Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
PCUS Emblema.svg
Emblem of the CPSU
General SecretaryElena Stasova (first)
Joseph Stalin
Mikhail Gorbachev (last)
Elected byCentral Committee
ParentCentral Committee
Meeting place
Kremlin Senate-1.jpg
Kremlin Senate, Moscow, Russian SFSR[1][2]

The Politburo (Russian: Политбюро, IPA: [pəlʲɪtbʲʊˈro], full: Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, abbreviated Политбюро ЦК КПСС, Politbyuro TsK KPSS) was the highest policy-making authority within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[3] It was founded in October 1917, and refounded in March 1919, at the 8th Congress of the Bolshevik Party. It was known as the Presidium from 1952 to 1966. The existence of the Politburo ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union.[3]



On August 18, 1917, the top Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, set up a political bureau – known first as Narrow composition and, after October 23, 1917, as Political bureau – specifically to direct the October Revolution, with only seven members (Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Sokolnikov, and Bubnov), but this precursor did not outlast the event; the Central Committee continued with the political functions. However, due to practical reasons, usually fewer than half of the members attended the regular Central Committee meetings during this time, even though they decided all key questions.

The 8th Congress of the 8th Party Congress in 1919 formalized this reality and re-established what would later on become the true center of political power in the Soviet Union. It ordered the Central Committee to appoint a five-member Politburo to decide on questions too urgent to await full Central Committee deliberation. The original members of the Politburo were Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Lev Kamenev, and Nikolai Krestinsky.

Early years: 1919–1934

The Soviet system was based upon the system conceived by Vladimir Lenin, often referred to as Leninism.[4] Certain historians and political scientists credit Lenin for the evolution of the Soviet political system after his death.[4] Others, such as Leonard Schapiro, argue that the system itself, from 1921, evolved an inner-party democratic system to a monolithic one in 1921, with the establishment of the Control Commission, the ban on factions and the ability given to the Central Committee to expel members they deemed unqualified.[5] These rules were implemented to strengthen party discipline, however, the party continued under Lenin and the early post-Lenin years to try to establish democratic procedures within the party.[6] For instance, by 1929, leading party members began criticizing the party apparatus, represented by the Secretariat headed by Stalin, of having too much control over personnel decisions.[6] Lenin addressed such posing questions in 1923, in his articles "How We Should Reorganize the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate" and "Better Fewer But Better".[6] In these, Lenin wrote of his plan to turn the combined meetings of the Central Committee and the Control Commission into the party's "parliament".[6] The combined meetings of these two would hold the Politburo responsible, while at the same time guard the Politburo from factionalism.[6] Admitting that organizational barriers may be inadequate to safeguard the party from one-man dictatorship, Lenin recognized the importance of individuals.[6] His testament tried to solve this crisis by reducing both Stalin's and Leon Trotsky's powers.[6]

While some of his contemporaries accused Lenin of creating a one-man dictatorship within the party, Lenin countered, stating that he, like any other, could only implement policies by persuading the party.[5] This happened on several occasions, such as in 1917 when he threatened to leave the party if the party did not go along with the October Revolution, or persuading the party to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, or the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP).[5] Lenin, a noted factionalist before the Bolshevik seizure of power, supported the promotion of people he had previously clashed with on important issues to the Politburo; Trotsky and Lenin had had several years of violent polemics between them, while Grigori Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev both opposed the Central Committee resolution which initiated the October Revolution.[7]

Stalin alongside some of his allies at the 14th Congress

From 1917 to the mid-1920s, congresses were held annually, the Central Committee was convened at least once a month and the Politburo met once a week.[8] With Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power, the frequency of formal meetings declined.[8] By the mid-1930s, the Central Committee began meeting only once a month, and the Politburo convened at most once every third week.[8] The Politburo was established, and worked within the framework of democratic centralism (that is a system in which higher bodies are responsible to lower bodies and where every member is subordinate to party decisions).[9] The nature of democratic centralism had changed by 1929, and the freedom of expression which had been previously tolerated within the party, was replaced with monolithic unity.[9] The main reason being Stalin's defeat of the opposition; the Left Opposition, the Right Opposition etc.[9] It is generally believed that under Stalin the Politburo's powers were reduced vis-a-vis Stalin.[4]

