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3 March, 2017  ▪  Valeriy Prymost

How Ukrainians built Communism

When Nikita Khrushchev came to power, he brought a "Ukrainian clan" with him. It later removed their patron from the helm of the USSR

The young men of the 60s era. Kyrychenko, Brezhnev, Pidhornyi, Malynovskyi, Shelest, Shcherbytskyi and Kosygin at a parade or festival – images of the hedonistic Ukrainian nomenklatura

Flamboyant leaders in Soviet Russia dried up in 1929, when Lev Trotsky was exiled and Nikolai Bukharin arrested. From then on, grey, ruthless personalities, masters of hypocrisy and mimicry, fought for power. After Stalin, the most successful of them was Nikita Khrushchev. All the more as he found the courage to end the era of the inexorable Stalin.

Khrushchev joined the Moscow party elite again in December 1949 after a long break for work in Ukraine. He became the first secretary of the Moscow Party Committee and a secretary of the Central Committee, but had much less authority in higher political circles than Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov. Nevertheless, he had a powerful support structure – the Ukrainian party organisation, the largest in the USSR and highly influential. However, when Khrushchev went to Moscow, he was replaced in Kyiv by Leonid Melnykov, a die-hard Russian chauvinist and opponent of everything Ukrainian.

Impossible without Ukrainians

Of course, Khrushchev did not immediately take Stalin's place: he first had to deal with his main competitors – Beria and Malenkov. In the struggle between them, Khrushchev turned out to be the most cunning and insidious. In June 1953, he secured the support of Marshal Zhukov (army men traditionally hated the law enforcement agencies and Zhukov also sought revenge against Beria for exposing his looting in Germany) and ousted Beria, to the horror to the entire Central Committee Presidium. Then he got rid of Malenkov equally skilfully: he won over the hearts of the nomenklatura by initiating the return of former privileges to officials and compensating party leaders for salary losses, and then became First Secretary of the Central Committee on September 7, 1953.

While the party elite was disorientated, Khrushchev pushed through a decision to replace Melnykov as second secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee with Oleksiy Kyrychenko, his old associate. This moment would come to play a key role in the future.

Kyrychenko by nature was almost a copy of Khrushchev – equally overbearing, ambitious, brutal and poorly educated, only in Ukrainian "packaging". Like Khrushchev, Kyrychenko was neither a chauvinist nor a national-communist – he sincerely wanted the best, but (like Khrushchev) often ruined everything due to his narrow-mindedness, excessive emotionality and petty tyranny. Kyrychenko was the first Ukrainian to head the Ukrainian Communist Party, and this organisation now supported Khrushchev to the hilt. It helped in overthrowing Beria, as Kyrychenko neutralised two Interior Ministry generals loyal to Beria, making it impossible for the siloviki to strike back. After defeating Beria, Kyrychenko became a candidate member of the Presidium of the Central Committee (the future Politburo), and in July 1955 – a member of the Presidium.

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In order to overcome Stalin's "old guard", Khrushchev opposed the "personality cult" of Stalin and presented Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov as accomplices in Stalinist crimes at the twentieth Party congress (February 1956). Of course, the Stalinists did not intend to take this lying down. Molotov, Kaganovich, and Malenkov truly took the fight to Khrushchev at the next Presidium meeting in June 1957. Molotov's proposal to remove Khrushchev from the post of First Secretary was passed by seven votes to four.

But Khrushchev was not going to give up so easily either. Saying something like "the Plenum chose me, it should dismiss me too", he secured a decision to convene the Plenum in four days' time and not did not waste this new-found opportunity. First, he won over Marshal Zhukov (Defence Minister) and Mikhail Suslov (a member of the Central Committee Presidium and main party ideologist): the former flew in Central Committee members who supported Khrushchev from all over the country in military aircraft, while the latter, a skilled manipulator, delivered such a carefully worded speech at the opening of the Plenum that it changed the mood of the audience in favour of Khrushchev. Secondly, the substantial influence of the Ukrainian Party tipped the scales in favour of the First Secretary. Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov all left mainstream politics, branded "members of an anti-Party group".

