At the founding congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (the predecessor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) Vladimir Lenin was able to gain enough support for the establishment of an all-powerful central organ at the next congress. This central organ was to become the Central Committee, and it had the rights to decide all party issues, with the exception of local ones. The group which supported the establishment of a Central Committee at the 2nd Congress called themselves the Bolsheviks, and the losers (the minority) were given the name Mensheviks by their own leader, Julius Martov. The Central Committee would contain three-members, and would supervise the editorial board of Iskra, the party newspaper. The first members of the Central Committee were Gleb Krzhizhanovsky,
Friedrich Lengnik and
Vladimir Noskov. Throughout its history, the party and the Central Committee were riven by factional infighting and repression by government authorities. Lenin was able to persuade the Central Committee, after a long and heated discussion, to initiate the October Revolution. The majority of the members had been skeptical of initiating the revolution so early, and it was Lenin who was able to persuade them. The motion to carry out a revolution in October 1917 was passed with 10 in favour, and two against by the Central Committee.
Lenin era: 1917–1922
The Central Committee, according to Lenin, was to be the supreme authority of the party. Leon Trotsky criticised this view, stating "our rules represent 'organisational nonconfidence' of the party toward its parts, that is, supervision over all local, district, national and other organisations ... the organisation of the party takes place of the party itself; the Central Committee takes the place of the organisation; and finally the dictator takes the place of the Central Committee."
During the first years in power, under Lenin's rule, the Central Committee was the key decision-making body in both practice and theory, and decisions were made through majority votes. For example, the Central Committee voted for or against signing a peace treaty with the Germans between 1917 and 1918 during World War I; the majority voted in favour of peace when Trotsky backed down in 1918. The result of the vote was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. During the heated debates in the Central Committee about a possible peace with the Germans, Lenin did not have a majority; both Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin had more support for their own position than Lenin. Only when Lenin sought a coalition with Trotsky and others, were negotiations with the Germans voted through with a simple majority. Criticism of other officials was allowed during these meetings, for instance, Karl Radek said to Lenin (criticising his position of supporting peace with the Germans), "If there were five hundred courageous men in Petrograd, we would put you in prison." The decision to negotiate peace with the Germans was only reached when Lenin threatened to resign, which in turn led to a temporary coalition between Lenin's supporters and those of Trotsky and others. No sanctions were invoked on the opposition in the Central Committee following the decision.
The system had many faults, and opposition to Lenin and what many saw as his excessive centralisation policies came to the leadership's attention during the 8th Party Congress (March 1919) and the 9th Party Congress (March 1920). At the 9th Party Congress the Democratic Centralists, an opposition faction within the party, accused Lenin and his associates, of creating a Central Committee in which a "small handful of party oligarchs ... was banning those who hold deviant views." Several delegates to the Congress were quite specific in the criticism, one of them accusing Lenin and his associates of making the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic a place of exile for opponents. Lenin reply was evasive, he conceded that faults had been made, but noted that if such policies had in fact been carried out the criticism of him during the 9th Party Congress could not have occurred. During the 10th Party Congress (March 1921) Lenin condemned the Workers Opposition, a faction within the Communist Party, for deviating from communism and accused Trotsky of factionalism. Lenin did state that factionalism was allowed, but only allowed before and during Party Congresses when the different sides needed to win votes. Several Central Committee members, who were members of the Workers Opposition, offered their resignation to Lenin but their resignations were not accepted, and they were instead asked to submit to party discipline. The 10th Party Congress also introduced a ban on factionalism within the Communist Party; however, what Lenin considered to be 'platforms', such as the Democratic Centralists and the Workers Opposition, were allowed. Factions, in Lenin's mind, were groups within the Communist Party who subverted party discipline.
Despite the ban on factionalism, the Workers' Opposition continued its open agitation against the policies of the Central Committee, and before the 11th Party Congress (March 1922) the Workers' Opposition made an ill-conceived bid to win support for their position in the Comintern. The Comintern, not unexpectedly, supported the position of the Central Committee. During the 11th Party Congress Alexander Shliapnikov, the leader of the Workers' Opposition, claimed that certain individuals from the Central Committee had threatened him. Lenin's reply was evasive, but he stated that party discipline needed to be strengthened during "a retreat" – the New Economic Policy was introduced at the 10th Party Congress. The 11th Party Congress would prove to be the last congress chaired by Lenin, he suffered one stroke in May 1922, was paralysed by a second in December later that year, was removed from public life in March 1923 and died on 21 January 1924.
