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Khrushchev's Changes to the Soviet Union

Info: 3621 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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In his own memoirs Khrushchev alludes to himself as “the reformer”[1], a well-known nickname of the leader due to the ambitious changes he made during his rule over the Soviet Union[2]. One of the most memorable events in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev Era is certainly the “so-called ‘secret’ speech”[3], wherein Khrushchev denounced and attacked Stalin and his legacy. It was in this monumental speech that Khrushchev revealed his plans to “eliminate the cult of the individual [Stalin]”[4] thus officially declaring the commencing of destalinisation. Notable reforms under this policy included: liberation of the gulags, de centralisation of industry and agriculture, and a relaxation of censorship. Whilst Khrushchev may have believed he would successfully remove Stalinist influence and “restore” the Soviet Union to its original socialist state[5], the levels of success achieved through destalinisation is often debated by historians. The reforms introduced under destalinisation are continuously analysed to determine if they were successful, or whether Khrushchev’s policies had little impact on the Stalinist influence that shrouded the Soviet Union.

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Khrushchev’s success in de-Stalinising the Soviet Union is evident following the liberation of the Gulags- the physical manifestation of the Soviet repressive system[6]. Under his plans to reverse and repair the impact of Stalin’s “mistakes”, Khrushchev demonstrated a clear commitment to reforming the Soviet Union. It is estimated that 8 to 9 million political prisoners were released from Gulags[7]on Khrushchev’s orders under the premise they had been falsely imprisoned. This clear reversal of Stalinist policy highlights Khrushchev’s determination to destalinise the Soviet Union and provides a key example of the successes of his reforms. The liberation of the Gulags was further supported by the rewriting of Criminal Code 58, as this was previously cited when making arrests during the Terror. The new code promised a fair trial for anyone accused of a crime, made it harder to secure convictions and reduced the influence of the secret police during investigations[8]. This reformation clearly undermined Stalinist principles of coercion and control and made it clear to both the East and the West that Khrushchev was committed to destalinisation, which ultimately resulted in its success.

‘The Thaw’ is a term mainly associated with Khrushchev’s relaxation of censorship and re-introduction of glasnost as part of destalinisation. The Thaw was a partially successful period in the Soviet Union as citizens were finally able to experience literature, art, and media that had been banned under Stalin. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that “undoubtedly things had become more relaxed. If we are to speak in the language of politics, we relaxed the control and people felt freer”[9]. In addition, foreign culture was also brought to the Soviet Union[10]– something that would have been unthinkable under the Stalinist regime. Khrushchev’s willing to expose society to different subjects and artforms reveals his dedication to removing evidence of ‘the cult of the individual’ from the Soviet Union, and suggests destalinisation was a success. However, censorship and repression were still evident during The Thaw. Khrushchev still censored certain literature such as Doctor Zhivago, and imprisoned any figure that criticised the Soviet System[11], indicating destalinisation was not successful. Stalin’s anti-religion campaign against Jewish people was continued by Khrushchev, and even escalated the campaign against the Church[12]. Despite condemning Stalin’s ethnic deportations during the 1940’s[13] Khrushchev did not actively introduce reform to allow the ethnic minorities to return to the Soviet Union. ‘The Law on Rehabilitation of Repressed People’ only addressed the deportations and many ethnic groups were not allowed to return to the Soviet Union[14]. This directly contradicts the advocation of Glasnost under destalinisation and would then suggest destalinisation was not successful as Khrushchev still upheld and continued Stalinist policies despite pledging to remove influence of the dictator from society.

Khrushchev’s reformation of the Soviet politics further suggests that destalinisation was a success in the Soviet Union, as the policies he implemented were effectively targeted at Stalinist influences within the political regime. As a direct impact of destalinisation Khrushchev removed all Presidium members who had been appointed to the party under the nomenklatura system[15]. Members were either completely removed from the party or demoted[16], which enables historians to draw a direct comparison between Stalin and Khrushchev. Where Stalin would either exile or execute political threats, Khrushchev simply demoted opposition. Instead of repressing the Anti Party Group, Khrushchev made Malenkov a power station manager and Molotov became the ambassador to Mongolia [17]. Whilst this can be interpreted as a Stalinist-influenced action, the demotions were incomparable to the countless executions and imprisonments ordered under Stalin and revealed that destalinisation was taking an effect on Soviet Politics.

