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Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Party leader Vladimir Lenin (1912 - 1924)
Joseph Stalin (1924 - 1953)
Georgy Malenkov (1953 - 1955)
Nikita Khrushchev (1955 - 1964)
Leonid Brezhnev (1964 - 1982)
Yuri Andropov (1982 - 1984)
Konstantin Chernenko (1984 - 1985)
Mikhail Gorbachev (1985 - 1991; final leader)
Parliamentary leader
Founded January 1912
Headquarters Moscow, USSR
Political ideology Communism, Marxism-Leninism, Atheism
Political position Fiscal: Socialism
Social: Liberal
International affiliation
Color(s) red

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the only official party of the Soviet Union. It was started in January 1912 by Lenin, and led the October Revolution of 1917. The party was dissolved in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Communist Parties still exist in Russia, including the modern Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Communist Workers Party of Russia, although in elections these parties have won only 51 seats in the Parliamentary elections.


In 1917 the party seized power in Russia as the vanguard of the working class, and it continued throughout the Soviet period to rule in the name of the proletariat. The party sought to lead the Soviet people toward Communism, defined by Karl Marx as a classless society that contains limitless possibilities for human achievement. Toward this end, the party has sought to effect a cultural revolution and create a "new Soviet man" bound by the strictures of a higher, socialist morality.

The party's goals required that it control all aspects of Soviet government and society in order to infuse political, economic, and social policies with the correct ideological content. Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Communist party and the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, justified these controls. Lenin formed a party of professional revolutionaries to effect a proletarian revolution in Russia. In the late 1980s, however, the party no longer sought to transform society and was apparently attempting to withdraw itself from day-to-day economic decisions. Nevertheless, it continued to exert control through professional management. Members of the party bureaucracy were full-time, paid officials. Other party members held full-time positions in government, industry, education, the armed forces, and elsewhere. In addition, Lenin argued that the party alone possesses the correct understanding of Marxist ideology. Thus, state policies that lacked an ideological foundation threatened to retard society's advance toward communism. Hence, only policies sanctioned by the party have contributed to this goal. Lenin's position justified party jurisdiction over the state. The CPSU enforced its authority over state bodies from the all-union level to that of the district and town. In the office, factory, and collective farm, the party has established its primary party organizations (PPOs) to carry out its directives.

The role of ideology in the political system and the party's efforts to enforce controls on society demonstrated the party leadership's continuing efforts to forge unity in the party as well as among the Soviet people. Democratic centralism, the method of intraparty decision making, directed lower party bodies unconditionally to execute the decisions of higher party bodies. Party forums from the town and district levels up to the Central Committee bring together party, government, trade union, and economic elites to create a desired consensus among policymakers. Party training, particularly for officials of the CPSU's permanent bureaucracy, shaped a common understanding of problems and apprised students of the party's approaches to ideology, foreign affairs, and domestic policy. Party training efforts demanded particular attention because of the varied national, class, and educational experiences of CPSU members.

The party exercised authority over the government and society in several ways. The CPSU has acquired legitimacy for its rule; that is, the people acknowledged the party's right to govern them. This legitimacy derived from the party's incorporation of elites from all parts of society into its ranks, the party's depiction of itself as the representative of the forces for progress in the world, and the party's postulated goal of creating a full Communist society. Paradoxically, the party's legitimacy was enhanced by the inclusion of certain prerevolutionary Russian traditions into its political style, which provided a sense of continuity with the past. A different source of authority lies in the power of PPO secretaries to implement party policies on the lowest rungs of the Soviet economy. The CPSU obligated members participating in nonparty organizations to meet regularly and ensure that their organizations fulfilled the directives the party has set for them. Finally, as part of the nomenklatura system, the party retained appointment power for influential positions at all levels of the government hierarchy (higher party bodies hold this power over lower party bodies as well). Taken together, the legitimacy accorded to it and the prerogatives it possessed enabled the party to perform its leading role within the Soviet political system.

