress (Tucker, 1957).

Figure 2: Dismantled statue of Stalin, Budapest, 1956 [Photo]. Taken by Ferdinando Scianna, Magnum Photos.

The statements of Khrushchev's report were misconstrued in Eastern Europe, resulting in the emergence of two movements in Hungary and Poland, two different countries yet united by the Catholic Church (Ibidem). Hungary was a defeated country that had been an ally of Nazi Germany throughout WWII, seeking a fantasy of national reunification; Poland, on the other hand, was a winning country that had been attacked, saved, and allied by the Anglo-Americans (Granville, 2001). The development of the Eastern bloc and the relationship with the USSR ensured Poland's rebuilt political-territorial planning, so the Germans could not assault it again to reclaim the regions seized from it. In 1956, Poland's principal adversary was merely the Federal Republic of Germany, which had been rearmed within NATO in 1955, implying that the West supported German revisionism in temporary administration territory (Ibidem).

The re-emergence of personalities such as Gomulka, who represented communist nationalists and had fought the resistance, energised the Polish question rather than the resurgence of anti-communist parties. Gomulka did not aim to carry out a revolution, but he was elected secretary of the Polish Communist Party by the central committee. Gomulka welcomed the communist system by asserting his own uniqueness, Polish nationalism, to the point where the first revolutionary deed consisted in the annihilation of all Russian power manifestations in Poland.

The Polish crisis was an internal communist issue that sought to reshape relations between Poland as a sovereign state and the USSR (Ibidem). Clearly alarmed at first, the USSR began to prepare for a military conflict with Poland. Gomulka also sent a military unit to deal with the possibility of a Soviet onslaught. However, Khrushchev recognised the complexity of the Polish phenomena as well as the potential Hungarian anti-communist phenomenon, realising that the route of discussion and negotiation with Gomulka could be adopted. Poland refused to alter its political and military alliances, let alone abandon the communist economic model (Ibidem).

Figure 3. Hungarian revolution in 1956 [Photo] - Kafkadesk
Figure 3. Hungarian revolution in 1956 [Photo] - Kafkadesk

The Hungarian uprising was quite different. It was a very different country after the Soviet occupation, the implications of its alliance with Nazi Germany, and the signing of a peace deal. So, in terms of international politics, Hungary was just as dissatisfied as it had been after the Trianon Treaty in 1920 (Ibidem). In the aftermath of the Polish protest, opponents resurfaced in Hungary, led by communist Imre Nagy, leader of the attempt to liberate the USSR, who had two goals: to open the country to multi-party political competition and to depart the Warsaw Pact, dissolving the military relationship with the USSR. On these two topics, the USSR saw that Nagy's government was not the same as Gomulka's, and that it was necessary to act (Ibidem). This decision was endorsed not only by Khrushchev, but also by the international communist movement. The USSR, in fact, was driven to interfere in Hungary not just by communist officials from the Eastern bloc countries, who feared the virus might spread to their own countries, but also by Western communist leaders like Palmiro Togliatti (Ibidem).

The USSR entered the country for the first time on October 24, withdrew on October 31, and then accelerated the final intervention as Soviet leaders were following the Suez crisis, as a signal to the world that the USSR was interested in decolonising the future of a world that was decolonising itself from Western imperialism. The repression of the Hungarian revolt was swift: Nagy was executed and replaced by Kadar. At this point, the Soviets were finally free to pursue Khrushchev's policy of dynamism and expansion of socialism on the world stage, firstly by demonstrating how the USSR protected the world that had been decolonized during the Suez crisis (Sony, 1998).

Figure 3. Soldiers talking with West Berliners while building the Wall [Photo] - Wired
Figure 3. Soldiers talking with West Berliners while building the Wall [Photo] - Wired

Khrushchev succeeded Bulganin as Prime Minister of the Soviet Union in March 1958, gaining control of the country's principal offices. At the international level, his détente policy, inspired by the principle of competitive coexistence between Communist and Western countries, was reflected for instance in his first visit to the United States as a Soviet premier in September 1959, and in his two meetings with American presidents D.D. Eisenhower and J.F. Kennedy - Camp David in 1959 and Vienna in 1961. The policy of peaceful coexistence, on the other hand, aroused the distrust of the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, which launched a campaign against Khrushchev's "revisionism" in 1960, to which Khrushchev responded by withdrawing Soviet technicians from China (Sakwa, 1999); it came to an end in 1964, when it reached extreme peaks.

Meanwhile, the summit discussions with US Presidents should have resulted in a resolution to the Berlin issue. However, on the eve of the second session of talks, an American spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, prompting the Soviet leader to construct the famed wall which divided the city in two on August 9, 1961. At the XXII Congress of the CPSU in October, the USSR's president started "de-Stalinization," advocating, among other things, the abandoning of the name "Stalingrad" and the relocation of Stalin's body from Lenin's Mausoleum to another location (Suny, 1998). Another severe crisis in US-USSR ties arose in 1962, as a result of the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba in reaction to the construction of NATO missile stations in Turkey. The "red line," which permitted direct talks between Moscow and Washington, settled the Cuban crisis. The Cuban missile crisis represented the culmination of a tense period in US-Soviet ties: it was also the closest the world has ever been to global nuclear war.

With this background, after being accused of significant errors of adventurism and extreme personalism in political and economic directions, Khrushchev was removed from government and party office in October 1964, leaving the leadership of the USSR and the Cold War in the hands of his successor.



  • Chamberlin, W. H. (1983). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9.

  • Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition

  • Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

  • Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press

  • Tucker, R. C. (1957). The Politics of Soviet De-Stalinization. World Politics, 9(4), 550–578.

  • Granville, J. (2001). Hungarian and Polish Reactions to the Events of 1956: New Archival Evidence. Europe-Asia Studies, 53(7), 1051–1076.

Image references


Author Photo

Federica Panico

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