On the 1st
of March 1953, a 74-year-old, paranoid man suffering from arteriosclerosis was
found unconscious on the bedroom floor in his Volynskoe dacha covered in his
own urine.1
Four days later, this man died from a cerebral hemorrhage,2
leaving in his stead, a leaderless superpower. The Death of Joseph Stalin, as
accounted by his daughter Svetlana, described Stalin as having a ‘terrible
look- either mad or angry and full of the fear of death, he raised his left
hand, pointing upwards, perhaps threateningly, and then death took him.’3


Stalin had
not left an heir apparent, which was problematic for an authoritarian nation
ruled through fear by a dictator shrouded in a ‘Cult of Personality’ however,
it was Nikita Khrushchev who would rise to power and lead the Soviet Union.
What Khrushchev would do in power between 1953-1964 is known as the ‘Thaw,’ a
phrase coined by the title used in a short novel written by Illya Ehrenburg.
Due to the liberalization of the of the period being correlated with
Ehrenburg’s first novel which was unlike her past works of portraying a
pro-Soviet setting and theme.4


This essay
will look at understanding what exactly was the period known as the “thaw,”
firstly by setting the context of what Stalin’s Soviet Union looked like and
the policies adopted. After acquainting with the period and context,
Khrushchev’s rise to power and secret speech will be briefly presented.
Followed by an examination of the Thaw and its policies and whether they can be
judged as being successful or failures.

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Stalin’s Soviet Union


suffering from three strokes, Vladimir Lenin died on the 21st of
January 1924.5
This is where Stalin would make the most of his position as General Secretary,
having already placed loyal clients in to positions of influence, Stalin was
able to eliminate the competition and isolate Trotsky as described by a former
colleague as a ‘grey blur’ who was insignificant yet manipulative.6
While doing this Stalin had also ‘fabricated’ his claim as heir to the
leadership and would bolster his image at the funeral of Lenin.7
By 1929 Stalin had assured that both the Left and Right oppositions of the
party were no longer a threat and would finally be the supreme leader.8


taking control of the country, Stalin began adopting policies which would align
with communist party beliefs and make the country sustainable. Stalin would use
a planned economy method to increase industrialization and heavy industries
which included the creation of factory cities like Magnitogorsk,10
and saw the output of pig-iron increase from four million tons in 1928 to
fifteen million tons by 1940. It also saw the production of steel ingots go up
from an estimate of eight million to eighteen million between 1928 to 1940.11
Agricultural Collectivization was also implemented in Stalin’s five-year-plan,
with the effort to industrialize agriculture in the hope to increase
efficiency, this however, was met with opposition from the ‘Kulaks,’ a term
originally used for the affluent peasants, but this term was soon broaden in
the countryside to refer to any peasants who opposed the introduced system of
kolkhozy farms.12 With
the class enemies sent to gulags, by the Summer of 1930, 320,000 households had
been affected in the forced transformation of the peasantry.13


In addition
to these policies, Stalin would also bring down the ‘Great Terror’ on the
population, significantly impacting the Soviet people’s lifestyles and society.
In the Winter of 1932, Stalin’s wife, Nadya had committed suicide, it is
speculated that this caused Stalin to become more emotionally cold and
coincided with the dates of the Great Terror, giving some explanation as to why
Stalin became harsher as a leader.14
The repression of the Soviet people would end in 1938, however, with the
highest estimated dead at 1,750,000 during the period of the Great Terror.15
Stalin was able make this possible through use of the Cheka, otherwise known as
the secret police or NKVD, and the Gulags which had become the largest
employers in Europe by 1939.16
The targets would include political opponents, intellectuals, kulaks and the
army, fear would hang over everyone’s shoulders. ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich,’ portrayed life in the Gulag camps intensely, with the descriptions
of artic conditions, overwork and starvation, based on the first-hand
experiences of the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

the end of World War Two and having defeated Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had
become a big player on the International scene, and would look to increasing
its sphere of influence by installing puppet governments in the ‘Eastern Bloc’
and supporting communist movements in Asian countries.17
Stalin would also begin the souring of relations with former allied nations
with the blockading of berlin in June 1948 being one of the initial actions
taken in the prelude to the Cold War.18
With the Peoples Republic of China being formed in the Autumn months of 1949,19
the Marxist states now had a vast sphere of influence which also included the
Korean peninsula.20
Furthermore, Stalin was now old poorly, and from 1946 had only given three
public speeches until he died in 1953.21


Khrushchev’s Rise to Power and The Secret

After the
death of Stalin, three main party candidates had emerged to inherit the control
of the Soviet Union; this included Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the
Communist Party, Lavrentiy Beria, Minister of Internal Affairs, Georgy Malenkov,
Chairmen of the Council of Ministers.22
Malenkov would, however, dropped out early due after a fortnight of Stalin’s death,
to the fear of being unable to control so much power, this event would prove to
be a victory for Khrushchev in the struggle for power.23
Malenkov and Khrushchev would then ally with each other in a campaign against Beria
which would ultimately lead to the execution of Beria by the Winter of 1953 due
to a conspiracy that Beria was preparing a coup.24

Conquest, 1991, p.311

Ibid, p.312

3 Cavendish, Death of Joseph Stalin,,
2003, Date accessed: 03/01/2018

4 The
Khrushchev “thaw” (1953-1964),,
Date accessed: 03/01/2018

5 Conquest, 1991, p.104

Pollard, Why did Stalin Succeed Lenin and not Trotsky,,
Date accessed: 05/01/2018

7 Conquest, 1991, p.110

8 Ibid., p.135-140

9 Davies, 1996, p.961

10 Service, 2004, p.265

11 S.L. Iron and Steel in the Soviet
Union, 1952, p.210

12 Service, 2004, p.253-267

13 Ibid.,

14 Ibid, p.292-298.

15 Conquest, 2007, p.339

16 Davies, 1996, p.962-964

17 Service, 2004, p.492- 504

18 Ibid, p.507

19 Ibid, p.509

20 Ibid, p.550-553

21 Ibid, p.560

22 Ibid, p.584-588

23 Taubman, 2004, p.245

24 Tompson, 1995, p.120-123


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