The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 marked the end of an era both in the Soviet Union and the world, although no one was sure just what it meant for the future. For many Soviets, the end of Stalin’s brutal dictatorship also meant the end of stability. They wondered who would watch over and defend the Soviet Union now that his strong hand had been removed. To others, it meant an opportunity to dismantle at least some, if not all, the repressive aspects of Stalinist rule. People in Eastern Europe watched anxiously for signs they could gain more liberties, if not outright freedom, from Soviet rule. For the West, it was also an anxious time. Would the new regime in Moscow continue Stalin’s hostility to the West or would it open a new regime of peace and cooperation? Unfortunately, when the dust finally settled by the end of 1956, little would seem to have changed within the Soviet empire or in its relations with the West. Not that people, especially Nikita Khrushchev, wouldn’t try to change things. However, the Stalinist legacy of three decades of repression and paranoia would prove to be too strong to be dismantled within such a short time. To a large extent, it was a period of missed opportunities, but against heavy odds of those opportunities blossoming into a new era of peace and stability.
Since Stalin had not designated a successor, no single figure emerged in the immediate aftermath of his death. Instead a moderate coalition, led by Georgi Malenkov, took over in the Kremlin that did not even institute a major purge of its enemies. Other hopeful signs followed. Peace talks in Korea resumed only two weeks after Stalin’s death and produced a ceasefire by July. Leaders in the Kremlin were even considering the idea of a reunified, but neutral Germany. Along these lines, they summoned to Moscow the East German leader, Ulbricht, a dictator cut in the Stalinist mode, to encourage him to relax his harsh rule. However, this ultimately triggered a more ominous chain reaction of events.
In June 1953, East German workers, sensing more relaxed control from Moscow, demonstrated against Ulbricht, whose response to the message from the Kremlin had been to impose even harsher work quotas on his people. When the East German government did nothing to respond to these demonstrations, the protests turned political, threatening to overthrow Ulbricht and communist rule in East Germany. Eventually, Beria, the former head of Stalin’s secret police, ordered in Soviet forces and crushed the protests.
However, the Kremlin’s initial indecision during this crisis encouraged similar riots and strikes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and even Siberia. Many Soviet leaders saw these as attempts by the United States to upset communist rule in Eastern Europe. This generated a backlash against the government’s recent moderate policies as well as a fiercer power struggle within the Kremlin. Beria, saw this as his opportunity to seize power, but was defeated and executed. This was the only notable execution to take place in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. The fact that its victim, Beria, represented more than anyone the old Stalinist legacy was a sign that times had indeed changed.
Unfortunately, two things would prevent the United States from picking up on these cues. One was the recent Red Scare of the McCarthy era that still heavily affected American politics. The administration of the new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had courted McCarthy’s support during the 1952 election campaign, was split over how to treat these new developments. Even more worrying to the Soviets was West Germany’s admission into NATO in 1954 and the decision to let it rearm the next year. This was done largely due to the strain the Korean War had put on American Military resources. Seeing West Germany as a reliable democracy and ally now, the U.S. decided to use its resources to bolster the Western alliance. However, a rearmed and hostile German state was the last thing Russians wanted to see so soon after World War II. Therefore, they responded by forming their own military alliance, the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Thus the future direction of U.S.-Soviet relations seemed cloudier than ever.
By 1955, a new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had emerged from the power struggle inside the Kremlin. Khrushchev himself seemed to epitomize the mixed signals being sent to the West in the 1950s. He came from a poor working class background and had joined the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. As political commissar at Stalingrad, he had seen firsthand the destruction World War II had wreaked upon the Russian people and understood as well as anyone the even greater destructive power of nuclear weapons. He firmly believed communism was the best way to create better lives for the people. Unlike Stalin and Malenkov, he had a very personable style, going out to meet the people and generating genuine popular support. He prompted more consumer industries, freedom of the arts, better pensions, and freed thousands of political prisoners from Stalin’s gulags. Trying to project “Socialism with a human face,” he even opened the Kremlin to visitors and children’s parties.