So Khrushchev became the Boss. And he was quickly overcome by the eternal tyrants' disease – fear. Therefore, he tried to surround himself with people he could trust – those who owed everything to him personally. Since Khrushchev had very strong ties with Ukraine, he formed his entourage out of people from there.

This included Leonid Brezhnev, who Khrushchev had previously made First Secretary of the Zaporizhia and then Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Committee, before promoting him to First Secretary of the Party in Moldova. And he saved him after the scandalous "Pavlenko affair" (see The roads of underground capitalism in the USSR at ukrainianweek.com) making him the Second, then the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, before bringing him to Moscow in 1956, where he became one of the secretaries of the Central Committee and a candidate member of the Presidium.

This included Volodymyr Semychastnyi, who Khrushchev made Personnel Secretary of the Ukrainian Komsomol, and then saved when it came out that Semychastnyi's brother had been sentenced to 25 years' prison for "cooperation with the Germans". Khrushchev wrote a letter to Stalin in which he personally (!) vouched for Semychastnyi.

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This included Marshal Rodion Malynovskyi, who Khrushchev saved from Stalin's wrath in 1942 after defeat in the Battle of Kharkiv and the abandonment of Rostov.

This included Mykola Pidhornyi, Dmytro Polianskyi and Petro Shelest. They all owed their positions to Khrushchev.

After the June Plenum in 1957, Khrushchev made Brezhnev a member of the Presidium of the Central Committee (the future Politburo) and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Malynovskyi – Defence Minister, Semychastnyi – head of the KGB, Pidhornyi – First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and a secretary of the Central Committee, Polianskyi – a member of the Central Committee Presidium and Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Shelest – First Secretary of the Kyiv Regional Committee and then (when Pidhornyi moved to Moscow) – First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

And, of course, Kyrychenko. Khrushchev took him to Moscow and made him the Second Secretary of the Central Committee (basically, the second man in the party). Kyrychenko gained huge influence and power. Never before had a Ukrainian climbed so high in the Soviet hierarchy – everyone believed that Kyrychenko would actually be the "successor".

The "main Ukrainians" were followed to Russia by others: Kyrylenkos, Dovhopols, Yermashes, Konotops, Demydenkos, Neporozhniys and Harbuzovs. These "immigrants" held leading positions in regional Party organisations, ministries, departments, committees, the Central Committee and the Council of Ministers. In his book The Roots of Stalinist Bolshevism, Aleksandr Pyzhikov notes that there had not been such an invasion of Ukrainians into the Russian power hierarchy since the days of the famous "Ukrainian infestation" in the era of Peter the Great and Ivan Mazepa. What would have happened if "Khrushchev's" Ukrainians remembered that they were actually Ukrainian?

Khrushchev felt sympathetic towards "his Ukrainians" (and everything associated with Ukraine). He was ready to forgive them for many things that would have brought disgrace upon others. Ironically, the rapid rise of Kyrychenko, the first Ukrainian in the upper ranks of Soviet power, was brought to an end by a scandal in winter 1959, when the second secretary had a furious dispute with the first over whose bullet killed a boar while hunting in Zavidovo.

Improving life today

With the demise of the ideological component of the communist regime, the Soviet bureaucracy became ever stronger and wanted to protect its position as much as possible, in order to freely and consistently take advantage of the perks it was afforded. However, Khrushchev was too authoritarian and unpredictable – he almost unleashed World War III twice (the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962), blew up Tsar Bomba (a massive hydrogen bomb) on Novaya Zemlya, and terrified the nomenklatura with his economic experiments (particularly in agriculture) and attacks on artists, all while behaving like a buffoon on the international stage. And worst of all: the First Secretary began to fight against the privileges of the party nomenklatura!

