Why was Nikita Khrushchev deposed as the leader of the USSR

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Nikita Khrushchev during World War II

Nikita Khrushchev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev served as a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, and as a Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 1958 to 1964.

Remarkably in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was forced to leave his post. The Party leadership comprises a special “troika” representatives (Alexey Kosygin, Leonid Brezhnev, and Anastas Mikoyan) deposed Khrushchev. Eventually, Brezhnev assumed the central role among the three. Under his rule, the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence to include Southeast Asia, Africa, parts of Central America, and the Caribbean.

Why was Khrushchev deposed? How did Khrushchev fall from power? How had he alienated the Communist Party leadership? Khrushchev was seen as enough of a concern that until his death, in 1971, the Soviet government closely monitored him. This article will explore how Khrushchev lost the Soviet Communist Party's confidence and was removed from office.

Khruschev Rejection of Stalin

Khrushchev became famous and best recognized for his rejection of the “personality cult” that Stalin had fostered during his own thirty-year rule. Khrushchev also attempted to revive the Communist campaign to suppress all remnant religious institutions in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Khrushchev supported the invasion and crackdown on Hungary in 1956, constructing the Berlin Wall in 1961, and Soviet weapons in Cuba in 1962.

In this regard, Khrushchev is something of an enigma. His foreign policy, position on religion, and Marxist-Leninist doctrine were hardline. Still, he was a reformer because he allowed Stalin's criticism and even permitted some anti-Stalinist literature to be published and disseminated in USSR’s society. He allowed criticism of Stalin, despite suppressing criticism of the Soviet Republic. Khrushchev also hoped to raise Soviet citizens’ standard of living to benefit from the transference of the ownership of “the means of production” to the State.

His De-Stalinization policies reduced the powers of the secret police and opened up new academic and cultural freedoms. Historians believe that Khrushchev’s efforts in these areas provided a context for the reformist policies of Mikhail Gorbachev later. Khrushchev’s downfall mainly resulted from his lack of a clear ruling strategy, limited diplomatic skills, and the complex, multifaceted aspects of domestic and international destabilization during his office tenure. Without Khrushchev being removed from office, it is unlikely that the Soviet Union could have experienced the revival and the growth of its sphere of influence that occurred during the Brezhnev era.[1]

Struggle for power and assuming leadership of the Soviet Union

On March 6, 1953, the Soviet Union announced Stalin’s death and new leadership. A struggle for power between different factions within the Communist Party began. Fearing that the powerful state security chief, Lavrenty Beria would eventually eliminate other elite party officials as he had so many others, Malenkov, Molotov, Bulganin, and others united under Khrushchev to denounce Beria and remove him from power. They imprisoned Beria and sentenced him to death. After Khrushchev's quick execution, he engaged in a power struggle with Malenkov, who was Stalin’s apparent heir. Khrushchev soon gained the decisive margin, and in September 1953, he replaced Malenkov as First Secretary and nominated Marshal Nikolay Bulganin as the new Soviet Premier.[2]

De-Stalinization and domestic policies

Khrushchev in 1959

By the end of 1955, due to Khrushchev's policy, thousands of political criminals had returned home and shared their experience in the Soviet labor camps. With several million political prisoners newly released, Khrushchev eased and freed the domestic political atmosphere. The continuing investigation into the abuses further revealed Stalin’s crimes to his successors. Khrushchev believed that once he successfully removed the stain of Stalinism, the Party would inspire even greater loyalty among the people. In October 1955, Khrushchev insisted on revealing Stalin’s crimes before the delegates to the upcoming 20th Party Congress. Some of his colleagues opposed the disclosure and persuaded him to make his remarks in a closed session. [3]

The 20th Party Congress opened in 1956, and Khrushchev delivered his so-called “Secret Speech” to a closed session of the Congress and was strictly limited to many Soviet delegates. The speech was the nucleus of a far-reaching de-Stalinization campaign intended to destroy the late dictator's image as an infallible leader and to revert official policy to an idealized Leninist model. Observers outside the Soviet Union have suggested that Khrushchev’s primary purpose in making the speech was to consolidate his position of political leadership by associating himself with reform measures while discrediting his rivals in the Presidium (Politburo) by implicating them in Stalin’s crimes.

Although subsequently read to groups of party activists and “closed” local party meetings, the secret speech was never officially published. Nonetheless, it caused shock and disillusionment throughout the entire Soviet Union, harming Stalin’s reputation and the perception of the political system and party that had enabled him to gain and misuse such great power. It also helped give rise to a period of liberalization known as the “Khrushchev thaw,” during which censorship policy was relaxed, marking a Soviet literary renaissance. Thousands of political prisoners were released, and thousands more who had perished during Stalin’s reign were officially “rehabilitated.”

