The death of Stalin on Mar. 5, 1953, ushered in a new era in Soviet history. "Collective leadership" at first replaced one-man rule, and after the arrest and execution (June, 1953) of Lavrenti P. Beria the power of the secret police was curtailed. Soviet citizens began to gain a greater degree of personal freedom and civil security. Georgi Malenkov succeeded Stalin as premier, while Nikita S. Khrushchev, as first secretary of the central committee of the CPSU, played an increasingly important role in policy planning. In 1955, Malenkov was replaced as premier by Nikolai Bulganin. At the 20th All Union Congress (Feb., 1956), Khrushchev bitterly denounced the dictatorial rule and personality of Stalin in a secret speech that was later obtained by foreigners. Khrushchev replaced Bulganin as premier in 1958, thus becoming leader of both the government and the CPSU; he modified some of the more dictatorial aspects of Stalin's rule, but the CPSU continued to dominate all facets of Soviet life.Domestic Policy under Khrushchev
Khrushchev retained many of Stalin's basic economic policies, but there were important changes. Management of the economy (especially industry) was decentralized (1957) in an attempt to reduce the inefficiency and delays resulting from central bureaucratic control. Numerous national ministries were disbanded. In agriculture, vast tracts of virgin land (especially in Central Asian USSR and W Siberian USSR) were opened to the cultivation of grain, notably wheat; taxation of collective farmers' private plots was reduced; and the Machine Tractor Stations, established in the late 1920s and 30s as a means of supervising the collective farms by controlling their use of farm machinery, were abolished in 1958 and their equipment sold to the collectives. Somewhat larger amounts of consumer goods were manufactured. In 1957–58 the noted author Boris L. Pasternak was prevented from accepting his Nobel Prize for his novel Doctor Zhivago because it contained a general criticism of life in the Soviet Union immediately after the Revolution.
Foreign policy became more flexible; the Soviet Union negotiated a peace treaty with Austria (1955), established diplomatic relations with West Germany (1955), restored the Porkkala naval base to Finland (1955), dissolved the Cominform (1956), allowed foreigners to travel in the USSR, and set up cultural exchanges with Western nations. In addition, it was considered proper beginning in 1955 to form alliances with, and give aid to, the non-Communist nations of the Middle East, especially Egypt and Syria, and other non-Communist underdeveloped countries.
Relations with the Communist countries of Eastern Europe were formalized and strengthened by the establishment of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, or Warsaw Pact. In June, 1956, a revolt against Soviet influence in Poland was defeated by the Polish army, but the Poles managed to gain some concessions from Moscow; an uprising in Hungary in Oct., 1956, was crushed ruthlessly by Soviet troops.
In the technological race between the Soviet Union and the West (principally the United States), the USSR exploded (1953) a hydrogen bomb; announced (1957) the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles; orbited (1957) the first artificial earth satellite (called Sputnik); and in 1961 sent Yuri Gagarin in the first manned orbital flight. In Sept., 1959, Khrushchev undertook a 10-day tour of the United States. In May, 1960, a four-power (USSR, United States, France, and Great Britain) summit conference scheduled for Paris was aborted when a U.S. reconnaissance airplane ("U-2") was shot down in the Soviet Union and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to apologize for the aerial spying. The USSR participated in the international negotiations on nuclear disarmament and agreed (1958) to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear tests, but resumed testing in 1961. In 1963, the USSR signed a milestone treaty with the United States and Great Britain banning atmospheric nuclear tests.
The question of divided Berlin (a focal point of the cold war) remained unresolved through several rounds of negotiations and a number of "Berlin crises," particularly the 1961 controversy over the erection of the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin. In June, 1964, the Soviet Union signed a separate peace treaty with East Germany.
At the 22d CPSU congress in 1961 the attack on Stalin was continued, and the reputations of many purge victims of the 1930s were rehabilitated. Stalin's body was removed from its place of honor in the Kremlin next to Lenin's; his name was erased from the geography of the USSR (e.g., Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd), and pictures and statues of him were removed. Also at the 22d congress the Sino-Soviet conflict (which had begun in the late 1950s) emerged, stated at first in terms of a dispute with Albania (a close ally of China). Among other things, China had accused the USSR of betraying Marxism-Leninism by attempting to negotiate with the West, while Khrushchev and his administration insisted that Communist expansion could be accomplished in conjunction with a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with states having different social and economic systems.
In Oct., 1962, despite seemingly improved relations with the West, the USSR came into sharp conflict with the United States over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The United States demanded the removal of the missiles and blockaded the island to keep out Soviet ships. Backing down, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles, and the crisis passed. Some analysts maintain that the Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in U.S.-Soviet relations because the USSR realized the determination of the United States to protect what it considered its vital interests. In 1963 a "hot line" (direct and instantaneous teletype communications) was set up between the heads of government of the USSR and the United States.