No one trembled before him as they did with Stalin, as they knew that there would be no mass incarcerations or executions. Without fear, there was no need to obey. Khrushchev had irked everyone. And "his Ukrainians" (who were privileged, which means that they felt entitled to be "irked" before anyone else) led the dissatisfaction.

And many were discontent: the army was annoyed by number reductions and budget cuts, urban residents by the deterioration of supplies and rising prices, rural residents by cuts to subsidiary farms and the ban on keeping cattle, and intellectuals by scandals like the "Bulldozer Exhibition".

Having once spoken out against Stalin's "personality cult", Khrushchev set about creating his own, but without the horror of prison vans by night, it degenerated into "Nikita the Corn Man". The 1962 Novocherkassk massacre did not change anything either – one of the slogans of the unrest was "Make mincemeat out of Khrushchev!", which contained not only anger towards a half-starved existence, but also scorn for the leader. The people of Russia were not afraid of this dictator, so they did not love him. He was only popular as a character in jokes. Eventually, the highest Party echelons decided that "the Moor has done his duty..."

Aleksandr "Iron Shurik" Shelepin, a Central Committee secretary and the only non-Ukrainian among the main conspirators, considered Brezhnev and Pidhornyi to be the initiators of the coup (only they were capable of it according to their positions in the state and Party hierarchy). They were later joined by others – Semychastnyi, Polianskyi, Shelest and Malynovskyi. Then the majority of the Central Committee and even chief ideologist Suslov and chief economist Kosygin, 1st Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, sided with them (the latter first asked, "Who is the KGB with?" and gave his consent when he learned that the KGB were on the conspirators' side)

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The following were cited as motives for the overthrow of Khrushchev: economic decline, collapse of the agriculture sector and an authoritarian, brutal style of government. Brezhnev and Pidhornyi did a tremendous amount of groundwork. As Shelepin remembered: "Brezhnev and Pidhornyi talked to each member of the Central Committee Presidium and each Central Committee secretary. They also had conversations with the Central Committee secretaries of the union republics and other major organisations down to city committees."

Since the position of the Ukrainian Party organisation was particularly important, Brezhnev and Pidhornyi had repeated informal meetings with Shelest, the First Secretary of the local Communist Party. At one meeting, Brezhnev even burst out crying (he was generally a tearful person). Shelest agreed and, in turn, began talks with Ukrainian members of the Central Committee (and then there were no less than 36 of them!). Most agreed to oppose Khrushchev, even his friend Demyan Korotchenko, chairman of the Presidium of the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet. It became clear that nothing could save Nikita Sergeyevich anymore.

A Ukrainian coup

Khrushchev's 70th birthday was best remembered for torrents of praise. Brezhnev delivered the first salutatory speech at the banquet table (shedding a tear at the correct moment): "...Your vigorous political and public activity, enormous experience and wisdom, inexhaustible energy and revolutionary will, steadfastness and unwavering integrity have earned the deep respect and love of all Communists and all Soviet people. We are happy to work alongside you, and follow your example of a Leninist approach towards the issues of party life and state building, always being with the people, devoting all your strength to them and constantly moving forward towards the greater goal – building a communist society... We believe, our dear friend, that you have only lived half your life. We wish for you to live at least as much again, just as brilliantly and productively. We heartily embrace you on this momentous day."

For six months, the conspirators prepared their coup while keeping up appearances of complete obedience to the leader. However, in late September 1964, before leaving for a holiday in the Crimea, Khrushchev found out about the plot from Vasili Galyukov, an employee in the administration of the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet, who overheard what he should not have and immediately blew the whistle. Khrushchev summoned Pidhornyi: "For some reason, Comrade Pidhornyi, rumours are going around that there is a certain group that wants to get rid of me and you are involved in it?" Pidhornyi thought (as he later told Shelest) that Brezhnev had spilt the beans and suggested giving the KGB the command to investigate. But just before his flight, Khrushchev told members of the Central Committee Presidium: "You're plotting something against me, my friends. Look, if anything crops up, I'll throw you out like puppies".

