254. Current Intelligence Weekly Review0

The Khrushchev Succession

At age 68 Khrushchev is still in generally good health, but advancing years and the rigors of high office have begun to slow him down. The time may not be far distant when death or physical incapacitation removes him from the political scene. Almost inevitably direction of the nationʼs affairs will then be assumed by an interregnum “collective leadership” composed of the remaining members of the party presidium and secretariat. The Soviet system contains no built-in machinery for ensuring the orderly transfer of power; when the top leader goes, a power vacuum is created, and collectivity provides the facade of unity behind which the fight for the post of party first secretary is waged.

Like Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev has made no attempt to devise a permanent solution to the succession problem; he has merely designated his favorite in advance. As early as 1959—in an interview with Averell Harriman—he revealed that he and Mikoyan had decided upon Frol Kozlov, now 54, as the man who would eventually succeed to power. Kozlovʼs status as heir apparent was first publicly acknowledged in the USSR last October; in the official listing of the party secretariat elected following the 22nd party congress, his name appeared second to that of Khrushchev and out of the customary alphabetical order, thus formalizing his position as second-in-command. What little is known about Kozlov suggests that he would adhere essentially to the Khrushchev line, but probably with increased emphasis on control rather than incentive.

Kozlovʼs designation as heir comes with no guarantees, however. It is not binding on his peers, and Khrushchev can always change his mind. More important, among the shrewd and ambitious men who make the inner circle of leaders, there is bound to be at least one who regards himself as better qualified and with a better chance of winning. Once another hat is tossed into the ring, the power struggle is on.

Emergence of the New Leader

Ultimately, the victory will go to that member of the hierarchy who succeeds in establishing personal domination over the Communist Party, the single cohesive political force in Soviet society. It tolerates no [Page 536] rivals, and no organization or group of any kind is permitted to exist outside its control. Thus, he who runs the party runs the country, without constitutional or other legal restraints.

However, since no single member of Khrushchevʼs coterie appears politically strong enough to step immediately into the dictatorʼs shoes, the new leader must establish a position of pre-eminence among his colleagues in the presidium and secretariat, and he must circumscribe and then reduce the influence of possible rivals in those bodies. In the process, it will not suffice for him to argue his own merits and to espouse policy positions to which his associates can accommodate. Very few of them can be expected to pledge their support without some kind of commitment in return.

Gaining the support of the members of the secretariat will be particularly important. Through the staff departments of the central committee, they control personnel appointments at all levels of the party and government. From the outset, the future dictator must seek to secure as many key positions as possible for members of his personal following and to see to it that no posts of consequence fall to his opponents.

Heads of other elements in the power structure will also have to be won over. For example, bearing in mind that the Soviet military high command sided with Khrushchev in his 1955 polemic with Malenkov—the advocate of increased consumersʼ goods production—the new leader will seek the support particularly of those marshals who are central committee members. In order to ensure that they do not become disenchanted and side with his opponents, he will be likely to advocate a strong military establishment and the high budgetary appropriations involved.

At the same time, he will identify himself with a high living stand-ard and will give vague promises of improvements in the welfare of the consumer. While he gives public indications of his intent to continue the “liberalization” begun under Khrushchev, he may be privately assuring the secret police that there will be no inroads on their powers and prerogatives.

Once he has engineered his “election” as party first secretary, the emergent new leader begins the task of transforming his leadership of the coalition into leadership of the Soviet Union.

For the most part he will accomplish the job by continuing to exercise leadership in the presidium. In the period immediately following his election as first secretary, he must consistently win a majority of that body to his point of view on policy positions. Success in the presidium would increasingly establish his authority in the lower party echelons. With the passage of time, the working level would, by and large, accept the fact of his predominance and fall into line behind him.

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Role of Central Committee

The central committee normally has no life of its own except at its periodic plenary sessions, and these are usually devoted to speeches approving decisions made in advance by the top leaders. However, by basing his authority largely on control of a majority in the central committee and by using that control to defeat his opponents in 1957, Khrushchev in effect institutionalized the central committee as one of the principal bases of political strength. Its very real potential for intervening in power struggles makes it imperative that the would-be dictator build up support among its members as soon as possible.