Trotsky was one of the main contenders for leadership following Lenin's death.
When Lenin died, the Soviet leadership was uncertain how the building of the new, socialist society should proceed. Some supported extending the NEP, as Lenin had suggested late in his life, or ending it and replacing it with a planned economy, a position Lenin held when he initiated NEP. Following Lenin's forced departure due to ill health, a power struggle began, which involved Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, Alexei Rykov, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Tomsky, Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev. Of these, Trotsky was the most notable one. In his testament, Lenin referred to Trotsky's "exceptional abilities", adding "personally he is perhaps the most able man in the present central committee." Trotsky did face a problem however: he had previously disagreed with Lenin on several matters. He was also of Jewish descent.
Stalin, the second major contender, and future leader of the Soviet Union, was the least known, and he was not a popular figure with the masses. Even though he was a Georgian, and he opposed Georgian nationalism, he talked like a Slavophile, which was an advantage. The Communist Party was his institutional base; he was the General Secretary – another advantage. But there was a problem; Stalin was known for his brutality. As one Party faithful put it, "A savage man ... a bloody man. You have to have swords like him in a revolution but I don't like that fact, nor like him." In his testament, Lenin said of Stalin:
Stalin is too rude, and this fault, fully tolerable in our midst and in the relations among us Communists, becomes intolerable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore I propose to the comrades that they devise a way of shifting Stalin from this position and appointing to it another man who in all other respects falls on the other side of the scale from Comrade Stalin, namely, more tolerant, more loyal, more polite and considerate of comrades, less capricious and so forth.
Inner-party democracy became an important topic following Lenin's health leave; Trotsky and Zinoviev were its main backers, but Zinoviev later changed his position when he aligned himself with Stalin. Trotsky and Rykov tried to reorganise the party in early 1923, by debureaucratising it, however, in this they failed, and Stalin managed to enlarge the Central Committee. This was opposed by certain leading party members and a week later; the Declaration of the Forty-Six was issued, which condemned Stalin's centralisation policies. The declaration stated that the Politburo, Orgburo and the Secretariat was taking complete control over the party, and it was these bodies which elected the delegates to the Party Congresses – in effect making the executive branch, the Party Congress, a tool of the Soviet leadership. On this issue, Trotsky said, "as this regime becomes consolidated all affairs are concentrated in the hands of a small group, sometimes only of a secretary who appoints, removes, gives the instructions, inflicts the penalties, etc." In many ways Trotsky's argument was valid, but he was overlooking the changes, which were taking place. Under Lenin the party ruled through the government, for instance, the only political office held by Lenin was Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars, but following Lenin's health the party took control of government activities. The system before Lenin was forced to leave was similar to that of parliamentary systems where the party cabinet, and not the party leadership, were the actual leaders of the country.
It was the power of the center which disturbed Trotsky and his followers. If the Soviet leadership had the power to appoint regional officials, they had the indirect power to elect the delegates of the Party Congresses. Trotsky accused the delegates of the 12th Party Congress (17–25 April 1923) of being indirectly elected by the center, citing that 55.1% of the voting delegates at the congress were full-time members, at the previous congress only 24.8% of the voting-delegates were full-members. He had cause for alarm, because as Anastas Mikoyan noted in his memoirs, Stalin strived to prevent as many pro-Trotsky officials as possible being elected as congress delegates. Trotsky's views went unheeded until 1923, when the Politburo announced a resolution where it reaffirmed party democracy, and even declared the possibility of ending the appointment powers of the center. This was not enough for Trotsky, and he wrote an article in Pravda where he condemned the Soviet leadership and the powers of the center. Zinoviev, Stalin and other members of the Soviet leadership then accused him of factionalism. Trotsky was not elected as a delegate to the 13th Party Congress (23–31 May 1924).
Following the 13th Congress, another power struggle with a different focus began; this time socio-economic policies were the prime motivators for the struggle. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev supported rapid industrialisation and a planned economy, while Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky supported keeping the NEP. Stalin, in contrast to the others, has often been viewed as standing alone; as Jerry F. Hough explained, he has often been viewed as "a cynical Machiavellian interested only in power."