In Crimea, Shelest, as "master of the republic", accompanied Khrushchev. But the weather turned bad, and the First Secretary flew to Pitsunda, Abkhazia. On October 11, he called Polianskyi from there to say that he knew everything and would return in three or four days to "show everyone what's what". When Brezhnev, who was leading a delegation of the Supreme Soviet on an official visit to the GDR, found out about this, he got terribly scared and did not want to go home.

The conspirators did not know that Khrushchev had called Zhukov, who he sent into retirement himself, and arranged a meeting. But they knew that Khrushchev had scheduled a Plenum that was to proclaim a new economic policy and to some extent change the political system. There were persistent rumours that the First Secretary intended to use this Plenum to dramatically reshuffle the upper levels of government. The plotters realised that the time had come.

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Semychastnyi called Brezhnev in the GDR (where the latter stubbornly remained, catastrophically violating diplomatic etiquette) and said that it was time, but nothing was possible without Brezhnev. But Leonid Ilyich got on the plane only when Marshal Malynovskyi, Defence Minister, agreed to take part in the coup. Pidhornyi also urgently flew in from Moldova, where he was on a working visit.

On October 12, the conspirators called a meeting of the Central Committee Presidium in the Kremlin. They planned to hold a closed session of the Presidium the following day, which would only be attended by Presidium members and candidate members, as well as Central Committee secretaries. Then summon Khrushchev from Pitsunda and force him to resign.

Shelest recalled, "Before his (Khrushchev's) arrival, we had meetings for almost two days, always discussing how we should summon Khrushchev. Pidhornyi was originally entrusted with this. But he had spoken to Khrushchev the day before. So Pidhornyi refused: "I'm not going to call, because that would raise doubts. I spoke with him recently and there was nothing wrong, then suddenly we're summoning him..." It was decided that Brezhnev would call. We were all present when Brezhnev talked to Khrushchev. It was awful. Brezhnev was shaking and stuttering, his lips turned blue, "Nikita Sergeyevich, here... it's just... we request... that you come back... to deal with some issues..." Khrushchev said something to him, but we did not hear it. Brezhnev hung up, "Nikita Sergeyevich said that he... for two days and you've already... shit your pants... can't deal with the issues. OK, call me later. Mikoyan is here, we'll discuss it."

Anastas Mikoyan, a brilliant opportunist, was with Khrushchev in Pitsunda and prompted him to make the "right" decision. When Brezhnev called a second time the same evening, Khrushchev said, "OK, I will fly back".

The only military force capable of supporting Khrushchev was the Kyiv Military District, commanded by Khrushchev's personal friend Petro Koshovyi, but the KGB was to see to it that the First Secretary could neither contact Koshovyi nor send a plane to Kyiv.

The meeting of the Central Committee Presidium began at 15:30 and went without a hitch. All members of the Presidium spoke one at a time and each demanded the resignation of the First Secretary. Khrushchev tried to fight, but he failed to convince his opponents or split their ranks.

The meeting continued the next day, October 14, but the end was already nigh. Brezhnev delivered the main denunciatory speech: "Nikita Sergeyevich, you know my attitude towards you. At a difficult time for you, I honestly, boldly and confidently fought for you and the Leninist line. I had a myocardial infarction then, but even seriously ill, I found the strength to fight for you. Today, I cannot ignore my conscience and would like to make some remarks from Party member to Party member... If you, Nikita Sergeyevich, did not suffer from such shortcomings as a lust for power, self-admiration and a belief in your infallibility, if you had even a little modesty, you would not have allowed the creation of your personality cult. You have made the radio, film and television serve yourself. You have taken a liking to giving instructions to everyone on all issues, but we know that no single person can cope with this task – this is the root of all errors..."

For some time, Khrushchev tried to object, appealing to his colleagues' conscience: "I apologise to all of you if I offended someone or said something wrong, but you all supported our decisions. You were involved in them and voted!" Realising that it was all in vain, the First Secretary fell silent. He was broken and crushed. He agreed to write a request "to be dismissed from office for health reasons".