The speech also contributed to the revolts that occurred later that year in Hungary and Poland, further weakening the Soviet Union’s control over the Soviet bloc and temporarily strengthening the position of Khrushchev’s opponents in the Presidium. Furthermore, through his Secret Speech, Khrushchev effectively denounced the "cult of personality" surrounding Stalin and accused Stalin of the crimes committed during the Great Purges. This denunciation effectively alienated Khrushchev from the more conservative elements of the party. Moreover, it also resulted in a deepening wedge between the Soviet Union and China that led to the so-called Asian Cold War and the Sino-Soviet split later in 1960. [4]

First unsuccessful attempt to remove Khrushchev and his further policies

In June 1957, Khrushchev was almost overthrown from his position, and, although a vote in the Presidium went against him. Still, he managed to reverse this by replacing Bulganin as prime minister and establishing himself as the Soviet state and Communist party's clear leader. With the help of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, Khrushchev managed to prevent what he referred to as an Anti-Party Group that attempted to oust him from the party leadership, and he became Premier of the Soviet Union in March 1958.

Confirmed in power and his new role, Khrushchev promoted and set a new policy of “Reform Communism” throughout the Soviet Union. In an attempt to humanize the Soviet system – but without sacrificing its ideology – he emphasized producing consumer goods, in contrast to the Stalinist emphasis on heavy industry. Khrushchev began seeing the US and the West much more as a rival instead of an evil entity. He aimed at showing off the superiority of the Soviets over American and Western products. This position further alienated Mao Zedong. As the Chinese Cultural Revolution proceeded, there was no worse insult than to be scorned for being a "Chinese Khrushchev," the equivalent of an ideological turncoat. Unsurprisingly, during the following years, all this also led to further alienation with the People’s Republic of China and what would soon become their own "Cold War" triggered by the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960.

Liberalization, political, military and agricultural reforms

During Khrushchev’s time in office, for the first time, the Party leadership permitted Soviet tourists to go overseas, and Khrushchev often seemed amenable to widening exchanges with both socialist and capitalist countries. Furthermore, by 1954 Khrushchev effectively managed to reform the Stalinist security apparatus by subordinating it to the top party leadership. He divided Stalin’s Ministry of Internal Affairs into criminal police and security services – KGB (now Federal Security Service – FSB), which reported directly to the U.S.S.R’s Council of Ministers. The head of KGB was also Khrushchev’s nominee. However, the Soviet military bitterly resisted Khrushchev’s desire to reduce conventional armaments in favor of nuclear missiles. His attempted decentralization of the party structure begun antagonizing many of those who had previously supported his rise to power. According to various authors, political terror as an everyday government method was replaced under Khrushchev by his administrative means of repression.


In 1958, Khrushchev opened a public Central Committee meeting to hundreds of Soviet officials for the first time. This expansion of the Central Committee allowed Khrushchev even greater control. Anyone who dissented from him would have to make their case in front of a large, disapproving crowd. By this time, after all, the Communist Party had solidified into the so-called nomenclature – 10 million-strong elite of bureaucrats, managers, and technicians intending on guarding their power and prerogatives at all cost. [5]

The central crisis of Khrushchev’s administration, however, was agriculture. He optimistically based many plans on the crops in 1956 and 1958, which fueled his repeated promises to overtake the United States in agricultural and industrial production. He opened up more than 70 million acres of virgin land in Siberia and sent thousands of laborers. Still, this plan was unsuccessful, and the Soviet Union soon had to import wheat from Canada and the US once again. Khrushchev was convinced that he could solve the Soviet Union’s agricultural crises by planting corn on the same scale as the United States, though failing to realize that the differences in climate and soil made this strongly inadvisable.

Khrushchev foreign and defense policies: on the brink of nuclear war

Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961

When Khrushchev took control, the outside world still knew little of him, and he was initially not highly recognized. Short, heavyset, and wearing ill-fit suits, he was commonly seen as very energetic but not intellectual and was dismissed by many as a buffoon who would not last long. Although his attacks on world capitalism were virulent and primitive, his outgoing personality and peasant humor were in sharp contrast to the image introduced by all earlier Soviet public figures. He also had abysmal diplomatic skills, giving him the reputation of being a rude, uncivilized peasant in the West and an irresponsible clown in his own country. His methods of administration, although efficient, were also acknowledged as erratic since they threatened to abolish a large number of Stalinist-era agencies.