None of the leading figures of that era were rigid in economic policy, and all of them had supported the NEP previously. With the good harvests in 1922, several problems arose, especially the role of heavy industry and inflation. While agriculture had recovered substantially, the heavy industrial sector was still in recession, and had barely recovered from the pre-war levels. The State Planning Commission (Gosplan) supported giving subsidies to heavy industries, while the People's Commissariat for Finance opposed this, citing major inflation as their reason. Trotsky was the only one in the Politburo who supported Gosplan in its feud with the Commissariat for Finance.
In 1925, Stalin began moving against Zinoviev and Kamenev. The appointment of Rykov as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars was a de facto demotion of Kamenev. Kamenev was acting Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars in Lenin's absence. To make matters worse, Stalin began espousing his policy of socialism in one country – a policy often viewed, wrongly, as an attack on Trotsky, when it was really aimed at Zinoviev. Zinoviev, from his position as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern), opposed Stalin's policy. Zinoviev began attacking Stalin within a matter of months, while Trotsky began attacking Stalin for this stance in 1926. At the 14th Party Congress (18–31 December 1925) Kamenev and Zinoviev were forced into the same position that Trotsky had been forced into previously; they proclaimed that the center was usurping power from the regional branches, and that Stalin was a danger to inner-party democracy. The Congress became divided between two factions, between the one supporting Stalin, and those who supported Kamenev and Zinoviev. The Leningrad delegation, which supported Zinoviev, shouted "Long live the Central Committee of our party". Even so, Kamenev and Zinoviev were crushed at the congress, and 559 voted in favour of the Soviet leadership and only 65 against. The newly elected Central Committee demoted Kamenev to a non-voting member of the Politburo. In April 1926 Zinoviev was removed from the Politburo and in December, Trotsky lost his membership too. All of them retained their seats in the Central Committee until October 1927. At the 15th Party Congress (2–19 December 1927) the Left Opposition was crushed; none of its members were elected to the Central Committee. From then on Stalin was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, and other leading officials, such as Bukharin, Tomsky, and Rykov were considerably weakened. The Central Committee which was elected at the 16th Party Congress (26 June – 13 July 1930) removed Tomsky and Rykov. Rykov also lost the Council of People's Commissars chairmanship, from the Politburo.
Interwar and war period: 1930–1945
From 1934 to 1953, three congresses were held (a breach of the party rule which stated that a congress must be convened every third year), one
conference and 23 Central Committee meetings. This is in deep contrast to the Lenin era (1917–1924), when six Congresses were held, five conferences and 69 meetings of the Central Committee. The Politburo did not convene once between 1950, when Nikolai Voznesensky was killed, and 1953. In 1952, at the 19th Party Congress (5–14 October 1952) the Politburo was abolished and replaced by the Presidium.
Under Stalin (pictured) the Central Committee lost effective control over policymaking.
In 1930 the Central Committee departments were reorganised, because the Secretariat had lost control over the economy, because of the First Five-Year Plan, and needed more party personnel to supervise the economy. Prior to 1930, Central Committee departments focused on major components of "political work". During Stalin's rule they were specialised. The departments supervised local party officials and ministerial branches within their particular sphere. Four years later, in 1934, new Central Committee departments were established which were independent from the Department for Personnel. Stalin's emphasis on the importance of political and economic work led to another wave of reorganisation of the Central Committee departments in the late-1930s and 1940s. At the 18th Party Congress (10–21 March 1939) the department specializing in industry was abolished and replaced by a division focusing on personnel management, ideology and verification fulfillment. At the
18th Party Conference (15–20 February 1941) it was concluded that the abolition of the Central Committee Department on Industry had led to the neglect of industry. Because of this, specialised secretaries became responsible for industry and transport from the center down to the city level.