Stalin defeated the Left Opposition led by Trotsky by allying himself with the rightists within the Politburo; Nikolai Bukharin, Aleksey Rykov and Mikhail Tomsky.[10] After defeating the Left Opposition, Stalin began attacking the rightists (referred to as the Right Opposition) through his supporters in the Politburo, the Central Committee and the Control Commission.[11] Stalin and his companion supported an undemocratic interpretation of Lenin's What Is to Be Done?.[11] Throughout the late-1920s, Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich (a Stalin ally), wrote and campaigned for a party organisational by-law which reduced inner-party democracy in favour of hierarchy and centralism.[11] With the defeat of the other factions, these interpretations became party law.[11] To strengthen the system of centralised decision-making, Stalin strengthened the Politburo by appointing his allies to high standing offices outside the Politburo; for instance, Molotov succeeded Rykov as Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars in 1930, to reduce the chance of another independent locus of centralised power coming into form which could threaten him and the Politburo, Secretariat and the Orgburo.[12]

During this period, the office of General Secretary became paramount.[11] The Politburo, which was nominally responsible to the Central Committee and the party Congress, became responsible to the General Secretary.[11] The General Secretary, the formal head of the Secretariat and the Orgburo, "came to exercise enormous weight in decision-making."[11] The Secretariat and Orgburo were responsible for personnel appointments in the whole party, and so were used as a machine by Stalin and his allies to promote likeminded individuals.[11] Vyacheslav Molotov and Kaganovich played a key role in strengthening the role of the Secretariat and the Orgburo in party affairs.[11]

Stalin years: 1934–1953

Excerpt of protocol of Politburo meeting of 17 January 1940 noting the decision to put 457 persons on trial and to execute 346 of them with the rest (111) being sent to the Gulags

The 17th Politburo was elected at the 1st Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee, in the aftermath of the 17th Congress.[13] Outwardly, the Politburo remained united, but on 4 February Grigory Ordzhonikidze, the People's Commissar for Heavy Industry, refused to acknowledge Stalin's projected economic growth targets, claiming that the majority in the Politburo supported his position.[13] Sergey Kirov, who had turned down an offer to take Stalin's place as General Secretary before the 17th Congress, opposed many of Stalin's repressive policies, and tried throughout 1934 to moderate them.[14] Several scholars have viewed Ordzhonikidze's and Kirov's outspokenness as the rise of a moderate Stalinist faction with the party.[15] On 1 December 1934, Kirov was shot dead – whether he was the victim of a madman or killed on Stalin's orders remains unknown.[15] Not long after, on 21 January 1935, Valerian Kuybyshev died of natural causes, and a month later, Anastas Mikoyan and Vlas Chubar were elected Politburo full members.[15] Andrei Zhdanov, the First Secretary of the Leningrad City Committee and member of the Secretariat, and Robert Eikhe, the First Secretary of the Siberian and West-Siberian District Committee, were elected Politburo candidate members.[15]

1936 signaled the beginning of the Great Purge, a nationwide purge of what Stalin deemed as anti-socialist elements.[16] The first victims of the purge were members and leaders of economic organizations.[16] Not everyone in the Politburo agreed with the purges, or the scope of them.[16] Ordzhonikidze ridiculed the purge, and tried to save officials working in the People's Commissariat for Heavy Industry.[16] Stalin expected that Ordzhonikidze would support the purges, at least officially, but instead he wrote a speech condemning them.[16] On 18 February 1937, Ordzhonikidze was found dead in his house, having killed himself.[16] At the Central Committee plenum in February 1937, Stalin, Molotov, Zhdanov and Nikolai Yezhov began accusing leading officials of anti-socialist behavior, but they met opposition.[16] Pavel Postyshev, a Politburo candidate member and First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Branch, in response to them accusing a member of the Ukrainian Central Committee of being anti-socialist said; "I don't believe it."[16] When Yezhov proposed killing Bukharin and Rykov, Postyshev along with Stanislav Kosior and Grigory Petrovsky, opposed such a measure, proposing instead of handing them over to the courts.[16] Molotov and Kliment Voroshilov, supported a compromise brokered by Stalin, which handed over Bukharin and Rykov to the NKVD.[16] Despite this opposition, Stalin and his closet associates began purging officials nationwide.[17] In May 1937, Jānis Rudzutaks became the first Politburo member to be purged.[17] In 1938, four other Politburo members were purged; Chubar, who personally telephoned Stalin crying trying to assure his innocence, Kosior, who confessed for anti-socialist crimes after his daughter was raped in front of him, Postyshev and Eikhe.[17] Petrovsky in contrast, was rather lucky, instead of being purged he was not reelected to the Politburo at the 18th Congress.[17] The purging of Rudzutaks, Eikhe and Kosior testified to Stalin's growing power; the Politburo were not even notified of the decision.[17] Postyshev was purged because "of too much zeal in persecuting people."[17]

Khrushchev: 1953–1964

Brezhnev Era: 1964–1985

Gorbachev: 1985–1991

Meeting of Politburo on the 10th of June 1989- Gorbachev's preparatory notes made by George Shakhnazarov

Gorbachev took charge in 1985, but ended just 6 years later.