To judge from the composition of the central party bodies elected by the 22nd congress, however, Khrushchevʼs lieutenants have had little success in maneuvering their allies into key slots. Very few of those elected for the first time have discernible ties to any of the current leaders. The only change was an increase in the number of members associated with the Leningrad party organization, which Kozlov headed for several years. Presumably these are men upon whom he can draw for support, but their number—along with the old Leningraders in the central committee—is still too small to give him a decisive advantage.

Kozlov clearly cannot now take steps toward achieving domination of the party without a green light from Khrushchev. The latter, who once boasted that he would run the party as long as he lived, shows no signs of allowing Kozlov to start building a personal political machine. Indeed the only top-level personnel shift since the congress apparently worked to Kozlovʼs disadvantage; the reasons for the removal of Ivan Spiridonov both from the central party secretariat and as Leningrad party boss last April have never become clear, but intentionally or not, his downfall very likely cost Kozlov a well-placed ally. The effect of the move—if any—on Kozlovʼs status as successor-designate is still not known but it must certainly have forced him to take a hard look at those presidium members who—both individually and as a body—will play vital roles in the succession. He must gauge their willingness to accept his claim on the first secretaryship, seek their support, and at the same time identify and assess the strength of those who might contend against him.

Kozlovʼs Peers

In all probability the four senior members of the hierarchy—Mikoyan, Brezhnev, Suslov, and Kosygin—will be the major voices in determining who steps into Khrushchevʼs shoes.

If past performance is any indication, First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan will be primarily concerned with maintaining his present position in the hierarchy. Both his Armenian nationality and his age—he is 66—argue against an attempt to grab the top job. His activities will nevertheless bear close watching. He has survived nearly 30 years of purges [Page 538] and other crises in the leadership largely because of his ability to perceive the realities of Kremlin politics—as he did by lining up with Khrushchev against the anti-party group. Thus, any sign of a change in his attitude toward Kozlov would suggest that his political intuition is again at work, and could foreshadow a fight in which the advantage has shifted away from the successor-designate.

Brezhnev, the Soviet “president,” must be considered a potential candidate for the top job. Since 1938, he has been a regional party secretary in the Ukraine, high-ranking army political officer, party boss of Moldavia and Kazakhstan, chief of the navyʼs political directorate, and central party secretary for industrial, transport, military, and police affairs. This experience has very likely left him a long line of well-placed friends from whom he could ask political favors.

As a presidium member, Brezhnev has a direct voice in the formulation of Soviet policy, but his “election” as titular chief of state in May 1960—to replace Voroshilov—deprived him of the vantage point he enjoyed as a central committee secretary. The Soviet presidency is basically a sinecure and has traditionally proved a poor political springboard. In contrast to his predecessor, however, Brezhnev has brought some authority to the job and has used it mainly as a vehicle for expounding Moscowʼs foreign policy line. Contrary to frequent press speculation, there is little evidence to suggest that Mikhail Suslov is now or could become the rallying point for a “Stalinist” faction. A central party secretary since 1947—longer than Khrushchev himself—he has been concerned primarily with ideology and relations with foreign Communist parties. Since Stalinʼs death and particularly since the 20th party congress, he has concentrated on building a framework of Marxist-Leninist respectability around Khrushchevʼs policies, and he sided with Khrushchev against the anti-party (and pro-Stalin) group. To judge from his past performance Suslov does not measure up as a Stalinist diehard; on the other hand, he is not a simon-pure Khrushchev man, and on occasion the two may have disagreed over various aspects of Soviet policy. The future leader will very likely expect of Suslov the same service he now renders as doctrinal apologist for the regime. Like Mikoyan, Suslov has never evinced a desire for more power, and because he deals in political intangibles, he has not had these opportunities to cultivate a personal following normally available to a central committee secretary.

Of the senior presidium members, only First Deputy Premier Aleksey Kosygin would appear to have no chance of becoming party first secretary, but he is likely to occupy a high position in any post-Khrushchev administration. Kosygin is perhaps the top member of the Soviet managerial elite, and with the exception of the two years immediately after [Page 539] Stalinʼs death, has been a deputy premier continuously since 1940. He has never held a full-time job in the partyʼs apparatus, having come up through the administrative and planning departments of the economic bureaucracy. Since it is doubtful that Khrushchevʼs successor will be strong enough, at least in the early days, to take on both the party first secretaryship and the premiership, Kosygin might become head of the government when Khrushchev leaves the scene.

