Isaac Deutscher 1953

New Structure of Soviet Leadership:
Mr Malenkov and Stalin’s ‘Old Guard’

Source: The Times, 9 March 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Speculation is widespread on the meaning of the changes in Russia since the death of Stalin. In this article the biographer of Stalin and Trotsky presents his own expert interpretation.

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‘You think I have been only Stalin’s shadow – I shall show you that I have my own mind and will.’ This might have been the text for Mr Malenkov’s first appearance on the stage in the role of Stalin’s successor. Within a few hours of his teacher’s death he carried out a most sweeping and most startling reorganisation of party and government. The structure of the party leadership in particular, such as he had found it on his accession, had been the proud work of Stalin himself, carried out in the last months of his life. The present reshuffling of nearly the whole leading personnel of the party and the radical overhaul of most government departments is therefore calculated to demonstrate Mr Malenkov’s determination to pursue his own independent line. The swiftness with which he has acted indicates a precise plan laid out well in advance. He must have silently pondered his arrangements and thought them out in detail long before 5 March, while he was still acting as Stalin’s respectful and retiring lieutenant.

The measures taken have been justified to the world by the desire to assert the unity of leadership and the continuity of policy. If this had been the only intention it would have been enough to announce that Mr Malenkov had become Prime Minister and that he would carry on as the First Secretary or the Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Instead, a hail of changes were showered upon party and government within a few hours of Stalin’s death. The Praesidium of the party has been reduced to little more than one-third of its previous size; 14 ministries have been merged into five; the Presidency of the Republic has been changed – and the nominal President, Mr Shvernik, has been demoted, and Marshal Voroshilov has been appointed in his place. Some members of the old Stalinist guard have been reduced in rank, but one of them, Mr Kaganovich, has been promoted to be Vice-Premier in charge of all economic departments. Last but not least, Marshal Zhukov, who had been in semi-disgrace since 1946, has been brought back as Vice-Minister of Defence.

The cumulative effect of these multiple changes may well have been to create the feeling that there is a strong, self-assured hand at the helm but that the professions of continuity of policy need not be taken literally. Indeed they must have provoked a sense of discontinuity and uncertainty among the Soviet hierarchy – and in public opinion as well.

Appointed Successor: The haste with which these sweeping changes have been carried out gives food for reflection. There is no doubt that Mr Malenkov is Stalin’s appointed successor. He has long been groomed for this role by Stalin who last October at the Nineteenth Congress conspicuously threw his mantle over Malenkov’s shoulders. In this respect the present situation differs greatly from that which existed after Lenin’s death. Lenin had left the question of the succession open. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Rykov, but the real power resided in the General-Secretariat of the Central Committee of the party. Mr Malenkov does not seem to be another Rykov. As Prime Minister he also remains the party’s Secretary and holds all the positions of power which his predecessor held.

He has thus risen over the heads of the old Stalinist guard, especially over the head of Mr Molotov, who had been second only to Stalin for a quarter of a century. The old Stalinist guard has on the whole reconciled itself to Mr Malenkov’s ascendency, since he had been so clearly sponsored and promoted by Stalin himself. But the men of the old guard perhaps expected Mr Malenkov to act deferentially on their advice and to behave more timidly or discreetly than he has already behaved. They probably expected him to assume the office of the party’s General Secretary, that is, to concentrate in his hands the real power; but they probably also hoped that he would allow Mr Molotov to succeed to the nominal leadership of the government. If this was their hope, Mr Malenkov has dashed it, paying no respect to claims of seniority. Everything indicates that while Stalin was on his deathbed a sharp tug-of-war developed behind the scenes, with dramatic consequences for some of those involved.

