The Soviet Union had eight leaders during its existence from 1922 to 1991. Unlike countries in which a president or prime minister is the designated head of state, the leaders of the USSR primarily rose to power by becoming the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in addition to any other roles they may have taken on along the way.
The men who ruled the Soviet Union the longest were Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, who each served several decades as heads of the Communist Party. Less well known are Soviet heads of state such as Georgy Malenkov, who lost power to Nikita Khrushchev after just a few weeks, or Konstantin Chernenko, who died after barely a year in power and was replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev. Each of these eight men, however, somehow shaped the USSR.
Vladimir Lenin (1922-1924)
Vladimir Lenin was the founder of the Russian Communist Party and the first Soviet head of state. After the February Revolution that ousted the Russian monarchy and ended the Russian Empire in 1917, Lenin helped lead the October Revolution (or Bolshevik Revolution) which established a new Soviet government.
The October Revolution sparked the Russian Civil War, which lasted the first years of Lenin’s tenure. Lenin’s Red Army won the war, cementing the power of the new Soviet government. In 1922, Lenin’s government signed a treaty with Ukraine, Belarus, and Transcaucasia (a region comprising Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) to form the Soviet Union, or USSR.
That same year, Lenin’s health began to deteriorate. Retired doctors a ball of his neck which had been lodged there since an assassination attempt in 1918, but his health continued to deteriorate. On January 21, 1924, he died of a stroke at the age of 53.
Lenin had started his revolutionary career as a Marxist who wanted to give political power to workers and peasants. Yet when he died, the Soviet government he had set up was very different from the kind of socialism he had advocated. His successor, Joseph Stalin, would make this difference even more striking.
Joseph Stalin (1924-1953)
Joseph Stalin participated in the October Revolution of 1917 and began working for the Soviet government during Lenin’s tenure. His concentration of power began in 1922 when he became general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, a position he held until his death in 1953.
Lenin disapproved of Stalin, and even tried to remove it as general secretary. Prior to Lenin’s health problems, many considered Leon Trotsky, another participant in the October Revolution who helped shape the Soviet government, as Lenin’s heir apparent. Stalin viewed Trotsky as one of his main rivals, and Stalin was able to take co-leadership of the Soviet Union with Grigory Zinovyev and Lev Kamenev.
During the 1920s, Stalin ousted Zinovyev and Kamenev from power, established a dictatorship and exiled Trotsky. In the 1930s he began the Great Purge, during which he killed both political rivals and people who appeared to be political allies. Stalin forced Zinovyev and Kamenev, his former co-leaders, to make false confessions in a show trial and then had them shot.
Stalin formed a strained alliance with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II, in which Soviet troops helped liberate Nazi concentration camps. Thereafter, a Cold War pitted the United States and its Western European allies against the USSR, which had by now annexed many more territories in Eastern Europe.
On March 5, 1953, Stalin died of a brain hemorrhage. His death sparked a power rush among Soviet leaders that culminated in two different men seizing power that year.
READ MORE: How Joseph Stalin starved millions during the Ukrainian famine
Georgy Malenkov (1953-1953)
The first to take control of the Soviet Union was Stalin’s heir apparent, Georgy Malenkov, who had helped facilitate Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. Of all the Soviet leaders, Malenkov held power for the shortest time.
The day after Stalin’s death, Malenkov succeeded Stalin as Prime Minister of the Soviet Union and de facto leader of the Communist Party. Yet, in just a few weeks, Nikita Khrushchev wrested control of the party from Malenkov. By the end of the year, Malenkov was no longer the main leader of the Soviet Union. He retained his post as prime minister until 1955, when an ally of Khrushchev took over the post. After that, Malenkov was no longer a major player in Soviet politics. He died in 1988.
Nikita Khrushchev (1953-1964)
Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, in 1958, its prime minister. His reign was characterized by his attempts to de-Stalinize and improve the Soviet Union’s international relations.
Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union through the construction of the Berlin Wall, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion (in which the CIA attempted to overthrow Cuban leader Fidel Castro), and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which many believe to be the closest the United States and the Soviet Union has ever come to nuclear war. Although he and US President John F. Kennedy got off to a bad start, the leaders developed a relationship in which they understood that neither of them wanted nuclear war.
Khrushchev lost his status as first secretary of the Communist Party and premier of the Soviet Union in 1964, when Leonid Brezhnev and his allies secured Brezhnev as party leader. Khrushchev died a few years later in 1971.
Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982)
Leonid Brezhnev was one of the oldest Soviet leaders, second only to Stalin. Brezhnev was 10 years old during the 1917 revolutions, meaning he was the first leader of the Soviet Union to come of age under the Soviet state. He joined the Community Party youth organization as a teenager and served in the Soviet Army during World War II.
Brezhnev was Second Secretary of the Communist Party in 1964 when he engineered Khrushchev’s ouster. With Khrushchev gone, Brezhnev took his place as First Secretary of the Communist Party (who became “General Secretary” in 1966) and with him, as head of the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev established a policy of détente from 1967 to 1979 that saw the easing of Cold War tensions and increased trade with the United States and its allies. Brezhnev is also known for the Brezhnev Doctrine, in which he asserted that the USSR should intervene in countries where the socialist or communist regime was threatened. This is the reasoning he used when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion ended the détente between the Soviet Union and the United States, which retaliated by boycotting the Games Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were still strained when Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982 of a heart attack.
Yuri Andropov (1982-1984)
Yuri Andropov was head of the KGB, the Soviet national security agency, between 1967 and 1982. When Brezhnev began to have health problems, Andropov left the KGB to compete to be Brezhnev’s successor. Andropov succeeded – two days after Brezhnev’s death he became the new General Secretary of the Communist Party.
The strained relationship Brezhnev had with US President Ronald Reagan continued with Andropov. It was under his administration that Soviet forces shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, a passenger plane, killing all 269 on board in 1983. That year, Andropov began to suffer from kidney failure, resulting in his died in 1984.
Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985)
Konstantin Chernenko, who had also competed to succeed Brezhnev in 1982, took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1984. That year, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation for the boycott of the United States four years before. .
Like Andropov, Chernenko suffered from poor health for most of his term. He died of complications from emphysema just over a year after taking control of the party.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991)
The last leader of the Soviet Union was Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded Chernenko as General Secretary after Chernenko’s death in 1985. He initiated the period of glasnost, or “opening”, during which the Union Soviet government relaxed restrictions on the press and personal expression, and began to reevaluate its Stalinist past.
Gorbachev oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which officially ended in 1991. That year, the Russian Federation elected its first president, Boris Yeltsin.