The Younger Leaders

There is always the possibility that a dark horse could emerge. Their brevity of service at the top would seem to militate against a power bid by Dmitry Polyansky, Gennady Voronov, or Andrey Kirilenko, the three newest members of the presidium. Yet each of them has considerable influence and prestige in his own right, and during the course of a prolonged succession crisis, one of them might be able to maneuver himself into a commanding power position. Of the four central committee secretaries who are not presidium members, Aleksandr Shelepin would seem best able to rise to the top. His long service as head of the Komsomol—the young Communist league—may have given him considerable influence among the younger party generation. However, perhaps to his disadvantage, he is tainted by past association with the Soviet secret police (KGB) which he headed from 1958 to 1961.

Shelepinʼs current duties apparently involve party supervision of the police and judicial apparatus as well as some responsibilities for industry, and his support will thus be invaluable to those who do contend. The future leader will need control of the KGB not only because of its coercive power, but also because of its unique ability to keep him informed of what is going on in the party, and particularly among possible rivals.

Shelepin and the other non-presidium secretaries may have been selected with one aspect of the succession problem in mind. The exact division of responsibilities in the secretariat has never become clear, but there is information to suggest that the new members are being groomed to replace some of the senior secretaries.

Leonid Ilichev and Boris Ponomarev are concerned with propaganda and agitation, ideology, and relations with foreign parties—fields in which Suslov and Kuusinen are primarily interested. Their apprenticeships would presumably ensure that, when the time comes, Suslovʼs or Kuusinenʼs duties could be passed to experienced understudies without any break in the continuity of party policies or methods of operation in these fields.

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Presidium Members { Kozlov 54 Party 2nd Secretary The Successor-designate
Brezhnev 56 “President of the USSR } Senior Presidium members
Kosygin 58 1st Deputy Premier
Mikoyan 66 1st Deputy Premier
Suslov 59 Party Secretary
Podgorny 59 Ukranian Party Boss Influence limited by permanent residence in Kiev
Kirilenko 56 1st Deputy Chairman RSFSR Bureau } Relative newcomers to the top leadership
Polyansky 44 RSFSR Premier
Voronov 51 1st Deputy Chairman RSFSR Bureau
Kuusinen 81 Party Secretary } “Old Bolsheviks,” each nearing end of career
Shvernick 74 Chairman, Party Control Committee
Party Secretaries (not Presidium Members) { Demichev 50 Moscow City Party Chief } Junior leaders, possibly grooming to replace senior men. (areas of responsibility obviously incomplete)
Ilichev 56 Agitation amp; Propaganda
Ponomarev 57 Relations with Foreign Parties
Shelepin 44 Food Industry; Police amp; Legal Affairs

Similarly, the appointment last year of Zinovy Serdyuk as first deputy chief of the party control committee could signify that Shvernikʼs job is to be taken over by another of Khrushchevʼs old Ukrainian associates.

Such moves are perhaps indicative of a nagging concern over the future; they certainly appear to be an initial attempt to staff the next administration in advance and thereby help ensure continuation of Khrushchevʼs policies. But they fall short of solving the basic problem of the orderly transfer of the dictatorʼs powers, and Khrushchev has proved unwilling or unable to make any arrangements which guarantee that his authority will carry over to his chosen successor.


On balance, Khrushchev has evidently undertaken to see that his policies will be carried forward by staffing the top leadership with men who are in general agreement with his way of running the country. With the future—and Khrushchevʼs personal niche in history—thus probably [Page 541] regarded as partially provided for, the identity of the new first secretary loses some of its importance. Under these circumstances Khrushchev probably sees no compelling need to determine in advance the outcome of the power struggle which, it seems, must surely come.

This struggle, unlike the Stalin succession with its cleavages over basic policies, seems likely to center on personalities and methods of operation. There seems little likelihood of any radical alteration of present policies and programs. The probable composition of the new leadership itself would, for example, seem to argue for this conclusion.

In addition, the bulk of the partyʼs professional apparatus is similarly composed of Khrushchev men. From conviction and an instinct for self-preservation, they would probably throw their support to whoever seems most likely to continue along the Khrushchev line.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency: Job 79-S01060A. Secret. Prepared by CIAʼs Office of Current Intelligence. The source text comprises pp. 1-6 of the Special Articles section of the issue. Photographs of Kosygin, Kozlov, Mikoyan, Brezhnev, and Suslov are not reproduced.