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On the same day, a Central Committee Plenum started at 18:00, which was opened by strong criticism from Suslov. Khrushchev asked for permission to give a short answer, but the presiding Brezhnev did not dare, remembering the 1957 Plenum. Khrushchev was blamed for 5 C's: corn, communism (the promise to "live under communism"), culture, China (he fell out with Mao) and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as his penchant for lofty rhetoric and "showing people what's what". The Plenum immediately relieved him of his duties as First Secretary of the Central Committee, member of the Central Committee Presidium and Chairman of the Council of Ministers "due to old age and deteriorating health".

Khrushchev could no longer fight. He was old and tired. Perhaps the fact that "his Ukrainians" left him was the most distressing. They all betrayed him. They unanimously dismissed him and equally unanimously elected Brezhnev. The Ukrainian Leonid Ilyich did not completely destroy his defeated enemy, personally granting his predecessor a miserly pension.

The retired Khrushchev took an interest in hydroponic gardening and read a lot. In 1968, he started to write his memoirs, although former colleagues hinted that it would be better not to. He did not listen. And died of a heart attack at the Central Kremlin Hospital on September 11, 1971.

A Ukrainian on the throne – and the end of the USSR

It is clear that all these people were more "Russian-Soviet" than Ukrainian. However, when they were in power, the Ukrainian voice in the "Soviet choir" became stronger.

Nevertheless, their replacement was inevitably dictated by the conventions of the genre. "Iron Shurik" Shelepin and Semychastnyi left their high positions in 1967, Shelest in 1972, Polianskyi in 1973 and Pidhornyi in 1977. Marshal Malynovskyi died of natural causes in 1967.

The "Ukrainian mafia" did not disappear, only Brezhnev updated its composition, adding "his men from Dnipropetrovsk", who did not emerge from under the umbrella of "Stalin's old guard". In Moscow, there were melancholy jokes that Russian history was divided into three periods: pre-Petrine, Petrine and Dnipropetrine. The most influential representatives of the "Dnipropetrovsk clan" were such "pillars" of the late Soviet Union as Volodymyr Shcherbytskyi (First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party), Konstiantyn Chernenko (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Presidium and later General Secretary), Mykola Tykhonov (Chairman of the Council of Ministers), Viktor Chebrikov (head of the KGB) and Mykola Shcholokov (Interior Minister). Leonid Kuchma, the second Ukrainian president, was also part of this clan.

Of course, under Brezhnev there were enough Ukrainians not from Dnipropetrovsk in the upper echelons of power: Andriy Kyrylenko (member of the Politburo), Andriy Hrechko (Marshall and Defence Minister) and Vitaliy Fedorchuk (head of the KGB), among others. Together, these Ukrainian functionaries unintentionally brought the Soviet Union, drowning in the sweet, gold-plated Era of Stagnation, to its ignominious and logical conclusion.

Aleksandr Pyzhikov: "...from the late 1970s, the trend of ‘state debauchery’ gained in strength. By then, it could not be opposed. The Soviet project, powered by Russians' belief in a better life, was completely discredited and emasculated by Brezhnev's (Ukrainian) leadership, which paved the way for the collapse of a great country, over which all sorts of rabble were already circling, ready to plunder."

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What else did the Russians want? It was absurd to expect denationalised "Little Russians" to show at least some concern for the Russian Empire, when the ability to care about Ukraine had already been beaten out of them. Besides, these "Little Russians" retained the characteristic of the Ukrainian soul that forces Ukrainians to fight against a lack of freedom in any time or place. First, they helped Khrushchev deal with Stalin's "personality cult" and then liquidated Khrushchev's own "personality cult".

After all, it is time the Russians understood once and for all that Russian ideas for a "better life" – with top-down governance, disorder, camps, stupidity and starvation – are categorically unacceptable for Ukrainians. Sooner or later, with armed force or a well-fed bureaucracy, Ukrainians will always ruin their "better life". So it is in the Russians' interests not to try to drag us back into it...

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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