The 17th Party Congress (26 January – 10 February 1934) has gone down in history as the Congress of Victors, because of the success of the First-Five Year Plan. During it several delegates formed an anti-Stalin bloc. Several delegates discussed the possibility of either removing or reducing Stalin's powers. Not all conflicts were below the surface, and Grigory Ordzhonikidze, the People's Commissar for Heavy Industry openly disputed with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Chairman of the Council of the People's Commissars, about the rate of economic growth. The dispute between Ordzhonikidze and Molotov, who represented the Soviet leadership, was settled by the establishment of a Congress Commission, which consisted of Stalin, Molotov, Ordzhonikidze, other Politburo members and certain economic experts. They eventually reached an agreement, and the planned target for economic growth in the Second Five-Year Plan was reduced from 19% to 16.5%.
The tone of the 17th Party Congress was different from its predecessors; several old oppositionists became delegates, and were re-elected to the Central Committee. For instance, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky and Georgy Pyatakov were all rehabilitated. All of them spoke at the congress, even if most of them were interrupted. The Congress was split between two dominant factions, radicals (mostly Stalinists) and moderates. Several groups were established before the congress, which either opposed the Stalinist leadership (the Ryutin Group) or opposed socio-economic policies of the Stalinist leadership (the Syrtsov–Lominadze Group,
Eismont–Tolmachev Group and the group headed by Alexander Petrovich Smirnov amongst others). Politicians, who had previously opposed the Stalinist leadership, could be rehabilitated if they renounced their former beliefs and began supporting Stalin's rule. However, the leadership was not opening up; Kamenev and Zinoviev were arrested in 1932 (or in the beginning of 1933), and set free in 1934, and than rearrested in 1935, accused of being part of an assassination plot which killed Sergei Kirov.
Preobrazhensky (pictured) was a leading figure of the Central Committee in the 1920s, but was killed during the Purge
The majority of the Central Committee members elected at the 17th Party Congress were killed during, or shortly after, the Great Purge when Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrentiy Beria headed the NKVD. Grigory Kaminsky, at a Central Committee meeting, spoke against the Great Purge, and shortly after was arrested and killed. In short, during the Great Purge, the Central Committee was liquidated. Stalin managed to liquidate the Central Committee with the committee's own consent, as Molotov once put it "This gradually occurred. Seventy expelled 10–15 persons, then 60 expelled 15 ... In essence this led to a situation where a minority of this majority remained within the Central Committee ... Such was the gradual but rather rapid process of clearing the way." Several members were expelled from the Central Committee through voting. Of the 139 members elected to the Central Committee at the 17th Congress, 98 people were killed in the period 1936–40. In this period the Central Committee decreased in size; a 78 percent decrease. By the 18th Congress there were only 31 members of the Central Committee, and of these only two were reelected.
The victims of the Moscow Trials were not rehabilitated until 1988. Under Khrushchev, an investigation into the matter concluded that the Central Committee had lost its ruling function under Stalin; from 1929 onwards all decisions in the Central Committee were taken unanimously. In other words, the Central Committee was too weak to protect itself from Stalin and his hangmen. Stalin had managed to turn Lenin's hierarchical model on its head; under Lenin the Party Congress and the Central Committee were the highest decision-making organs, under Stalin the Politburo, Secretariat and the Orgburo became the most important decision-making bodies.
From Stalin to Khrushchev's fall: 1945–1964
In the post-World War II period, Stalin ruled the Soviet Union through the post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers. The powers of the Secretariat decreased during this period, and only one member of the Secretariat, Nikita Khrushchev, was a member of the Presidium (the Politburo). The frequency of Central Committee meetings decreased sharply under Stalin, but increased again following his death. After Khrushchev's consolidation of power, the number of Central Committee meetings decreased yet again, but it increased during his later rule, and together with the Politburo, the Central Committee voted to remove Khrushchev as First Secretary in 1964.
Malenkov succeeded Stalin as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, but failed to take total control over the party machinery
When Stalin died on 5 March 1953, Georgy Malenkov, a Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers succeeded him as Chairman and as the de facto leading figure of the Presidium (the renamed Politburo). A power struggle between Malenkov and Khrushchev began, and on 14 March Malenkov was forced to resign from the Secretariat. The official explanation for his resignation was "to grant the request of Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers G. M. Malenkov to be released from the duties of the Party Central Committee". Malenkov's resignation made Khrushchev the senior member within the Secretariat, and made him powerful enough to set the agenda of the Presidium meetings alongside Malenkov. Khrushchev was able to consolidate his powers within the party machine after Malenkov's resignation, but Malenkov remained the de facto leading figure of the Party. Together with Malenkov's and Khrushchev's accession of power, another figure, Lavrentiy Beria was also contending for power. The three formed a short-lived Troika, which lasted until Khrushchev and Malenkov betrayed Beria. Beria, an ethnic Georgian, was the Presidium member for internal security affairs, and he was a strong supporter for minority rights and even supported reuniting East and West Germany to establish a strong, and neutral Germany between the capitalist and socialist nations. It was Beria, through an official pronouncement by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and not by the Central Committee or the Council of Ministers, who renounced the Doctor's Plot as a fraud.