The true extent of this relaxation of political terror became apparent when Khrushchev was removed from power. Some historians, and even Khrushchev himself, say that his demise clearly demonstrates that destalinisation was successful as Khrushchev was peacefully removed from office[18]and was even allowed to state he was resigning due to ill-health[19]. Khrushchev stated during his removal from power that no one would have “dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit [us]” and that “the fear was gone…that’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight”[20].  Khrushchev’s political reforms combined with the relaxation on coercion and control altered the structure of Government. It was now possible for Soviet leadership to be contested peacefully, and the process of change was far more diplomatic[21]and therefore Khrushchev was indeed successful in de-Stalinising the Soviet Union.

However, it can be argued that Khrushchev’s political reforms were not extreme enough to suggest that destalinisation was completely successful. Khrushchev used Stalinist tactics during his power struggle such as manipulation of political allegiances (Bulganin and Mikoyan), imprisonment and threats[22]. He was the “initiator in the red-handed catch” of Beria[23]and despite Khrushchev stating Beria was “getting his knives ready for us [The Central Committee”][24], his conduct during the investigation can be compared to that of Stalin’s during the terror.

Whilst Khrushchev’s behaviour may not have been on the same extreme as Stalin’s, his performance during the power struggle cannot be ignored when analysing his attitudes towards destalinisation. Similar behaviour was experienced during his rule, as Khrushchev’s slowly eliminated Anti-party members and supporters through demotions and eventual expulsions[25]. Whilst this can be used as evidence to suggest destalinisation was successful, the fact that opposition was removed to ensure Khrushchev maintained power can be associated with Stalinist ideals therefore highlighting its underlying existence within politics. Furthermore, Khrushchev’s government remained authoritarian, as decentralisation was never achieved. Whilst attempting to effectively destalinise, Khrushchev developed his own cult as the changes he made were often met with little opposition[26]. Presidium ministers further commented on similarities between Stalin and Khrushchev as both men believed they knew best and would prevent anyone else from opposing their views[27]. Despite being less totalitarian than his predecessor, Khrushchev was still behaving in an autocratic manner[28]. His conduct and reaction during the Polish and Hungarian Uprisings[29]revealed he was willing to use excessive force to get his own way. This contradicted destalinisation and Khrushchev’s promise not to use force unnecessarily was clearly ignored, which had a negative impact on international relations[30].Therefore, the political reforms implemented under Khrushchev prevented the success of destalinisation as elements from Stalin’s authoritarian rule were still present and in effect during the period.

 The Soviet Economy maintained a record for having short-term success under previous leaders. Despite Stalin’s 5-year plans being linked to Allied victory in The Great Patriotic War[31], Khrushchev was adamant that reform was still necessary under destalinisation. Whilst the motivation of economic decentralisation clearly illustrated the power of destalinisation, Khrushchev’s reforms were not enough to have had a significant impact on the Soviet Union. The introduction of Regional Economic Councils to replace ministries symbolised the return of local governments (Sovnarkhozy)[32], but these had little support as Khrushchev still controlled the Sovnarkhozy, and many funds intended for the councils were redirected to the Space and Arm’s Races[33]. Agricultural control remained fairly centralised under the Virgin Land Schemes, and its failure ultimately lead to Khrushchev’s removal from power[34]. Destalinisation had varied success in industry following the introduction of the 7-year plan, which replaced the 5-year plans. Khrushchev prioritised lighter industry such as oil and chemicals as well as consumer goods, as these sectors had been ignored by Stalin[35]. This led to an increase in the standard of living. There was a significant increase in households with white goods- such as washing machines and fridges- and an impressive rise in households who owned radios and television sets[36]. The lives of the Soviet People had significantly improved, with Khrushchev’s reforms offering them a new way of life compared to their experiences during the 1930’s [37]. Whilst Khrushchev had the best intentions of improving industry and the standard of living, he simply underestimated the financial cost of destalinisation. Many positive results were short-lived, so the impact of destalinisation appeared to be incredibly reduced. If Khrushchev had been more realistic with his plans for decentralisation it is possible that destalinisation would have been more successful in the Soviet Union.

