On March 27, 1958, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev replaces
Nicolay Bulganin as Soviet premier, becoming the first leader since
Joseph Stalin to simultaneously hold the USSR's two top offices.
Khrushchev, born into a Ukrainian peasant family in 1894, worked as a
mine mechanic before joining the Soviet Communist Party in 1918. In
1929, he went to Moscow and steadily rose in the party ranks and in
1938 was made first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. He
became a close associate of Joseph Stalin, the authoritarian leader of
the Soviet Union since 1924. In 1953, Stalin died, and Khrushchev
grappled with Stalin's chosen successor, Georgy Malenkov, for the
position of first secretary of the Communist Party. Khrushchev won the
power struggle, and Malenkov was made premier, a more ceremonial post.
In 1955, Malenkov was replaced by Bulganin, Khrushchev's hand-picked
In 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his totalitarian policies at
the 20th Party Congress, leading to a "thaw" in the USSR that saw the
release of millions of political prisoners. Almost immediately, the
new atmosphere of freedom led to anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland and
Hungary. Khrushchev flew to Poland and negotiated a diplomatic
solution, but the Hungarian rebellion was crushed by Warsaw Pact
troops and tanks.
Khruschev's program of de-Stalinization was opposed by some
hard-liners in the Communist Party, and in June 1957 he was nearly
ousted from his position as first secretary. After a brief struggle,
he secured the removal of Malenkov and the other top party members who
had opposed him and in 1958 prepared to take on the post of premier.
On March 27, 1958, the Supreme Soviet--the Soviet legislature--voted
unanimously to make First Secretary Khrushchev also Soviet premier,
thus formally recognizing him as the undisputed leader of the USSR.
In foreign affairs, Premier Khrushchev's stated policy was one of
"peaceful coexistence" with the West. He said, "we offer the
capitalist countries peaceful competition" and gave the Soviet Union
an early lead in the space race by launching the first Soviet
satellites and cosmonauts. A visit to the United States by Khrushchev
in 1959 was hailed as a new high in U.S.-Soviet relations, but
superpower relations would hit dangerous new lows in the early 1960s.
In 1960, Khrushchev walked out of a long-awaited four-powers summit
over the U-2 affair, and in 1961 he authorized construction of the
Berlin Wall as a drastic solution to the East German question. Then,
in October 1962, the United States and the USSR came close to nuclear
war over the USSR's placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba. After 13
tense days, the Cuban Missile Crisis came to an end when Khrushchev
agreed to withdraw the offensive weapons in exchange for a secret U.S.
pledge not to invade Cuba.
The humiliating resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an
agricultural crisis at home, and the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese
relations over Khrushchev's moderate policies all led to growing
opposition to Khrushchev in the party ranks. On October 14, 1964,
Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev's protege and deputy, organized a
successful coup against him, and Khrushchev abruptly stepped down as
first secretary and premier. He retired to obscurity outside Moscow
and lived there until his death in 1971.