After Stalin: the Soviet Union, Europe, and the wider world, 1953–56

Matthew Jones
Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, U.K.

As well as heralding a series of momentous changes within Soviet domestic politics and society, the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953 also brought forward important shifts of tone and substance in foreign policy that seemed to indicate a relaxation of tensions in the Cold War might be possible. At Stalin's funeral, the new premier, Georgy Malenkov, pronounced that the Soviet Union accepted a policy that acknowledged "prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition of two different systems, capitalist and socialist." Henceforth international cooperation, with the aim of reducing the possibility of war with the United States and fostering world peace would, he said, be the basis of Soviet policy.[1] The collective leadership that formed around Malenkov in the immediate wake of Stalin's death signaled such new departures in the Soviet approach by easing restrictions on access to West Berlin, suggesting four-power talks on safety in the Berlin air corridors, renouncing Soviet claims against Turkey at the Dardanelles and Bosporus, relaxing censorship and movement checks in the Soviet occupied zone in Austria, and, most importantly, by encouraging the negotiating process that would eventually lead to an armistice in the Korean War by July 1953. Internal changes were also signposted by the release of over a million prisoners from labor camps, the refutation of Stalin's previous claims of a "doctor's plot" (heralding an end to the mass purges of the past), and a new direction to the economy with increases in the production of consumer goods. Political leaders in the West, however, remained suspicious about the signs of a thaw in Soviet external policy, believing (with some accuracy) that the collective leadership masked a number of bitter and ongoing internal power struggles, and that the Soviet leaders after Stalin were likely to be just as tough and uncompromising as before. Indeed, beside Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria was consolidating his hold over the Interior Ministry and secret police, while Vyacheslav Molotov, who despised and feared Beria, commanded authority in the party hierarchy through his role and long experience as Foreign Minister, a job he had once again assumed in March 1953.[2]

The eruption of a political and economic crisis in East Germany played a key part in the internal changes that ensued. As the new Federal Republic of Germany's (F.R.G.'s) economy began to blossom with the assistance of Western aid, the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) witnessed a massive exodus of population across its western border with almost half a million people leaving between 1951 and 1953. Having embarked on an ill-advised crash program of collectivization, political repression, and a full-scale transition to socialism, by the spring of 1953 Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the G.D.R.'s Socialist Unity Party, faced rising popular discontent. Soviet leaders, with Beria to the fore, advised a rattled Ulbricht to reverse direction, but it was too late. In mid-June 1953 workers in East Berlin began open protest against the Communist authorities, with demonstrations also spreading to Leipzig as well as dozens of towns and villages. Amid signs that a large-scale political revolt was underway, Soviet occupation forces used tanks, motorized infantry, and local armed police to restore order. Events in East Germany dispelled any immediate optimism that the new leadership in Moscow envisaged any loosening of the hold they maintained over political developments in Eastern Europe, but they also helped to provide a pretext for Beria's removal by his enemies in the Communist Party. Most significantly, Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Central Committee's Secretariat, felt that Beria should be ousted before he turned on the other members of the collective leadership, and helped engineer his arrest at the end of June. Beria was subsequently blamed for the debacle in East Germany, and in July Khrushchev used his new-found influence to assert the supremacy of the organs of the Party over the formal state machinery, including the feared secret police (Beria himself was executed for treason in December 1953 after a summary trial). Ideas that had previously been floated concerning the possibility of a unified and neutralized Germany, through talks with the West, were now attacked by Khrushchev and Molotov, while Ulbricht's firm grip on the G.D.R. was consolidated with Moscow's support.[3]

From the point of view of British policymakers, the crucial consideration in this period was whether the Soviet Union's post-Stalin leadership was willing to moderate Moscow's line on some of the central issues of the Cold War, and so facilitate a significant relaxation of tensions. The ingrained suspicion of most British officials was that the conciliatory Soviet tone now in evidence masked a fundamental continuity of aims, and that the immediate Communist intention was to undermine plans to strengthen the defense of the West through the rearmament of West Germany (which was planned via formation of the European Defence Community).[4] The most important exception to the general wariness in Western capitals over engaging in any high-level negotiations with the Soviet collective leadership came from none other than the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Churchill's pursuit of great power détente was to become a near-constant refrain throughout the final phase of his last premiership, before his retirement in April 1955.[5] In the face of the anxious and skeptical gaze of many of his Cabinet colleagues, he would attempt to reach out to the new leadership in the Kremlin with proposals for summit meetings and a new dialogue aimed at defusing tensions, replacing the enmity of the late 1940s and early 1950s. This was also to put him at odds with the U.S. Eisenhower administration, which had assumed office in January 1953, was implacably opposed to anything that resembled concessions to the Communist position, and was anxious that Moscow would simply use a high-level summit to score propaganda points against the West.