Overall, it can be said that Khrushchev had varying success in de-Stalinising the Soviet Union. The refusal to follow Stalin’s example of using coercion in society and politics[38] had the most noteworthy positive impact. The liberation of the gulags is said to have been his “greatest accomplishment [which] was to end the reign of fear”[39]that had dominated the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, and the re-organization of the political structure enabled Khrushchev to be removed from power without force: something that was an unimaginable concept under Stalin. Khrushchev’s failure to sufficiently de-centralise as well as achieve positive results within industry, agriculture and the economy highlights inadequacies of de-Stalinisation. Comparisons of similarities in Khrushchev’s and Stalin’s behaviour further suggest that the influence of Stalinism still remained in the Soviet Union after 1953, but it would be naïve to expect Khrushchev to completely remove the enforced ideology of Stalin from the Soviet Union during his reign. Therefore, Khrushchev was mildly successful in de-Stalinisation during his rule as he demonstrated it was possible to remove the influence of Stalin from the Soviet Union, and “left his country in a better place than he found it”[40].


Primary Sources

  • Khrushchev, Nikita and Khrushchev, Sergei. Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev. Volume 2, Reformer,1945-1964. Pennsylvania, 2006.
  • ‘Khrushchev ‘Resigns’ All His Functions Brezhnev; Heads Party, Kosygin Premier. Ill Health, Age Given as Reason.’ New York Herald Tribune European Edition. 16 October 1964, p1.
  • Medvedev, Roy and Medvedev, Zhores. Khrushchev: The Years in Power. New York, 1978.
  • Simonov, Konstantin. Glazami Cheloveka Moego Pokolenija. Moscow, 1971.

Secondary Sources

  • Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. London, 2004.
  • Brusilovskaia, Lidiia ‘The Culture of Everyday Life During the Thaw.’ Russian Studies in History. Volume 48, Issue 1 (2009): 10-32.
  • Evans, David and Jenkins, Jane. Years of Russia and the USSR 1851-1991. London, 2001.
  • Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991. London, 2014.
  • Filtzer, Donald.  The Khrushchev Era: De-Stalinisation and the limits of reform in the USSR 1953-1964. London, 1993.
  • Frankland, Mark. Khrushchev. New York, 1969.
  • Grossman, Joan Delaney. ‘Khrushchev’s Anti-Religious Policy and the Campaign of 1954.’ Soviet Studies. Volume 24, No.3. (1973): 374-386.
  • Hornsby, Rob. Protest, reform and Repression in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Cambridge, 2013.
  • Human Rights Watch Helsinki. Russia: The Ingush-Ossetian Conflict in the Prigorodnyi Region. New York, 1996.
  • Keep, John L.H. A History of the Soviet Union, 1945-1991: Last of the Empires. Oxford, 1995.
  • MacIver, Donald. The Politics of Multinational States. New York,1999.
  • McCauley, Martin. The Khrushchev Era: 1953-1964 Seminar Studies in History. London, New York, 1995.
  • McMahon, Robert J. The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, 2003.
  • Nissani, Moti. Lives in the Balance: The Cold War and American Politics 1945-1991. USA, 1992
  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia 3rd Edition. New York, 1977.
  • Service, Robert. The Penguin History of Modern Russia. Milton Keynes, 2015.
  • Swain, Geoffrey. Khrushchev London, 2016.
  • Taubman, William. Khrushchev: The Man and His Era. London, 2003.
  • Tompson, William. Khrushchev: A Political Life. London, 2016.