Beria was no easy man to defeat, and his ethnicisation policies (that a local or republican leaders had to have ethnic origins, and speak the language of the given area) proved to be a tool to strengthen the MVD's grip on local party organs. Khrushchev and Malenkov, who had begun receiving information which stated that the MVD had begun spying on party officials, started to act in the spring of 1953. Beria was defeated at the next Presidium plenums by a majority against him, and not long after, Khrushchev and Malenkov started to plan Beria's fall from power. However, this was no easy task, as Beria was able to inspire fear in his colleagues. In Khrushchev's and Malenkov's first discussion with Kliment Voroshilov, Voroshilov did not want anything to do with it, because he feared "Beria's ears". However, Khrushchev and Malenkov were able to gather enough support for Beria's ouster, but only when a rumour of a potential coup led by Beria began to take hold within the party leadership. Afraid of the power Beria held, Khrushchev and Malenkov were prepared for a potential civil war. This did not happen, and Beria was forced to resign from all his party posts on 26 June, and was later executed on 23 December. Beria's fall also led to criticism of Stalin; the party leadership accused Beria of using Stalin, a sick and old man, to force his own will on the Soviet Union during Stalin's last days. This criticism, and much more, led party and state newspapers to launch more general criticism of Stalin and the Stalin era. A party history pamphlet went so far as to state that the party needed to eliminate "the incorrect, un-Marxist interpretation of the role of the individual in history, which is expressed in propaganda by the idealist theory of the cult of personality, which is alien to Marxism".
Beria's downfall led to the collapse of his "empire"; the powers of the MVD was curtailed, and the KGB was established. Malenkov, while losing his secretaryship, was still Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and remained so until 1955. He initiated a policy of strengthening the central ministries, while at the same time ensuing populist policies, one example being to establish a savings of 20.2 billion rubles for Soviet taxpayers. In contrast, Khrushchev tried to strengthen the central party apparatus by focusing on the Central Committee. The Central Committee had not played a notable role in Soviet politics since Nikolai Bukharin's downfall in 1929. Stalin weakened the powers of the Central Committee by a mixture of repression and organisational restructuring. Khrushchev also called for the Party's role to supervise local organs, economic endeavors and central government activities. In September 1953, the Central Committee bestowed Khrushchev with the title of First Secretary, which made his seniority in the Central Committee official. With new acquired powers, Khrushchev was able to appoint associates to the leadership in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Armenia and Moldavia (modern Moldova), while Malenkov, in contrast, was able to appoint an associate to leadership only in Moscow. Under Khrushchev the local party leadership in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Russian SFSR) witnessed the largest turnover in provincial leaders since the Great Purge; two out of three provincial leaders were replaced in 1953 alone. Malenkov was assured an identical policy in government institutions; the most notable change being the appointment of Mikhail Pervukhin, Ivan Tevosian and Maksim Saburov to the Deputy Chairmanship of the Council of Ministers.
