Under the 1977 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Chairman of the Council of Ministers 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 in the First World.[2] In the Soviet Union's seventy-year history there was no official leader of the Soviet Union office, but during most of that era there was a de facto top leader who usually led the country through the office of the Premier or the office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). 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 CPSU and the Soviet Government.[3] 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,[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 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 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 collapsed before this was actually tested.[9] After the failed August 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 USSR (Sovnarkom) on 30 December 1922 by the Congress of Soviets.[11] His health, at the age of 53, 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 Stalin.[13] Alexei Rykov succeeded Lenin as Chairman of the Sovnarkom, and although he was de jure the most powerful person in the country, the Politburo of the Communist Party began to overshadow the Sovnarkom in the mid-1920s. By the end of the decade, Rykov merely rubber stamped the decisions predetermined by Stalin and the Politburo.[14]

Stalin's early policies pushed for rapid industrialisation, nationalisation of private industry[15] and the collectivisation of private plots created under Lenin's New Economic Policy.[16] As leader of the Politburo, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power by 1938 after the Great Purge, a series of campaigns of political repression and persecution.[17] Nazi German troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941,[18] but were repulsed by the Soviets in December. On Stalin's orders, the USSR launched a counter-attack on Nazi Germany.[19] Stalin died in March 1953,[20] his death triggered a power struggle in which Nikita Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious against Georgy Malenkov.[21]

Khrushchev denounced Stalin on two occasions: in 1956 and 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, but failed, to oust Khrushchev from office in 1957.[22] As Khrushchev grew older, his erratic behavior became worse, usually making decisions without discussing or confirming them with the Politburo.[23] 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. In 1965, on the orders of the Politburo, Mikoyan was forced to retire; Nikolai Podgorny took over the office of Chairman of the Presidium.[24] The USSR in the post-Khrushchev 1960s was governed by a collective leadership.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev in his post as General Secretary in 1982. He was 68 years old at the time. 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.[28] Following Andropov's death 15 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 13 months later on 10 March 1985.[29]

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to the General Secretariat by the Politburo on 11 March 1985.[30] He was 54 years old at the time. 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, and began 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", but varies) and glasnost ("openness" and "transparency") respectively.[31] The dismantling of the principal defining features of communism in 1988 and 1989 in the Soviet Union led to the unintended consequence of the Soviet Union breaking up after the failed August Coup of 1991 led by Gennady Yanayev.[32]

List of leaders

The following list includes only those persons who were able to gather enough support from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the government, or one of these to lead the Soviet Union. † denotes leaders who died in office.

Portrait Period Congress Notes
Vladimir Lenin
Lenin CL Colour.jpg 30 December 1922[33]

21 January 1924†[13]
11th12th Congress Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom) and informal leader of the Bolsheviks since their inception.[33] Was 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.[34]
Joseph Stalin
Stalin office.jpg 21 January 1924[13]

5 March 1953†[35]
13th19th Congress General Secretary from 3 April 1922 until the post of General Secretary was abolished in October 1952.[36][incomplete short citation] Stalin initially ruled as part of a Triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, until this broke down in April 1925. Stalin served as Premier from 6 May 1941 until his death on 5 March 1953.[35] Stalin also held the post of the Minister of Defence from 19 July 1941 until 3 March 1947 and Chairman of the State Defense Committee during the Great Patriotic War[37] and became the only officer to hold the office of People's Commissar of Nationalities from 1921–1923.[38]
Georgy Malenkov
A man in a shirt with dark, curly hair 5 March 1953[39][40]

8 February 1955[41]
19th Congress Succeeded to all of Stalin's titles, but was forced to resign most of them within a month.[42] Malenkov, through the office of Premier, was locked in a power struggle against Khrushchev.[43]
Nikita Khrushchev
An elderly bald man in a suit, with several medals pinned on it 8 February 1955[44]

14 October 1964[45]
20th22nd Congress Served as the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Soviet Union (from September 1953) and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 27 March 1958 to 14 October 1964. While 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. There, at the most fiery session since the so-called "anti-party group" crisis of 1957, he was fired from all his posts. He was largely left in peace in retirement, but was made a "non-person" to the extent that his name was removed even from the thirty-volume Soviet Encyclopedia.[46] He died in 1971. He was seen overseas as a reformer of a "petrified structure"[47][incomplete short citation] and described his main contribution as removing the fear that Stalin had brought,[48] but many of his reforms were later reversed.
Leonid Brezhnev
A man with dark, wavy hair in a suit, applauding 14 October 1964[45]

10 November 1982†[49]
23rd26th Congress Served as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was later renamed General Secretary,[23] and was co-equal with premier Alexei Kosygin until the 1970s. To consolidate his power he later assumed the title of Chairman of the Presidium.[24]
Yuri Andropov
A man in a suit wearing glasses 12 November 1982[50]

9 February 1984†[51]
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[26] and Chairman of the Presidium from 16 June 1983 until 9 February 1984.[52]
Konstantin Chernenko
(de jure)
Konstantin Chernenko.gif 13 February 1984[53]