Website Sources


[1] Nikita Khrushchev and Sergei Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev. Volume 2, Reformer,1945-1964 (Pennsylvania 2006.)

[2] Donald Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era: De-Stalinisation and the limits of reform in the USSR 1953-1964 (London, 1993), p.3.

[3] Roy Medvedev and Zhores Medvedev, Khrushchev: The Years in Power (New York, 1978), p.66.

[4] Robert Service, The Penguin History of Modern Russia (Milton Keynes, 2015), p.341.

[5] Nikita Khrushchev.Great Speeches of the 20th Century: The Cult of the Individual. The Guardian, (26 April 2007.) https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/26/greatspeeches1. Accessed 23 November 2018.

[6] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (London, 2004), p.3.

[7] Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era, p.20.

[8] Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era, p.31.

[9]Khrushchev and Khrushchev, Memoirs Volume 2, Reformer, p.557.

[10] Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 (London, 2014), p.360.

[11] David Evans and Jane Jenkins, Years of Russia and the USSR 1851-199 (London, 2001), p.404.

[12] Jane Delaney Grossman, ‘Khrushchev’s Anti-Religious Policy and the Campaign of 1954’ Soviet Studies, Volume 24, No.3(1973), pp.374-386.

[13] Donald MacIver, The Politics of Multinational States (New York,1999), p.70.

[14] Human Rights Watch Helsinki. Russia: The Ingush-Ossetian Conflict in the Prigorodnyi Region (New York, 1996), p.24.

[15] William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (London, 2003), p.276.

[16] William Tompson, Khrushchev: A Political Life (London, 2016), p.268.

[17] Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era, p.30.

[18] Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era, p.3.

[19] ‘Khrushchev ‘Resigns’ All His Functions Brezhnev; Heads Party, Kosygin Premier. Ill Health, Age Given as Reason’, New York Herald Tribune European Edition. 16 October 1964, p.1.

[20] Taubman, The Man and His Era, p.13.

[21] Ian D. Thatcher. ‘Khrushchev as Leader’ in Khrushchev in the Kremlin: Policy and Government in the Soviet Union 1953-1964 eds.Jeremy Smith and Melanie Ilic (2011), pp. 9-25.

[22] Taubman, Khrushchev Man and Era, Pp. 274-275.

[23] Konstantin Simonov, Glazami Cheloveka Moego Pokolenija (Moscow, 1971), p.117.

[24] Khrushchev and Khrushchev, Memoirs Volume 2, p.189.

[25] Rob Hornsby, Protest, Reform and Repression in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, (Cambridge, 2013), p.71.

[26] Medvedev and Medvedev, Years in Power, p.82.

[27] Service, Penguin Modern Russia, p.348.

[28] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia 3rd Edition, (New York, 1977), p.601.

[29] Robert J. McMahon, The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford, 2003), p.62.

[30] Geoffrey Swain, Khrushchev (London, 2016), p.137.

[31] Figes, Revolutionary Russia, p.317.

[32] Filtzer, The Khrushchev Era, p.67.

[33] Moti Nissani, Lives in the Balance: The Cold War and American Politics 1945-1991 (USA, 1992), p.86.

[34] Medvedev and Medvedev, The Years in Power, Pp.168-170.

[35] Service, Penguin Modern Russia. 2015. p.351

[36] Evans and Jenkins, Years of Russia and The USSR, pp.407.

[37] Lidiia Brusilovskaia, The Culture of Everyday Life During the Thaw,’ Russian Studies in History, Volume 48, Issue 1 (2009), Pp.10-32. 

[38]Martin McCauley, The Khrushchev Era: 1953-1964 Seminar Studies in History (London, New York, 1995), p.28.

[39] John L.H. Keep, A History of the Soviet Union, 1945-1991: Last of the Empire (Oxford, 1995), p.63.

[40] Mark Frankland, Khrushchev (New York, 1969), p.209.


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