During the height of the Malenkov–Khrushchev struggle, Khrushchev actively fought for improvements in Soviet agriculture and the strengthening of the role of the Central Committee. Khrushchev tried to revitalise the Central Committee by hosting several discussions on agriculture at the Central Committee plenums. While no other Presidium members were enthusiastic for such an approach, Khrushchev held several Central Committee meetings from February to March 1954 to discuss agriculture alone. By doing this, Khrushchev was acknowledging a long forgotten fact; the Presidium, the Secretariat and he himself were responsible to the Central Committee. Khrushchev could have gone the other way, since some people were already calling for decreasing the Central Committee's role to "cadres and propaganda alone". A further change was democratisation at the top of the party hierarchy, as Voroshilov noted at a Presidium meeting in 1954. By August 1954 Malenkov's role as de facto head of government was over; Nikolai Bulganin began signing Council of Ministers decrees (a right beholden to the Chairman) and the Presidium gave in to Khrushchev's wishes to replace Malenkov. Malenkov was called of revisionism because of his wishes to prioritise light industry over heavy industry. At the same time, Malenkov was accused of being involved in the Leningrad Affair which led to the deaths of innocent party officials. At the Central Committee plenum of 25 January 1955, Khrushchev accused Malenkov of ideological deviations at the same level as former, anti-Stalinist Bukharin and Alexey Rykov of the 1920s. Malenkov spoke twice to the plenum, but it failed to alter his position, and on 8 March 1955 he was forced to resign from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers; he was succeeded by Nikolai Bulganin, a protege of Khrushchev dating back to the 1930s. Malenkov still remained a powerful figure, and he retained his seat in the Presidium.
The anti-Khrushchev minority in the Presidium was augmented by those opposed to Khrushchev's proposals to decentralize authority over industry, which struck at the heart of Malenkov's power base. During the first half of 1957, Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Lazar Kaganovich worked to quietly build support to dismiss Khrushchev. At an 18 June Presidium meeting at which two Khrushchev supporters were absent, the plotters moved that Bulganin, who had joined the scheme, take the chair, and proposed other moves which would effectively demote Khrushchev and put themselves in control. Khrushchev objected on the grounds that not all Presidium members had been notified, an objection which would have been quickly dismissed had Khrushchev not held firm control over the military. As word leaked of the power struggle, members of the Central Committee, which Khrushchev controlled, streamed to Moscow, many flown there aboard military planes, and demanded to be admitted to the meeting. While they were not admitted, there were soon enough Central Committee members in Moscow to call an emergency Party Congress, which effectively forced the leadership to allow a Central Committee plenum. At that meeting, the three main conspirators were dubbed the Anti-Party Group, accused of factionalism and complicity in Stalin's crimes. The three were expelled from the Central Committee and Presidium, as was former Foreign Minister and Khrushchev client Dmitri Shepilov who joined them in the plot. Molotov was sent as Ambassador to Mongolian People's Republic; the others were sent to head industrial facilities and institutes far from Moscow.
At the 20th Party Congress Khrushchev, in his speech "On the Personality Cult and its Consequences", stated that Stalin, the Stalinist cult of personality and Stalinist repression had deformed true Leninist legality. The party became synonymous with a person, not the people – the true nature of the party had become deformed under Stalin, and needed to be revitalised. These points, and more, were used against him, when Khrushchev was forced to resign from all his posts in 1964. Khrushchev had begun to initiate nepotistic policies, initiated policies without the consent of either the Presidium or the Central Committee, a cult of personality had developed and, in general, Khrushchev had developed several characteristics which he himself criticised Stalin of having at the 20th Party Congress. At the 21st Party Congress Khrushchev boldly declared that Leninist legality had been reestablished, when in reality, he himself was beginning to following some of the same policies, albeit not at the same level, as Stalin had. On 14 October 1964 the Central Committee, alongside the Presidium, made it clear that Khrushchev himself did not fit the model of a "Leninist leader", and he was forced to resign from all his post, and was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev as First Secretary and Alexei Kosygin as Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Brezhnev era: 1964–1982
Brezhnev was able to succeed Khrushchev because a majority in the Central Committee voted in favour of removing Khrushchev from office as both First Secretary and Chairman of the Council of Ministers
Before initiating the palace coup against Khrushchev, Brezhnev had talked to several Central Committee members, and had a list which contained all of the Central Committee members who supported ousting Khrushchev. Brezhnev phoned Khrushchev, and asked him to meet him in Moscow. There, a convened Central Committee voted Khrushchev out of office, both as First Secretary of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Council of Ministers. At the beginning, Brezhnev's principal rival was Nikolai Podgorny, a member of the Secretariat. Podgorny was later "promoted" to the Chairmanship of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and Andrei Kirilenko replaced him as Secretary in charge of personnel policy. At the same time, Alexander Shelepin, another rival, was replaced as Chairman of the Party-State Control Commission and lost his post as Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Shelepin was given a further blow when he was removed from the Secretariat.