10 March 1985†
General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party[54] and Chairman of the Presidium from 11 April 1984 to 10 March 1985.[55]
Mikhail Gorbachev
RIAN archive 359290 Mikhail Gorbachev.jpg As Gen. Secretary:
11 March 1985[23]

19 August 1991[57]
As President:
21 August 1991[23]

25 December 1991[57]
27th28th Congress Served as General Secretary from 11 March 1985,[55] and resigned on 24 August 1991,[58] Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1 October[54] 1988 until the office was renamed to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25 May 1989 to 15 March 1990[55] and President of the Soviet Union from 15 March 1990[59] to 25 December 1991.[60] The day following Gorbachev's resignation as President, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.[57]
Gennady Yanayev
Gennady Yanayev.jpg 19 August 1991

21 August 1991
Tried to seize power during the 2 days of the failed 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt, with the State Committee on the State of Emergency.

List of troikas

On four occasions—the 2–3 year period following Lenin's incapacitation that preceded Stalin's dictatorship; the 3 months immediately following Stalin's death; the interval between Khrushchev's fall and Leonid Brezhnev's consolidation of power; and the ailing Chernenko's tenure as General Secretary—a form of collective leadership known as the troika ("triumvirate")[61] governed the Soviet Union, with no single individual holding leadership alone.[24][40][62]

Tenure Notes
Kamenev1922.jpg Stalin Full Image.jpg A man in a dark suit, light shirt and a tie, looking right "at you"
May 1922[63]

April 1925[64]
When Vladimir Lenin suffered his first stroke in May 1922, a Troika was established to govern the country in his place, although Lenin briefly returned to the leadership from 2 October 1922 until a severe stroke on 9 March 1923 ended Lenin's political career. The Troika consisted of Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin, and Grigory Zinoviev. The Troika broke up in April 1925, when Kamenev and Zinoviev found themselves in a minority over their belief that socialism could only be achieved internationally. Zinoviev and Kamenev joined forces with Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition in early 1926.[64] Later, Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky would all be murdered on Stalin's orders.
Lev Kamenev
Joseph Stalin
Grigory Zinoviev
Lavrenty Beria.jpg A man in a shirt with dark, curly hair A man in a dark suit, light shirt and dark tie, smiling
13 March 1953[40]

26 June 1953[67]
This Troika consisted of Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, and Vyacheslav Molotov[68] and ended when Malenkov and Molotov joined Nikita Khrushchev in the arrest and execution of Beria.[44]
Lavrentiy Beria
Georgy Malenkov
Vyacheslav Molotov
A man with greying hair, in military uniform with five medals =A man in a dark suit, seated, in discussion with someone to his left Nicolai Podgorny(cropped) (1).jpg
14 October 1964[45]

16 June 1977[24]
Following Khruschev's ouster, a Troika took power consisting of Leonid Brezhnev as First Secretary, Alexei Kosygin as Premier and Nikolai Podgorny who ultimately ascended to the post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. During Brezhnev's gradual consolidation of power, the Troika was "dissolved" when he succeeded Podgorny in 1977 as Presidium chairman.[24] However, the collective leadership continued to exist in a different shape after Podgorny's ouster in the Party leadership throughout the rest of Brezhnev's rule.[69]
Leonid Brezhnev
Alexei Kosygin
Nikolai Podgorny
Konstantin Chernenko.gif Andrei Gromyko 1972.jpg Il ministro della Difesa dell'Unione Sovietica (1976-1984) Dmitrij F. Ustinov (cropped).jpg
13 February 1984[70]

20 December 1984[71]
Despite succeeding Yuri Andropov as General Secretary , Konstantin Chernenko was unable to secure full control over its apparatus due to his poor health[72] and lack of a mandate from the nomenklatura.[73] These circumstances resulted in a collective leadership giving Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov a monopoly over the USSR's foreign policy and military[74] while leaving Chernenko in control of the nation's domestic policy [75]. From this point forward, these three figures dominated Politburo decision-making until Ustinov's death in December 1984.
Konstantin Chernenko
Andrei Gromyko
(1909–1989) [76]
Dmitry Ustinov
(1908–1984) [77]