The Foreign Office shared many of these American concerns but had trouble restraining Churchill's desire to cap his illustrious career with the accolade of peacemaker. Knowledge that the Soviet Union had exploded a hydrogen bomb in August 1953, and concern that the Americans might prefer to have a showdown with Moscow before their nuclear advantage was completely eroded, also were powerful factors operating on the Prime Minister's mind. He was not satisfied with such diplomatic gatherings as the four-power foreign ministers' meeting at Berlin, held in January–February 1954, which (to the surprise of no one) saw deadlock reached over the future of Germany. More encouraging was the Geneva Conference on Far Eastern problems, convened between April and July 1954, which saw agreement reached over ending the debilitating colonial war in Indochina, and real cooperation between Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and Molotov, who acted together as co-chairmen of proceedings.[6] It was with Geneva in the background that in early July 1954 Churchill provoked a full-blown political crisis at home, when during his return ocean crossing after a visit to Eisenhower in Washington, he dispatched a personal message to Molotov which proposed a preliminary bilateral meeting as a way to clear the way for a summit. The Prime Minister had not received prior Cabinet approval for this move, and some of Churchill's senior colleagues believed this could have placed Britain out of step with the United States on a central question of East–West diplomacy; several stormy Cabinet meetings ensued when Churchill returned to London and resignations were threatened. However, a counter-proposal from Molotov for a foreign ministers' meeting allowed a graceful retreat to be made from Churchill's initiative and the immediate furor dissipated. Subsequently, it was to be Anthony Eden's diplomatic efforts that were to prove instrumental in repairing the structures of Western security, when after the collapse of the European Defence Community scheme in August 1954, following its rejection by the French National Assembly, he managed to revive the Western European Union, providing a means to regulate and legitimize German rearmament and the eventual admittance of the F.R.G. into the NATO Alliance in May 1955.[7]

Meanwhile, the power struggles within the Soviet Union were beginning to be resolved, with important consequences for external policy. To some observers, Malenkov's removal as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, announced in February 1955, represented the victory of a harder line toward the West being promulgated by Khrushchev, who by then had risen to become First Secretary of the Communist Party and the dominant voice in the collective leadership (which the naming of Khrushchev to head the Supreme Defense Council the following month served to confirm). But the remainder of the year saw several important developments which seemed to augur an improvement in East–West relations. In May 1955, the Austrian State Treaty was concluded, which ended the four-power occupation of that country and confirmed its independence under a democratic, multi-party political system, with the Austrian government later declaring its neutral position between the military alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact (the latter organization was also formed that same month as a response to the F.R.G.'s joining of NATO).

During the debates that had accompanied the months of negotiations leading to the Austrian Treaty, Khrushchev successfully argued that Austrian neutrality served Soviet interests, overcoming the resistance of a skeptical Foreign Ministry, whose conservative head, Molotov, was increasingly sidelined. Relations with Yugoslavia, in deep freeze since Tito's split from Stalin in 1948, were also repaired, with Khrushchev, who visited Belgrade in May, leading these efforts as he tried to improve the Soviet position in Southern Europe. A four-power summit meeting was finally held in Geneva in July 1955, where the Soviet Union was represented by Malenkov's successor, Nikolai Bulganin, as well as by Khrushchev (who, Western participants correctly appreciated, carried overriding authority within the Soviet delegation), and issues such as German unification, nuclear dangers, and disarmament measures were discussed. Britain was represented by Eden, who had taken over from Churchill as Prime Minister in April. Although no agreements were to emerge from the talks, the very fact of such high-level engagement – the first such meeting for a decade – was seen as a positive step forward and there was much talk of "the spirit of Geneva" permeating international relations.[8] Certainly, the key protagonists in the Cold War appeared to share an appreciation that an all-out war would be disastrous in its consequences for all concerned. In September 1955, Konrad Adenauer, the Chancellor of the F.R.G., visited Moscow, establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and providing for the release of the last remaining German prisoners of war after ten years or more of captivity. Taken together, Moscow's promotion of dialogue and disarmament in Europe, and an apparent willingness to be receptive to compromise, were increasingly seen as dangerous tactical maneuvers in London and Washington, likely to tempt wavering European countries into neutrality and lower the vigilance that was necessary if Western strength was to be maintained.