Lenin's conception of the CPSU

For a more detailed treatment, see Leninthink.
The origins of the CPSU lie in the political thought and tactical conceptions of Lenin, who sought to apply Marxism to an economically backward, politically autocratic Russia. Toward this end, Lenin sought to build a highly disciplined, monolithic party of professional revolutionaries that was to act as the general staff of the proletarian movement in Russia. Lenin argued that this underground party must subject all aspects of the movement to its control so that the actions of the movement might be guided by the party's understanding of Marxist theory rather than by spontaneous responses to economic and political oppression. Lenin envisaged democratic centralism as the method of internal party decision making best able to combine discipline with the decentralization necessary to allow lower party organs to adapt to local conditions. Democratic centralism calls for free discussion of alternatives, a vote on the matter at hand, and iron submission of the minority to the majority once a decision is taken. As time passed, however, centralism gained sway over democracy, allowing the leadership to assume dictatorial control over the party.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Lenin's ideas about the proletarian revolutionary party differed from the ideas of Marx. According to Marx, the working class, merely by following its own instincts, would gain rational insight into its plight as the downtrodden product of capitalism. Based on that insight, Marx held, the workers would bring about a revolution leading to their control over the means of production. Further, Marx predicted that the seizure by the proletariat of the means of production (land and factories) would lead to a tremendous increase in productive forces. Freedom from want, said Marx, would liberate the minds of men. This liberation would usher in a cultural revolution and the formation of a new personality with unlimited creative possibilities.

As he surveyed the European milieu in the late 1890s, Lenin found several problems with the Marxism of his day. Contrary to what Marx had predicted, capitalism had strengthened itself over the last third of the nineteenth century. The working class in western Europe had not become impoverished; rather, its prosperity had risen. Hence, the workers and their unions, although continuing to press for better wages and working conditions, failed to develop the revolutionary class consciousness that Marx had expected. Lenin also argued that the division of labor in capitalist society prevented the emergence of proletarian class consciousness. Lenin wrote that because workers had to labor ten or twelve hours each workday in a factory, they had no time to learn the complexities of Marxist theory. Finally, in trying to effect revolution in autocratic Russia, Lenin also faced the problem of a regime that had outlawed almost all political activities. Although the autocracy could not enforce a ban on political ideas, until 1905—when the tsar agreed to the formation of a national duma (see Glossary)--the tsarist police suppressed all groups seeking political change, including those with a democratic program.

Based on his observations, Lenin shifted the engine of proletarian revolution from the working class to a tightly knit party of intellectuals. Lenin wrote in What Is to Be Done (1902) that the "history of all countries bears out the fact that through their own powers alone, the working class can develop only a trade-union consciousness." That is, history had demonstrated that the working class could engage in local, spontaneous rebellions to improve its position within the capitalist system but that it lacked the understanding of its interests necessary to overthrow that system. Pessimistic about the proletariat's ability to acquire class consciousness, Lenin argued that the bearers of this consciousness were déclassé intellectuals who made it their vocation to conspire against the capitalist system and prepare for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin also held that because Marx's thought was set forth in a sophisticated body of philosophical, economic, and social analysis, a high level of intellectual training was required to comprehend it. Hence, for Lenin, those who would bring about the revolution must devote all their energies and resources to understanding the range of Marx's thought. They must be professional activists having no other duties that might interfere with their efforts to promote revolution.

Lenin's final alteration of Marx's thought arose in the course of his adaptation of Marxist ideology to the conditions of Russia's autocracy. Like other political organizations seeking change in Russia, Lenin's organization had to use conspiratorial methods and operate underground. Lenin argued for the necessity of confining membership in his organization to those who were professionally trained in the art of combating the secret police.

The ethos of Lenin's political thought was to subject first the party, then the working class, and finally the people to the politically conscious revolutionaries. Only actions informed by consciousness could promote revolution and the construction of socialism and Communism in Russia.

The CPSU regarded itself as the institutionalization of Marxist–Leninist consciousness in the Soviet Union, and therein lies the justification for the controls it exercised over Soviet society. Article 6 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution refers to the party as the "leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, of all state organizations and public organizations." The party, precisely because it is the bearer of Marxist–Leninist ideology, determined the general development of society, directs domestic and foreign policy, and "imparts a planned, systematic, and theoretically substantiated character" to the struggle of the Soviet people for the victory of Communism.

Democratic Centralism

Democratic centralism involved several interrelated principles: the election of all leadership organs of the party from bottom to top; periodic accounting of party organs before their membership and before superior organs; strict party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority; unconditional obligation by lower party bodies to carry out decisions made by higher party bodies; a collective approach to the work of all organizations and leadership organs of the party; and the personal responsibility of all communists to implement party directives.