However, Khrushchev had also been a loyal follower of Stalin, being instrumental in carrying out many of his harsh policies. Therefore, to many people, especially in the West, he only represented a continuation of Stalin’s harsh rule. In addition, Khrushchev had a somewhat volatile and unpredictable personality, seeming to be waving the olive branch of peace one minute and his saber the next. This made it difficult for the West to know which Khrushchev it was dealing with at any given time. Contributing to Khrushchev’s unpredictability was the conflict between his own genuine desire to improve the lives of the Soviet people and the need to look tough in his dealings with the West in order to satisfy the hard-liners within the Kremlin. In the end, his attempts to follow both of these seemingly irreconcilable policies would lead to his overthrow from power in 1964.
Initially Khrushchev did two things to show a more moderate and reasonable regime was in charge. In 1955, he withdrew Soviet troops from Austria (which had been occupied like Germany since 1945) on the stipulation that it maintain a neutral position between East and West. The next year, in a six-hour speech to a closed session of a Congress of the Communist party, he took an even bolder step by exposing Stalin’s purges as frauds and denouncing Stalin himself as a pathological criminal. When news of this speech leaked out, the common people welcomed it as a sign of more relaxed times to come. However, many communist leaders in the Kremlin and Eastern Europe worried about where this would lead. Those worries soon proved to be justified.
Khrushchev’s speech excited new hopes in the West, which continuously broadcast the text of his speech over Radio Free Europe, its main medium of propaganda to Soviet satellite countries. Naturally, this stirred up hopes of freedom from Soviet rule across Eastern Europe. Poland was the first country to react, as its workers’ demands for economic reforms grew into demands for political reforms. At first, Khrushchev moved Soviet forces toward Warsaw, threatening to crush the movement. Then, he seemed to do an about face (especially when compared to how Stalin would have acted) and agreed to give the Poles more freedom as long as they stayed loyal to the Warsaw Pact. This was hardly the end of it, though.
Later that month (October, 1956), student demonstrations erupted across Hungary in support of the Poles. When the Hungarian secret police shot several demonstrators, workers joined the students. Soviet troops sealed off Budapest and fierce fighting ensued. A popular leader, Imre Nagy, was restored to power. His government called for amnesty for the demonstrators along with more liberal political and economic reforms while still assuring the Soviet Union of Hungary’s loyalty. Khrushchev withdrew his troops (many of whom were fraternizing with the Hungarians) from Budapest, but moved more forces close to Hungary’s borders. This only caused demonstrations to spread to the countryside while more and more Hungarian troops joined the demonstrators, taking their weapons with them. Then on November 1st, Nagy repudiated the Warsaw Pact and declared Hungary’s neutrality. Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe kept hopes and tensions at fever pitch by promising support to the rebels.
However, as luck would have it, another crisis, this time over the Suez Canal, had erupted with fighting between Israel and Egypt. With the United States thus distracted, the Kremlin seized the opportunity to move fifteen divisions, including 4000 tanks (which are hard to fraternize with) against Budapest. Even without help from the United States, which probably would not have risked war with Russia over Hungary anyway, the rebels held on for three weeks, even fighting Soviet tanks with homemade bombs called Molotov cocktails, Some 700 Soviet soldiers and 3-4000 Hungarians died in the fighting before Budapest was brought back under control. Nagy was ousted from power and executed along with 300 other rebel leaders. Another 35,000 Hungarians were arrested, while 200,000 more fled to the West.
The Hungarian uprising of 1956 showed how far Khrushchev and the Kremlin would let reforms progress within the Soviet Empire before cracking down. Unfortunately, the West took this as a sign that nothing had changed since Stalin’s death and maintained a hostile posture against Khrushchev, and he responded accordingly. Therefore, an opportunity to ease tensions between the superpowers backfired, causing the Cold War to heat up even more in the years to come.