The number of Central Committee meetings rose again during Brezhnev's early tenure as elected First Secretary, but the number of meetings and their duration steadily decreased during Brezhnev's rule. Before Stalin's consolidation of power, the Central Committee featured open debate, where even leading officials could be criticised. This did not occur during the Brezhnev era, and Politburo officials rarely participated in its meetings; from 1966 to 1976, Alexei Kosygin, Podgorny and Mikhail Suslov attended a Central Committee meeting once; it was in 1973 to ratify the Soviet Union's treaty with West Germany. No Politburo or Secretariat members during the Brezhnev era were speakers during Central Committee meetings. The speaker at the Central Committee meeting which elected the Council of Ministers (the Government) and the Politburo was never listed during the Brezhnev era.
Because the average duration of a Central Committee meeting decreased, and fewer meetings were held, many Central Committee members were unable to speak. Some members consulted the leadership beforehand, to ask to speak during meetings. During the May 1966 Central Committee plenum, Brezhnev openly complained that only one member had asked him personally to be allowed to speak. The majority of speakers at Central Committee plenums were high-standing officials.
By 1971, Brezhnev had succeeded in becoming first amongst equals in the Politburo and the Central Committee. Six years later, Brezhnev had succeeded in filling the majority of the Central Committee with Brezhnevites. But as
Peter M.E. Volten noted, "the relationship between the general secretary and the central committee remained mutually vulnerable and mutually dependent." The collective leadership of the Brezhnev era emphasised the stability of cadres in the party. Because of this, the survival ratio of full members of the Central Committee increased gradually during the era. At the 23rd Congress (29 March – 8 April 1966) the survival ratio was 79.4 percent, it decreased to 76.5 percent at the 24th Congress (30 March – 9 April 1971), increased to 83.4 percent at the 25th Congress (24 February – 5 March 1976) and at its peak, at the 26th Congress (23 February – 3 March 1981), it reached 89 percent. Because the size of the Central Committee expanded, the majority of members were either in their first or second term. It expanded to 195 in 1966, 141 in 1971, 287 in 1976 and 319 in 1981; of these, new membership consisted of 37, 30 and 28 percent respectively.
Andropov succeeded Brezhnev as General Secretary
Andropov–Chernenko interregnum: 1982–1985
Andropov was elected the party's General Secretary on 12 November 1982 by a decision of the Central Committee. The Central Committee meeting was held less than 24 hours after the announcement of Brezhnev's death. A.R. Judson Mitchell claims that the Central Committee meeting which elected Andropov as General Secretary, was little more than a rubber stamp meeting. Andropov was in a good position to take over the control of the party apparatus; three big system hierarchs, Brezhnev, Kosygin and Suslov had all died. A fourth, Kirilenko, was forced into retirement. At the Central Committee meeting of 22 November 1982, Kirilenko lost his membership in the Politburo (after a decision within the Politburo itself), and Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Deputy Chairman of the State Planning Committee, was elected to the Secretariat. Ryzhkov became the Head of the Economic Department of the Central Committee, and became the leading Central Committee member on matters regarding economic planning. Shortly afterwards, Ryzhkov, after replacing Vladimir Dolgikh, began to oversee the civilian economy. At the 14–15 June 1983 Central Committee meeting, Vitaly Vorotnikov was elected as a candidate member of the Politburo, Grigory Romanov was elected to the Secretariat and five members of the Central Committee were given full membership. The election of Romanov in the Secretariat, weakened Chernenko's control considerably. Later, Yegor Ligachev was appointed as Head of the Party Organisational Work Department of the Central Committee. Certain Brezhnev appointees were kept, such as Viktor Chebrikov and
Nikolai Savinkin. With these appointments, Andropov effectively wielded the powers of the nomenklatura. Even so, by the time he had succeeded in dominating the Central Committee, Andropov fell ill. He was unable to attend the annual parade celebrating the victory of the October Revolution. Chernenko, the official second-ranking secretary, competed for power with Mikhail Gorbachev. The meetings of the Central Committee and the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union were postponed to the last possible moment because of Andropov's health. Changes continued however, and the Andropov appointees continued Andropov's course of introducing new blood into the Central Committee and Party apparatus. Vorotnikov and Mikhail Solomentsev were given full membership in the Politburo, Chebrikov was elected a candidate member of the Politburo and Ligachev became a member of the Secretariat. Chernenko's position began to look precarious; Gorbachev was getting stronger by the day. Four days after Andropov's death, on 9 February 1984, Chernenko was elected as the party's General Secretary.