Democratic centralism is primarily centralism under a thin veil of democracy. Democratic centralism requires unanimity on the part of the membership. The concept requires full discussion of policy alternatives before the organization, as guided by the leadership, makes a decision. Once an alternative has been voted upon, however, the decision must be accepted by all. In principle, dissent is possible, but it is allowed only before a decision becomes party policy. After the party makes a decision, party norms discourage criticism of the manner of execution because such criticism might threaten the party's leading role in Soviet society.

The principles of democratic centralism contradict one another. One contradiction concerns the locus of decision making. Democratic centralism prescribes a collective approach to the work of all organizations, which connotes participation of all party members in decision making. Yet, democratic centralism also holds that criticism of agreed-upon policies is permissible only for the top leadership, not for rank-and-file party members. Hence, discussion of these policies can take place only after the leadership has decided to permit it. The leadership will not allow discussions of failed policies, for fear that such discussions will undermine its power and authority.

A second contradiction concerns the issue of accountability. Democratic centralism holds that lower party bodies elect higher party bodies and that the latter are accountable to the former. Nevertheless, democratic centralism also prescribes the unconditional subordination of lower party bodies to higher party bodies. In reality, superiors appointed those who nominally elected them to their positions and told them what decisions to make.

Democratic centralism undermines intraparty democracy because the party had formally proscribed factions. The Tenth Party Congress in 1921 adopted a "temporary" ban on factions in response to the Kronshtadt Rebelliod. In 1989 this ban remained in effect. Every party member had the right to express an opinion in the party organization to which he or she belonged. Before a decision was taken, however, party members could not appeal to other members in support of a given position. Moreover, party members could not engage in vote trading. In democratic systems, a party member holding a minority position on an issue can exercise influence if allowed to organize people with similar views and if allowed the opportunity to persuade others. Without these opportunities, democratic procedures remained an empty formality.

Devoid of democratic content, the political and organizational logic of democratic centralism contributed to the emergence of dictatorship in the Soviet Union. Despite the formal ban, in the early 1920s factions emerged in the party because Lenin failed to work out orderly procedures for leadership succession. In the absence of these procedures, new leaders had to attempt to cloak their policies in the mantle of ideological orthodoxy. To prevent criticism from rivals, the new leader could label real and potential opponents a faction and, according to the party rules, which banned factions, take steps to remove them from the party. For example, Nikita S. Khrushchev took these steps against his opponents in 1957. The leader thus could eliminate real and potential rivals, but ultimately, however, only success in action could prove a leader's policies correct. Success in action required the commitment of the party, and commitment of the party demanded that ordinary party members perceive that the leader possessed infallible judgment. Democratic centralism provided a necessary condition for the leader's claim to infallibility because it prevented ordinary party members from criticizing the policies of the party elite.

Party legitimacy

The legitimacy of the CPSU derived from various sources. The party has managed to recruit a significant percentage of members having occupations carrying high status in Soviet society. In addition, the party has served as a vehicle of upward mobility for a significant share of the citizenry. By joining the party, members of the working class could ensure a secure future for themselves in the political apparatus and access for their children to a good education and high-status jobs. The party also justified its right to rule by claiming to embody the "science" of Marxism–Leninism and by its efforts to lead society to full communism. In addition, the CPSU appealed to the patriotism of the citizenry. In the more than seventy years of the party's rule, the Soviet Union (and its current successor, Russia) had emerged as a superpower, and this international status was a source of pride for the Soviet people. Finally, tradition bolstered the legitimacy of the CPSU. The party located its roots in Russian history, and it has incorporated aspects of Russian tradition into its political style.

The CPSU was an elite body. In 1989 it comprised about 9.7 percent of the adult population of the Soviet Union. Among the "movers and shakers" of society, however, the percentage of party members was much higher. In the 1980s, approximately 27 percent of all citizens over thirty years of age and with at least ten years of education were members of the party. About 44 percent of all males over thirty with at least ten years of education belonged to the CPSU.

Among certain occupations, party saturation (the percentage of party members among a given group of citizens) was even higher. In 1989 some occupations were restricted to party members. These positions included officers of youth organizations, senior military officers, and officials of government bodies such as the ministries, state committees, and administrative departments. Occupations with saturation rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent included positions as mid-level economic managers, scholars and academics, and hospital directors. Low saturation existed among jobs that carried low status and little prestige, such as industrial laborers, collective farmers, and teachers. Thus, the party could represent itself as a legitimate governing body because it commanded the talents of the most talented and ambitious citizens in society.