Alongside signs of a relaxation of tensions in Europe, Soviet policy in the rapidly decolonizing worlds of Asia and the Middle East saw new departures in 1955 that prompted further concerns in the West. Apart from the relationship with China, Stalin had shown relatively little interest in developments in the Third World, but Khrushchev's revolutionary romanticism drew him to those regions which were struggling against Western imperialism and its legacies. The Soviet Union began to offer generous amounts of economic and military assistance, along with its own models of state-led planning and industrial mobilization, to nationalist elites determined to break free of Western tutelage. To Western policymakers, these moves indicated that the threat of a Communist worldwide advance was more tangible, and as if to underline the problem Khrushchev made a historic visit to Asia, touring Afghanistan, India, and Burma in the autumn of 1955.

Indeed, for British policymakers these growing signs of increasing Soviet interest and influence in the developing world during 1955 represented the most menacing development, as colonial administrators and defense planners feared the nexus between externally supported Communist subversion and nationalist discontent. And it was in the Middle East, above all, where vital British interests were perceived to be under greatest threat, and where under the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of July 1954, British forces were due to withdraw from the Suez Canal base area by the summer of 1956. The Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser's acceptance of arms from the Eastern bloc, in the form of a deal ostensibly concluded with Czechoslovakia in September 1955, was regarded in London as a serious reverse, and it was compounded by the growth of Communist influence in Syria. Indeed, where once it had seen the Middle East as the domain of the Western powers, in mid-1955 it is clear that Moscow had decided to offer support to the cause of Arab nationalism and so disrupt Western efforts to construct a glacis of containment along the Soviet southern flank. The result of an invitation extended the year before at Geneva, Khrushchev and Bulganin's visit to Britain in April 1956 aboard the new Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze became most notable in retrospect not for the goodwill it introduced to Anglo-Soviet relations, but for a bungled naval intelligence operation in Portsmouth harbor which led to the death of the unfortunate Commander Lionel Crabb. Carried out without the authorization of Downing Street, the Crabb affair was nevertheless emblematic of the fact that British officials regarded the Soviet Union as their prime intelligence target, with information on its military capabilities as prized as that on the high-level thinking of its political leadership.

The most important internal Soviet development in 1956 was undoubtedly Khrushchev's speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in February which identified and denounced the crimes of Stalin, and confirmed that peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world was now accepted, while also making clear that continuing ideological and political competition with the West was to be a central aspect of external policy. In retrospect, the domestic "liberalization" that accompanied this phase in Soviet politics and society seems only modest, but it is easy to forget just what a significant shift this represented at the time. Thousands of political prisoners were freed from the labor camps, some previously banned literary works were now allowed a wider circulation, and the terror that had gripped everyday life for so many citizens was lifted. That said, there was no question of challenging the hegemony of Communist Party rule, open dissent was still rigorously policed and punished, and surveillance by the authorities of the private and public spheres was assumed.

Events in the closing months of 1956 indicated that de-Stalinization and tolerating different "paths to socialism," as had been accepted by Khrushchev over Yugoslavia, had its dangers for the preservation of the Soviet hold over the remainder of Eastern Europe. In Poland violent workers' riots in Poznan in June 1956, although suppressed by the security forces, had led to upheaval within the ruling Communist leadership. Without consulting Moscow, voices calling for a reduction of Soviet influence in the country and economic reforms, resulted in the demotion or removal of Stalinist elements and the installation of the formerly imprisoned Wladyslaw Gomulka as head of the Polish United Workers' Party. During the second half of October 1956, Moscow had been ready to order military intervention to quell further disturbances and ensure tight control over the Polish Communists, but reassurances from Gomulka that he could contain any unrest and that Poland remained loyal to its obligations as a member of the Warsaw Pact military alliance were enough to head off this prospect.[9]

