Policies of Soviet Leaders (A-Levels Cold War)

Written by Aaron

This is a frustrating topic in the course. The CIE syllabus technically wants you to learn the policies of Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev. But realistically, the focus is going to be mainly on Khrushchev.

You can safely ignore this next section (though it might help you understand what’s going on). The section on Beria and Malenkov can be skimmed as well — it’s unlikely they’ll ask an obscure question on either leader, but it doesn’t hurt to know the basics. Your main focus is Khrushchev.

Background Information You Don’t Really Need to Know

Stalin dies in March 1953. A power struggle ensues.

First in line to power is Georgy Malenkov. He becomes the Premier of the Soviet Union and the First Secretary of the Communist Party. This means he’s head of the USSR and head of the Communist Party that rules the USSR. Confusing stuff, but hang on.

His close buddy is Lavrentiy Beria, who is the First Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union. He’s basically the deputy leader of the USSR, and he’s very powerful. So powerful, that he may even overtake Malenkov in power and influence.

But the Presidium of the Central Committee (it’s like a body of important Soviet officials) doesn’t want Malenkov to have the same power as Stalin did, so they tell him to step down as First Secretary of the Communist Party after merely a week in that role. Nikita Khrushchev takes up the role as First Secretary.

So now, Malenkov is First Premier, but Khrushchev is heading the Communist Party.

Khrushchev manages to get Beria executed in December 1953 — other Soviet officials are cautious of Beria and his radical policies, so it’s not too surprising this happens. Khrushchev and Malenkov then vie for influence. From 1953 to 1955, the USSR is a sort of dual-leadership under Malenkov-Khrushchev, with Khrushchev outdoing Malenkov.

Malenkov finally is forced to resign in 1955. He attempts a coup in 1957, but this fails.

Khrushchev steps down in 1964, ceding power to Leonid Brezhnev who rules till 1982.

Lavrentiy Beria

Who was he: First Deputy Premier of the USSR + Malenkov’s right hand man. Super powerful.

What happens to him: Get executed with some prodding from Khrushchev.

Key policy ideas:

1) Willing to allow Germany to unify in exchange for massive aid from USA — policy was rejected and called anti-communist by Khrushchev.

2) Wanted to free millions of political prisoners — policy was accepted.

3) Wanted to devolve more power to Estonia, Lithuania & Latvia (make them autonomous, like a Soviet satellite state).

In general, Beria’s approach can be characterised as wanting financial resources the USA could offer, and taking a more relaxed approach to Soviet authoritarianism.

Georgy Malenkov

Who was he: Stalin’s direct successor / Premier of the USSR.

What happens to him: Loses influence to Khrushchev, then resigns in 1955.

Key policy ideas:

1. Staunch Stalinist.

2. Opposed research into nuclear arms; afraid of nuclear destruction.

3. New Course policy: move towards producing consumer goods + raising living standards. Previously Soviet economy was geared on investment in heavy industry / producer goods.

In general, Malenkov wanted to avoid confrontation with the West and pursue the New Course instead. He believed that capitalism will inevitably crumble by itself — the USSR just needs to do its own thing.

The Main Focus Here: Nikita Khrushchev

“There are only two ways: either peaceful coexistence or the most destructive war in history. There is no third way” 
-Khrushchev, 1956.

There are three characterising features of Khrushchev:

1. His policy of Peaceful Coexistence: the USSR neither gives in to the West nor pursues confrontation with it. Each side has it’s own spheres of influence, they try to somewhat cooperate.

2. Pursuit of nuclear arms: unlike Malenkov, Khrushchev ramps up the USSR’s nuclear arsenal (see: Arms Race Timeline), and even goes as far as to attempt to place missiles on Cuba. Is this Peaceful Coexistence, or Peaceful Competition?

3. Erratic-ness: This is a common area of debate. Was Khrushchev consistent with his policies? Was he rational? At times, he tends to do a lot of things that are counter to his supposed policy of Peaceful Coexistence.

The above three features provide some idea of Khrushchev as a leader, but to truly break his leadership down, let’s go over a few areas of discussion:

Why did he pursue Peaceful Coexistence?

1. He could continue Stalin’s policy of aggressively spreading communism. That would solidify his authority in the USSR, but may risk war. This has low risk of losing personal authority, but high risk of war.

2. He could give in to the USA and open up the USSR. But he’s seen what happened to radicals like Beria who try to warm up to the USA too much — they get overthrown and killed by hardliners within the party. This has zero risk of war, but high risk of losing personal authority.

3. The middle ground — Peaceful Coexistence — allows him to appease both the hardliners in the Communist Party while also averting a war.

Did he really seek Peaceful Coexistence?

This is another way of asking was he consistent/rational? 

You’ll want to see the timeline for the Thaw: read here.


1955 – Participated in the Geneva Summits
1955 – Lifted Soviet veto on admission of 16 new UN members
1955 – Supported the Austrian State Treaty
1955 – Withdrew military bases from Finland
1956 – Condemned Stalin
1959 – Engaged in Kitchen Debates with Nixon
1959 – First Soviet premier to visit USA


1955 – Established Warsaw Pact (but in response to West Germany joining NATO)
1956 – Crushed the Hungarian Uprising (read more)
1958 – Called an ultimatum for the West to leave Berlin
1961 – Erected the Berlin Wall
1962 – Tried to put missiles on Cuba

Key takeaways:

1. Rather than merely arguing by listing examples from both sides, try to draw out patterns from the above two lists.

2. One pattern you could argue is that everything on the Yes list did not come at the expense of the USSR’s actual influence or power. It was convenient diplomacy. But when threatened, for example when West Germany joined NATO, Khrushchev would retaliate (creating the Warsaw Pact in this case). Other examples include crushing the Hungarian Uprising (when Imre Nagy pulled out of the Warsaw Pact), or building the Berlin Wall because Easter Berliners were running to the West.

3. Another pattern is that Khrushchev became increasingly sour in the 1960s. If you had read the guide to the Thaw you would know that the U-2 spy plane incident occurred in 1960. This could be the source of Khrushchev’s bitterness, leading to the failed Vienna Summit and the building of the Berlin Wall.

4. Or you could argue he was merely exploiting the fact that the USA had a new leader. Kennedy took over in 1961, and it would be the perfect time to size him up.

5. You could even argue that Khrushchev didn’t care too much for Peaceful Coexistence at all. He was merely being strategic — if putting missiles on Cuba would give him leverage to get rid of missiles the USA placed in Turkey/Italy, so be it.