The CPSU derived some legitimacy from the fact that it acted as a vehicle for upward mobility in society. People who have entered the party apparatus since the 1930s have come from a working-class background. The party widely publicized the working-class origins of its membership, which led members of that class to believe they could enter the elite and be successful within it.

Another source of party legitimacy lay in Marxist–Leninist ideology, which both promised an absolute good - Communism - as the goal of history and shrouds its understanding of the means to that goal with the aura of science. The party justified its rule as leading to the creation of a full Communist society. Hence, the CPSU claimed that the purpose of its rule was the common good and not the enrichment of the rulers. The party also identified Marxism–Leninism and the policies that it developed on the basis of this ideology with the absolute truth of science. The CPSU maintained that the laws of this science hold with the same rigor in society as the laws of physics or chemistry in nature. In part, the party justified its rule by claiming that it alone could understand this science of society.

During its 74 years of rule the CPSU altered its ideology to ensure its continued legitimacy, despite the inability to fulfill the promises contained in Marxism–Leninism. One modification had been the rejection of some of Marxism–Leninism's original ideological tenets. For example, in the early 1930s the party renounced an egalitarian wage structure. A second modification has been the indefinite postponement of goals that cannot be realized. Thus, the party continued to assure the populace that the achievement of economic abundance or the completion of proletarian revolutions in developed Western countries would take place, but it did not specify a date. A third modification has been the ritualization of some of the goals whose fulfillment the party has postponed. For example, in his first public address as general secretary in 1984, Konstantin U. Chernenko averred that concern for the development of the new Soviet man remained an essential part of the CPSU's program. In the late 1980s, few accorded that goal much practical import, but the reaffirmation of that objective probably reassured the party faithful that the new leadership would remain true to the CPSU's ideology and traditions.

The party attempted to strengthen its legitimacy with appeals to the pride Soviet citizens felt for their country. The party led Soviet Russia from the devastation the country suffered in the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War (1918–21) to victory in World War II over an ancient Russian enemy and then to superpower status. In 1989, moreover, the CPSU could still claim to lead a world Communist movement. Since World War II, Soviet influence had extended to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A feeling of patriotic pride for these accomplishments united the Soviet elite, and it bound the elite to the masses.

The CPSU had incorporated aspects of traditional Russian culture into its political style. The party drew upon Russia's revolutionary tradition and represented itself as the culmination of a progressive and revolutionary movement that began with the "Decembrists' revolt" of 1825. Most aspects of this revolutionary tradition centered on Lenin. The fact that the state preserved his remains in a mausoleum on Red Square echoed an old Russian Orthodox belief that the bodies of saints do not decay. In addition, the regime bestowed Lenin's name on the second largest city of the Soviet Union (Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg), a bust or picture of Lenin decorated all party offices, and quotations from his writings appeared on billboards throughout the country. All Soviet leaders since Lenin have tried to show that they follow Lenin's policies. The CPSU had sought to maintain and strengthen its legitimacy by drawing upon the legacy of this charismatic figure.

Another element of old Russian culture that has entered the CPSU's political style was the cult of the leader (also referred to as the cult of personality). The Soviet cult of the leader appropriated a cultural form whose sources lay deep in the Russian past. Cults of saints, heroes, and the just tsar had long existed in Russia. In the 1920s, the cult of Lenin emerged as part of a deliberate policy to gain popular support for the regime. Joseph Stalin, who built the most extensive cult of the leader, was reported to have declared that the "Russian people is a tsarist people. It needs a tsar." Stalin assumed the title of generalissimo during World War II, and throughout his rule he was referred to by the title vozhd (leader). Other titles appropriated by Stalin included "Leader of the World Proletariat", "Great Helmsman", "Father of the Peoples", and "Genius of Mankind".

Soviet leaders since Stalin have also encouraged the development of their own cults, although on a smaller scale than that of Stalin. These cults of the party leaders replicated that of the just tsar. Like the cult of the just tsar, who was depicted as having remained true to his faith of Russian Orthodoxy, the cults of party leaders such as Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev represented them as leaders who remained true to their faith in Marxism–Leninism. Like the just tsar, who was depicted as being close to the common people, these leaders represented themselves as having the interests of the common people at heart.