In Hungary, the outcome, however, was to be altogether different when simmering discontent with one-party rule exploded in October 1956 into a full-scale revolt. Student organizations demanded rights to free speech, multi-party elections, a free press, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. After some initial hesitation Soviet forces intervened as the local Communist government appeared to have lost all authority. Khrushchev and his fellow Soviet leaders may well have been fearful of a spillover effect if the Hungarian situation was not eradicated, with further unrest spreading to Poland, the Baltic states, and western Ukraine, and even the possibility that centralized Communist Party control in the Soviet Union itself could be more openly questioned. At the end of October, Anglo-French intervention in Egypt, as the Suez crisis reached its climax, also served as an ideal distraction from a Soviet use of force that was bound to incur widespread international criticism. Moscow's decision to intervene was finally made when Imre Nagy, the independent-minded Hungarian Communist leader who had been made Prime Minister to the acclaim of anti-Soviet protestors, announced that he aimed to take his country out of the Warsaw Pact and adopt a neutral position in the Cold War. Nevertheless, Khrushchev still spent several days mustering consensus from the other Communist leaders in Eastern Europe, before Soviet tanks crossed the border into Hungary on November 4, 1956, initiating a brutal operation which, in the face of brave resistance and extensive street fighting in Budapest, would lead to the deaths of as many as 20,000 Hungarian civilians.[10] The crushing of the Hungarian uprising was a sharp reminder to the peoples of Eastern Europe that attempts to break free of the Soviet orbit would be met by Moscow with the ruthless application of force. Hungary was a powerful sign to Khrushchev's rivals within the party, and in the military establishment, that political change, if pursued too radically, was a potential threat to the foundations of Communist legitimacy. Within the Soviet Union, a new crackdown on students and intellectuals began, as Khrushchev moved to show his critics that he was not complacent to the dangers. There was no doubt, however, that Khrushchev began 1957 in a far weaker position than when he had first emerged as the dominant figure within the post-Stalin collective leadership in 1955, and in June of that year he had to fend off the challenge to his position mounted by the so-called "anti-party" group through the convening of an emergency plenum meeting of the Central Committee, and by enlisting support from the defense minister, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, and head of the K.G.B., Ivan Serov.

For the Western powers, there seemed little that could be done to aid the Hungarian uprising without precipitating a major war which might now be fought with hydrogen bombs (the Soviet Union had conducted its first test of a deliverable two-stage thermonuclear weapon in November 1955). In the wake of Hungary, the Soviet grip over its satellites in Eastern Europe, reinforced by the Warsaw Pact and the economic ties created through COMECON (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance founded in 1949), appeared to be as tight as ever. Indeed, events in 1956 served to indicate that the promotion of gradual, incremental change in Eastern Europe, through engagement, cultural exchange, and trade, might prove to be more conducive to Western goals than the pursuit of a "rollback" strategy which would only serve to provoke a fierce Communist backlash and heighten East–West tensions. For British foreign policy, the disaster of Suez was compounded by the enabling role that the Anglo-French attack on Egypt gave to Soviet actions in Hungary and stifled any straightforward condemnation at the United Nations of Moscow's behavior. Indeed, to many nationalist leaders and movements in the extra-European world it was Western imperialism which was still regarded as the major obstacle to their goals and aspirations rather than a Communist ideology which promulgated an emancipatory and anti-colonial message. While peaceful coexistence, as practiced under the Soviet Union's post-Stalin leadership, appeared to have reduced the immediate chances of an all-out war with the West, and helped to stabilize the division of Europe, the appeal of the Soviet model of development for emerging nations and states in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – bolstered by increasing evidence of economic and technological achievement – seemed an ominous trend for British officials concerned with managing the transition from formal empire to informal influence. It was in this sphere that the greatest threat after Suez to British worldwide interests was increasingly seen to lie.

[1] For the quotation and other aspects of the Soviet "peace offensive" following Stalin's death, see Melvyn Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 89–92.

[2] For extensive coverage of Soviet internal and external policy during this period, see Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[3] See William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

[4] See Kevin Ruane, The Rise and Fall of the European Defence Community: Anglo-American Relations and the Crisis of European Defence, 1950–55 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

[5] See John W. Young, Winston Churchill's Last Campaign: Britain and the Cold War, 1951–1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Klaus Larres, Churchill's Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy (London: Yale University Press, 2002).

[6] See James Cable, The Geneva Conference of 1954 on Indochina (London: Macmillan, 1986).

[7] See Saki Dockrill, Britain's Policy for West German Rearmament, 1950–1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[8] See Gunter Bischof and Saki Dockrill (eds.), Cold War Respite: The Geneva Summit of 1955 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

[9] See Pawel Machcewicz, Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[10] See Charles Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

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