In foreign affairs, Khrushchev widely asserted his doctrine of peaceful co-existence with the non-communist world, which he had first proclaimed in his public speech at the 20th Party Congress. In 1959, Khrushchev conferred with President Eisenhower, which brought Soviet-American relations to new highs. Notwithstanding these hopeful developments, Khrushchev, as a diplomat, remained irascible and blunt. Back to Moscow reception, he directed his famous “We will bury you!” comment at the capitalist West.

A long-planned summit conference with Eisenhower in Paris in May 1960 broke up with Khrushchev’s announcement that a U.S. plane (a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft) had been shot down over the Soviet Union with its pilot captured. Khrushchev repeatedly disrupted the proceedings in the United Nations General Assembly in September-October 1960 by pounding his fists on the desk and shouting in Russian. At one of the United Nations conferences, he even reacted to a comparison between Soviet control of Eastern Europe and Western imperialism in one of the most surreal moments in Cold War history by waving his shoe and banging it on his desk.

In 1961, his blustering Vienna conference with the new U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, failed to achieve a substantial agreement on the pressing German question; the Soviet Union built the infamous Berlin Wall shortly after that. Increased missile buildups had followed Soviet success in lofting the world's first space satellite in 1957. Khrushchev made a dangerous gamble in 1962 over Cuba, which almost made a Third World War inevitable. He secretly attempted to deploy Soviet medium-range missiles in Cuba. Once detected by the US, and during the following tense confrontation in October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on the promise that the United States would make no further attempt to overthrow Cuba’s communist government.

Nevertheless, Chinese communists unfavorably and harshly criticized the Soviet Union for mishandling this settlement. The Sino-Soviet split, which began in 1959, reached the stage of public accusations in 1960. China’s ideological insist on all-out “war against the imperialists,” and Mao Zedong’s annoyance with Khrushchev’s co-existence policies was exacerbated by Soviet refusal to assist the Chinese nuclear weapon buildup and to rectify the Russo-Chinese border. The Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty reached between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1963, although generally welcomed throughout the world, intensified even further Chinese denunciations of Soviet “revisionism.” [6]

Khrushchev’s forced removal from office

Khrushchev, Valentina Tereshkova, Pavel Popovichm and Yury Gagarin in 1963

Khrushchev’s rivals in the Communist party deposed him largely due to his erratic and cantankerous behavior, regarded by the party as a tremendous embarrassment on the international stage. The failures in agriculture, the quarrel with China, and the humiliating resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis added to the growing resentment of Khrushchev’s own arbitrary administrative methods, were the major factors in his downfall.

On October 14, 1964, after a palace coup orchestrated by his “loyal” protégé and deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, the Central Committee forced Khrushchev to retire from his position as the party’s first secretary and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union because of his “advanced age and poor health.” The Communist Party subsequently accused Khrushchev of making political mistakes, such as mishandling the Cuban Missile Crisis and disorganizing the Soviet economy, especially in the agricultural sector. However, Khrushchev considered his own forced retirement a breakthrough and achievement. He did not oppose after he left office, there were no executions after his coup, and his retirement was “negotiated” as between equals.[7] Following his ousting, Khrushchev spent seven years under house arrest. He died at his home in Moscow on September 11, 1971.

Nikita Khrushchev was the catalyst of political and social change. In his seven years of power as first secretary and premier, he broke with Stalin's dictatorship and established a basis for liberalizing tendencies within Soviet communism. His doctrine of peaceful co-existence with the noncommunist world, a drastic break with established Soviet communist teaching, was somewhat successful. He publicly recognized the limitations and power of nuclear weapons, and his decision to negotiate with the United States for some form of nuclear-testing control was of vast importance.

Despite his repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, his acceptance of “different roads to socialism” led to growing independence among European communist parties. Still, his Russian nationalism and his suspicion of Mao Zedong’s communism helped create an unexpectedly deep gap between China and the Soviet Union. By the time he was removed from office, he had set up guidelines for and limitations to Soviet policy that his successors were hard put to alter.


  1. ."Nikita Khrushchev: Rise to power, personality & legacy" http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Nikita_Khrushchev
  2. Nikita Khrushchev Complex Personality - http://www.biography.com/people/nikita-khrushchev-9364384
  3. Nikita Khrushchev: Consolidation of power & his Secret Speech - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_Khrushchev#Consolidation_of_power.3B_Secret_Speech
  4. Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and its effects - http://www.britannica.com/event/Khrushchevs-secret-speech
  5. Nikita Khrushchev: Domestic policies - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_Khrushchev#Domestic_policies
  6. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev: Premier of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics & Leadership of the Soviet Union: http://www.britannica.com/biography/Nikita-Sergeyevich-Khrushchev
  7. Khrushchev’s last days in power - http://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/23/world/son-tells-of-khrushchev-s-last-days-in-power.html?pagewanted=all

Updated November 20, 2020