Central party institutions

In a political organization like the CPSU, which aims to be monolithic and centralized, central party institutions assume supreme importance. Central institutions in the CPSU included the party congress, the Central Committee, the Central Auditing Commission, the Party Control Committee, the Politburo (political bureau), the Secretariat, and the commissions. These organs made binding decisions for intermediate and local party bodies down to the PPO.

According to the Party Rules, the party congress was the highest authority in the party. This body was too large and unwieldy to exert any influence, however, and its members were appointed either directly or indirectly by those whom it ostensibly elected to the Central Committee and Politburo. Moreover, the party congress met only once every five years. Another large party body of note was the party conference, which met infrequently upon the decision of the Central Committee. The Central Committee itself, which met every six months, theoretically ruled the party between congresses. Although more influential than the party congress and the party conference, the Central Committee wielded less power than the Politburo, Secretariat, and the party commissions.

The Politburo, the Secretariat, and the party commissions paralleled a set of central governmental institutions that included the Council of Ministers and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. The distinction between party and government institutions lay in the difference between policy formation and policy implementation. Stated briefly, the central party institutions made policy, and the government carried it out. The distinction between policy formation and policy implementation was often a narrow one, however, and party leaders frequently involved themselves in carrying out policies in the economic, domestic political, and foreign policy spheres. This problem, known in the Soviet Union as podmena (substitution), occurred throughout all party and government hierarchies.

The distinction between policy formation and policy execution also characterized the differences between the Politburo, on the one hand, and the Secretariat and the commissions, on the other hand. The Politburo made policy for the party (as well as for the Soviet Union as a whole). The Secretariat and, apparently, the party commissions produced policy alternatives for the Politburo and, once the latter body made a decision, carried out the Politburo's directives. In fulfilling these roles, of course, the Secretariat often made policy decisions itself. The Secretariat and the commissions administered a party bureaucracy that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Through this apparatus, the CPSU Secretariat and the party commissions radiated their influence throughout the middle and lower levels of the party and thereby throughout the government, economy, and society.

The general secretary, as a member of the Politburo and the leader of the Secretariat, was the most powerful official in the CPSU. The general secretary was the chief policymaker, enjoyed the greatest amount of authority in party appointments, and represented the Soviet Union in its dealings with other states. The absence of a set term of office and the general secretary's lack of statutory duties meant that candidates for this position had to compete for power and authority to attain it. Once having been elected to this position, the general secretary had to maintain and increase his power and authority in order to implement his program.

Party Congress

According to the party rules, the party congress was "the supreme organ" of the CPSU. The First Party Congress took place in 1898 in Minsk, with 9 delegates out of a party membership of about 1,000. In 1986 the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress had 5,000 delegates, or 1 for every 3,670 party members. Delegates were formally elected by republic party congresses or, in the case of the Russian Republic, by conferences of kraia, oblasts, and autonomous republics. Attendance at a party congress was largely honorific. Approximately half the delegates were luminaries in the party. The Twenty-Seventh Party Congress included 1,074 important party functionaries, 1,240 executive government officials, 147 distinguished scholars and scientists, 332 high-ranking military officers, and 279 writers and artists. The party reserved the remainder of delegate positions for rank-and-file party members. For the rank and file, attendance at a party congress was a reward for long years of service and loyalty.

Relative to other central party institutions, the size of the party congress was inversely proportional to its importance. Lack of debate and deliberation have been characteristic of party congresses since the Tenth Party Congress in 1921. Party congresses convened every year until 1925. Thereafter, they began to lose their importance as an authoritative party organ, and the intervals between congresses increased to three or four years. From 1939 to 1952, the party neglected to hold a congress. After Stalin's death in 1953, the party elite decided to convene congresses more frequently. Since the mid-1950s, the Party Rules have stipulated that congresses be held every five years.

Since 1925, however, some notable congresses have taken place. The Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934 praised collectivization and the successes of the First Five-Year Plan (1928–32), and it confirmed Stalin as head of the party and the country. In 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev criticized Stalin's cult of personality. In 1986, at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress, General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev attempted to break with Stalin's legacy by enunciating policies calling for more openness (glasnost) in Soviet life and for restructuring (perestroika).