# Leaders Date of birth Age at ascension
(first term)
Time in office
Age at retirement
(last term)
Date of death Longevity
1 Lenin, VladimirVladimir Lenin 18700422April 22, 1870(April 22, 1870) 52 25252 years, 252 days 01 0221 years, 22 days 53 27453 years, 274 days 19240121January 21, 1924 19,63153 years, 274 days
2 Stalin, JosephJoseph Stalin 18781218December 18, 1878(December 18, 1878) 45 03445 years, 34 days 29 04329 years, 43 days 74 07774 years, 77 days 19530305March 5, 1953 27,10574 years, 77 days
3 Malenkov, GeorgyGeorgy Malenkov 19020108January 8, 1902(January 8, 1902) 51 05651 years, 56 days 01 3401 years, 340 days 53 03153 years, 31 days 19880114January 14, 1988 31,41786 years, 6 days
4 Khrushchev, NikitaNikita Khrushchev 18940415April 15, 1894(April 15, 1894) 60 29960 years, 299 days 09 2499 years, 249 days 70 18270 years, 182 days 19710911September 11, 1971 28,27277 years, 149 days
5 Brezhnev, LeonidLeonid Brezhnev 19061219December 19, 1906(December 19, 1906) 57 30057 years, 300 days 18 02718 years, 27 days 75 32675 years, 326 days 19821110November 10, 1982 27,72075 years, 326 days
6 Andropov, YuriYuri Andropov 19140615June 15, 1914(June 15, 1914) 68 15068 years, 150 days 01 0891 years, 89 days 69 23969 years, 239 days 19840209February 9, 1984 25,44169 years, 239 days
7 Chernenko, KonstantinKonstantin Chernenko 19110924September 24, 1911(September 24, 1911) 72 14272 years, 142 days 01 0261 years, 26 days 73 16773 years, 167 days 19850310March 10, 1985 26,83173 years, 167 days
8 Gorbachev, MikhailMikhail Gorbachev 19310302March 2, 1931(March 2, 1931) 54 00954 years, 9 days 06 2876 years, 287 days 60 29860 years, 298 days Living 31,81187 years, 34 days (Living)
9 Yanayev, GennadyGennady Yanayev 19370826August 26, 1937(August 26, 1937) 53 35853 years, 358 days 00 0020 years, 2 days 53 36053 years, 360 days 20100924September 24, 2010 26,69273 years, 29 days

See also


  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. ^ Gregory 2004, pp. 58–59.
  15. ^ Brown 2009, p. 62.
  16. ^ Brown 2009, p. 63.
  17. ^ Brown 2009, p. 72.
  18. ^ Brown 2009, p. 90.
  19. ^ Brown 2009, p. 148.
  20. ^ Brown 2009, p. 194.
  21. ^ Brown 2009, pp. 231–33.
  22. ^ Brown 2009, p. 246.
  23. ^ a b c d Service 2009, p. 378.
  24. ^ a b c d e Brown 2009, p. 402.
  25. ^ Bacon & Sandle 2002, p. 13.
  26. ^ a b Brown 2009, p. 403.
  27. ^ Brown 2009, p. 398.
  28. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 146.
  29. ^ Brown 2009, p. 481.
  30. ^ Brown 2009, p. 487.
  31. ^ Brown 2009, p. 489.
  32. ^ Brown 2009, p. 503.
  33. ^ a b c Brown 2009, p. 53.
  34. ^ Sakwa 1999, pp. 140–143.
  35. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 323.
  36. ^ Service 1986, pp. 231–32.
  37. ^ Green & Reeves 1993, p. 196.
  38. ^ Service 2005, p. 154.
  39. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 331.
  40. ^ a b c d e f Service 2009, p. 332.
  41. ^ Duiker & Spielvogel 2006, p. 572.
  42. ^ Cook 2001, p. 163.
  43. ^ Hill 1993, p. 61.
  44. ^ a b c Taubman 2003, p. 258.
  45. ^ a b c d e f g Service 2009, p. 377.
  46. ^ Service 2009, p. 376.
  47. ^ Schwartz 1971.
  48. ^ Taubman 2003, p. 13.
  49. ^ Service 2009, p. 426.
  50. ^ a b Service 2009, p. 428.
  51. ^ Service 2009, p. 433.
  52. ^ Paxton 2004, p. 234.
  53. ^ a b c Service 2009, p. 434.
  54. ^ a b Europa Publications Limited 2004, p. 302.
  55. ^ a b c Paxton 2004, p. 235.
  56. ^ Service 2009, p. 435.
  57. ^ a b c Gorbachev 1996, p. 771.
  58. ^ Service 2009, p. 503.
  59. ^ Paxton 2004, p. 236.
  60. ^ Paxton 2004, p. 237.
  61. ^ Tinggaard & Svendsen 2009, p. 460.
  62. ^ Anderson, Annelise & Anderson, Martin. Reagan's Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster., First Edition, Crown Publishers, New York, 2009, p. 156-57
  63. ^ Reim 2002, pp. 18–19.
  64. ^ a b Rappaport 1999, pp. 141 & 326.
  65. ^ Rappaport 1999, p. 140.
  66. ^ Rappaport 1999, p. 325.
  67. ^ Andrew & Gordievsky 1990, pp. 423–24.
  68. ^ Marlowe 2005, p. 140.
  69. ^ Baylis 1989, p. 98.
  70. ^ Service, Robert. The End of the Cold War:1985-1991., First Edition, Public Affairs, New York, 2015, p.105
  71. ^ 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
  72. ^ Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union From the Beginning to the End. , Cambridge University Press, New York, 1999, p. 244
  73. ^ Mitchell, R. Judson. Getting to the Top jn the USSR: Cyclical Patterns in the Leadership Succession Process. First Edition, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1990, p.121-22
  74. ^ Zubok, V.M.A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin To Gorbachev, Second Edition, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2002, p. 276
  75. ^ Bialer, Seweryn. The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London, 1986 , p. 105.
  76. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 184.
  77. ^ Zemtsov 1989, p. 185.


External links