Chernenko was elected as a compromise candidate by the Politburo; the Central Committee could never have accepted another candidate, considering that the majority of the Central Committee members were old Brezhnev appointees. The Politburo could not, despite its powers, elect a General Secretary not supported by the Central Committee. Even so, several leading Politburo members supported Chernenko, such as Nikolai Tikhonov and Viktor Grishin. To make matters worse for Chernenko, he did not have control over the Politburo; both Andrei Gromyko and Dmitriy Ustinov were both very independent politically, and the Politburo still contained several leading Andropov protégés, such as Gorbachev, Vorotnikov, Solomontsev and Heydar Aliyev. Chernenko never got complete control over the Central Committee and Party apparatus; while Andropov never succeeded in removing the majority of Brezhnev appointees in the Central Committee, he had succeeding in dividing the Central Committee along factional lines. In this confusion, Chernenko was never able to become a strong leader. For example, Gorbachev quickly became the party's de facto Second Secretary, even though Chernenko did not support him. The distribution of power within the Central Committee turned Chernenko into little more than a figurehead. In contrast to previous general secretaries, Chernenko did not control the Cadre Department of the Central Committee, making Chernenko's position considerably weaker. However, Chernenko did strengthen his position considerably at the beginning of 1985, not long before his death. Chernenko died on 10 March 1985, and the Central Committee appointed Gorbachev General Secretary on 11 March.
Gorbachev era: 1985–1991
Gorbachev's election to the General Secretaryship was the quickest in Soviet history. The Politburo recommended Gorbachev to the Central Committee, and the Central Committee approved him. The Politburo meeting, which elected Gorbachev to the General Secretaryship, did not include such members as Dinmukhamed Konayev, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky and Vitaly Vorotnikov. Of these three, Konayev and Shcherbytsky were Brezhnevites, and Vorotnikov, while not supporting Gorbachev, took it for granted that Gorbachev would succeed Chernenko. It is conceivable, according to historian Archie Brown, that Konayev and Shcherbytsky would rather have voted in favour of Viktor Grishin as General Secretary, than Gorbachev. At the same meeting, Grishin was asked to chair the commission responsible for Chernenko's funeral; Grishin turned down the offer, claiming that Gorbachev was closer to Chernenko than he was. By doing this, he practically signaled his support for Gorbachev's accession to the General Secretaryship. Andrei Gromyko, the longtime foreign minister, proposed Gorbachev as a candidate for the General Secretaryship. The Politburo and the Central Committee elected Gorbachev as General Secretary unanimously. Ryzhkov, in retrospect, claimed that the Soviet system had "created, nursed and formed" Gorbachev, but that "long ago Gorbachev had internally rebelled against the native System." In the same vein, Gorbachev's adviser
Andrey Grachev, noted that he was a "genetic error of the system."
Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (literally openness) meant the gradual democratisation of the party. Because of this, the role of the Central Committee was strengthened. Several old apparatchiks lost their seats to more open-minded officials during the Gorbachev era. The plan was to make the Central Committee an organ where discussion took place; and in this Gorbachev succeeded.
By 1988, several people demanded reform within the Communist Party itself. At the 19th Conference, the first party conference held since 1941, several delegates asked for the introduction of term limits, and an end to appointments of officials, and to introduce multi-candidate elections within the party. Some called for a maximum of two term-periods in each party body, including the Central Committee, others supported Nikita Khrushchev's policy of compulsory turnover rules, which had been ended by the Brezhnev leadership. Other people called for the General Secretary to either be elected by the people, or a "kind of party referendum". There was also talk about introducing age limits, and decentralising, and weakening the party's bureaucracy. The nomenklatura system came under attack; several delegates asked why the leading party members had rights to a better life, at least materially, and why the leadership was more-or-less untouchable, as they had been under Leonid Brezhnev, even if their incompetence was clear to everyone. Other complained that the Soviet working class was given too large a role in party organisation; scientific personnel and other white-collar employees were legally discriminated against.