The party congress normally met for about a week. The most important event occurred when the general secretary delivered the political report on the state of the party, reviewed Soviet economic and foreign policy over the preceding five years, cited achievements and problems of the world Communist movement, and delivered a prospectus for the next five years. In another important speech, the chairman of the Council of Ministers presented the targets for the next five-year plan. These two speeches provided the setting for a number of shorter speeches that followed. Republic party secretaries, oblast committee (oblast komitet--obkom) secretaries, and government officials offered very formalized comment on the policies enunciated by the general secretary. The central apparatus also selected a few rank-and-file members to give speeches praising party policies. Finally, the congress listened to brief reports given by secretaries of foreign Communist and workers' parties friendly to Moscow. Some party congresses adopted a broad statement called the party program.

While in session, the party congress voted on several kinds of issues. All decisions were unanimous. The congress enacted a series of resolutions that stemmed from the general secretary's political report, and those resolutions became party policy until the next congress. In addition, the party leadership could offer changes in the Party Rules to the congress. Most important, the party congress formally elected the members of the Central Committee, which it charged to govern the party until the next congress.

Party Conference

Similar in size to the congress was the party conference, although unlike the congress it did not meet regularly. The Nineteenth Party Conference - the most recent - took place in 1988. (The Eighteenth Party Conference had been convened in 1941.) Officially, the conference ranked third in importance among party meetings, after the congress and the Central Committee plenum. Oblast and district party leaders handpicked most of the delegates to the Nineteenth Party Conference, as they had for party congresses in the past, despite Gorbachev's desire that supporters of reform serve as delegates. Nevertheless, public opinion managed in some instances to pressure the party apparatus into selecting delegates who pressed for reform.

The Nineteenth Party Conference made no personnel changes in the Central Committee, as some Western observers had expected. However, the conference passed a series of resolutions signaling policy departures in a number of areas. For example, the resolution "On the Democratization of Soviet Society and the Reform of the Political System" called for the creation of a new, powerful position of president of the Supreme Soviet, limiting party officeholders to two five-year terms, and prescribed multicandidate elections to a new Congress of People's Deputies. The conference passed other resolutions on such topics as legal reform, interethnic relations, economic reform, glasnost, and bureaucracy.

By convening the Nineteenth Party Conference approximately two years after initiating his reform program, Gorbachev hoped to further the democratization of the party, to withdraw the party from many aspects of economic management, and to reinvigorate government and state institutions. He also sought to rouse the party rank and file against the bureaucracy. In this vein, the conference was a success for Gorbachev because it reaffirmed his program of party-directed change from above.

Central Committee

The Central Committee met at least once every six months in plenary session. Between party congresses, the Party Rules required that the Central Committee "direct all the activities of the party and the local party organs, carry out the recruitment and the assignment of leading cadres, direct the work of the central governmental and social organizations of the workers, create various organs, institutions, and enterprises of the party and supervise their activities, name the editorial staff of central newspapers and journals working under its auspices, disburse funds of the party budget and verify their accounting." In fact, the Central Committee, which in 1989 numbered more than 300 members, was too large and cumbersome to perform these duties; therefore, it delegated its authority in these matters to the Politburo and Secretariat.

The history of the Central Committee dates to 1898, when the First Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party elected a three-person body to run its affairs. In May 1989, the Central Committee had 251 full members and 109 candidate members (Candidate members do not have the right to vote).

Western scholars know little about the selection processes for membership on the Central Committee. British Sovietologists Ronald J. Hill and Peter Frank have suggested that the party leadership drew up a list of candidates before the party congress. Party leaders then discussed the list and presented it to the congress for ratification. Both personal merit and institutional affiliation determined selection, with the majority of members selected because of the positions they held. Such positions included republic party first and second secretaries; obkom secretaries; chairmen of republic, provincial, and large urban governmental bodies; military leaders; important writers and artists; and academics.

During periods of policy change, turnover in the Central Committee occurred at a rapid rate. A new leadership, seeking to carry out new policies, attempted to replace officials who might attempt to block reform efforts with its own supporters. Thus, at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress, the first for Gorbachev as general secretary, the rate of turnover for full members was 41 percent, as compared with 25 percent at the Twenty-Sixth Party Congress in 1981. In addition, of the 170 candidate members elected by the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress, 116 (or 68 percent) were new.

Gorbachev effected further changes at the April 25, 1989, Central Committee plenum. As a result of personnel turnover because of death, retirement, or loss of position since the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress, a significant percentage of the Central Committee had come to be classified as "dead souls," that is, people who no longer occupied the position that had originally gained them either full or candidate status in the Central Committee. At the April 25 plenum, seventy-four full members resigned their Central Committee positions. Twenty-four members received promotion to full-member status. (The Party Rules dictate that only the party congress can name new candidate members and that a plenum can only promote new full members from among the pool of candidate members.)