The most startling of the changes announced has been the demotion of Mr Shvernik from his post as Chairman of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet, a post equivalent to that of the President in other republics. Together with Mr Shvernik, Mr Gorkin, the Secretary of the Praesidium, whose signature used to appear on most governmental decrees, has been reduced in rank. Mr Shvernik has not been among the most influential men in the Kremlin, but he has been an eminent member of the old guard. During the momentary interregnum which arose after Stalin’s death his role became crucial. As the titular head of the state he, or at any rate Mr Gorkin, should have signed the decree appointing the new Prime Minister and endorsing the other changes in the government. This is what articles 48 and 49 of the Soviet Constitution provide for; article 49 in particular invests in the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet the right to dismiss and appoint members of the government and to annul such governmental ‘decisions and orders as do not conform with the law’. Why, then, it may be asked, have the Chairman and the Secretary of the Praesidium, in whom those powers are practically vested, been ‘recommended’ for dismissal simultaneously with Mr Malenkov’s appointment?

The question arises: who appointed Mr Malenkov to the post of Prime Minister? Ostensibly the answer is simple. The decree of appointment was signed anonymously by the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet, the Central Committee of the party, and the Council of Ministers. According to strict constitutional precept this may be unobjectionable. But it marks a curious departure from constitutional usage, according to which the decree should have been signed on behalf of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet either by Mr Shvernik or by Mr Gorkin, the two men now demoted. Is it possible that both refused to endorse Mr Malenkov’s first moves or at least hesitated to put their signatures under the decree submitted to them? And was this the reason for their demotion?

Triple ‘Coup d'État’: In any normal state a situation in which an aspirant to power at the moment of accession demotes the titular head of the state would be qualified as a coup d'état. It would be futile to expect constitutional niceties to be observed in a system of government which, since the end of the Leninist era, has presented one long sequence of coups d'état. What would be surprising in any contemporary Russian ruler is constitutional, not anti-constitutional, behaviour. Mr Malenkov may be said on his accession to have carried out a triple coup: in the Presidency, in the government, and in the leadership of the party. The Supreme Soviet convened for the middle of this month should formally legalise this triple coup.

In Mr Malenkov’s first moves may be discerned the familiar technique of manipulating men, which he surely learnt from his late master. If he has met with jealousy or opposition from the old guard he seems to have effectively overcome these obstacles by dividing his opponents. Marshal Voroshilov is indebted to him for his new position as titular head of the state. So is Mr Kaganovich for his new eminence as the Super-Minister for Economic Affairs. It should be noted that both Marshal Voroshilov and Mr Kaganovich suffered a partial eclipse during Stalin’s last years and probably lent themselves more easily to being used against the hitherto more influential members of the old guard, Mr Molotov and Mr Mikoyan, with whom Mr Shvernik has long been associated.

Police and Officers: The new Prime Minister has also secured the support of the political police by leaving Mr Beria in office and enhancing his position. Mr Beria, feeling that his position might be weakened after the departure of his great relative, should be only too eager to prove his usefulness to the new leader. By bringing back Marshal Zhukov, the authentic representative of the officers’ corps, the new Prime Minister has made an effective bid for military support as well. Finally, he has tried to placate the old guard as a whole by doing away with the numerous and cumbersome Praesidium of the party and restoring, in all but name, the old Politbureau, now consisting almost entirely of the members of the old guard. This body, however, now looks more like a council of elders than like the effective seat of power.

Whatever their resentments and ambitions, no members of the old guard are likely to challenge Mr Malenkov’s authority. It is another question whether such a challenge may not develop in time from outside this group. The attempt will now be made to build up Mr Malenkov into ‘the Stalin of our time’, as Stalin was once built up into the Lenin of his days. But to what extent will he continue and to what extent will he modify Stalin’s policies? The answer depends less on the personalities of the ruling group than on the broader trends at work in the deeper layers of Soviet society. Stalinism was no mere continuation of Leninism: in some important respects it was its negation. It is plausible to expect that whatever comes in Russia now will not be a mere continuation of Stalinism either. Mr Malenkov’s first moves may well be the augury of further, though perhaps not imminent, changes.