The changes signified a reduction of influence for both the party apparatus and the military. Party apparatchiks declined from 44.5 percent to 33.9 percent of the full members. The military's representation fell from 8.5 percent to 4.4 percent among the full members.

Worker and peasant representation rose from 8.5 percent to 14.3 percent. But because members of these groups lacked an independent political base, they usually supported the general secretary. Thus, the changes indicated a victory for Gorbachev. He eliminated many Central Committee members who lost power under his rule and were therefore considered opponents of reform. Gorbachev also increased the number of his own supporters in the Central Committee.

The Central Committee served significant functions for the party. The committee brought together the leaders of the most important institutions in Soviet society, individuals who had the same rank in the institutional-territorial hierarchy. The Central Committee thus provided a setting for these organizational and territorial interests to communicate with one another, articulate their concerns, and reconcile their positions on various issues. Membership in the Central Committee defined the political elite and reinforced their high status. This status lent the committee members the authority necessary to carry out policies in their respective institutions. Members also possessed a great deal of expertise in their respective fields and could be consulted by the Central Committee apparatus in preparing policy recommendations and resolutions for plenums, party conferences, and party congresses.

Central Auditing Commission

Every party congress elected a Central Auditing Commission, which reviewed the party's financial accounts and the financial activities of its institutions. The commission also investigated the treatment accorded to letters and complaints by the party's central institutions. The status of membership on the Central Auditing Commission appeared to fall just below that of candidate status on the Central Committee. In 1989 the commission had seventy members. The commission elected a bureau, which in May 1989 was headed by Deputy Chairman Alla A. Nizovtseva.

Party Control Committee

The Party Control Committee, which was attached to the Central Committee, investigated violations of party discipline and administered expulsions from the party. Because it examined the work of party members in responsible economic posts, this committee could involve itself in financial and economic management. The Party Control Committee also could redress grievances of party members who had been expelled by their PPO. In 1989 its chairman was Boris A. Pugo.


Two weeks before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Bolshevik leadership formed the Politburo as a means to further centralize decision making and to permit effective adaptation of party policies to rapidly changing circumstances. Since the Bolshevik Revolution, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU has consisted of the highest party and government officials in the Soviet Union. Despite the importance of this body, only a small amount of space was devoted to it in the Party Rules, which noted only that the Central Committee chose the Politburo for "leadership of the work of the party between plenums of the Central Committee." The Politburo formed the highest decision-making body in the Soviet Union. Its full and candidate members served on the Politburo by virtue of their party or government positions.

The Politburo was a standing subcommittee of the Central Committee. Like the Central Committee, the Politburo was composed of full and candidate (non-voting) members. The party rules neither specified the size of the Politburo nor mentioned candidate status.

Four general career patterns determined accession to membership in the Politburo. Officials of the central party apparatus could rise within that hierarchy to acquire a position that led to a seat on the Secretariat. In 1989 several secretaries of the Central Committee sat on the Politburo. Other officials, such as Mikhail A. Suslov (the party's leading ideologist under Brezhnev) and Aleksandr Iakovlev, who also made his career in ideology, attained membership in the Politburo because of their expertise. The technical or economic specialist was a third pattern. For example, Nikolai Sliun'kov probably was brought into the Politburo because of his expertise in economic administration. Finally, a successful career in the provinces often led to a call to Moscow and a career in the central apparatus. Volodymyr Shcherbyts'kyy exemplified this career pattern.

Several interlocking trends have characterized the Politburo since Stalin's death in 1953. Membership in the Politburo has become increasingly representative of important functional and territorial interests. Before 1953 the party leadership concentrated on building the economic, social, and political bases for a socialist society. In the post-Stalin period the leadership has sought instead to manage society and contain social change. Management of society required a division of labor within the Politburo and the admission of people with specialized expertise. Stalin kept the lines of responsibility ambiguous, and he tightly controlled the kinds of information his comrades on the Politburo received. Since 1953 Politburo members have had greater access to information and hence more opportunity to develop consistent policy positions. Because the party leadership eliminated violence as an instrument of elite politics and restrained the secret police after Stalin's death, Politburo members began advancing policy positions without fear of losing their seats on this body, or even their lives, if they found themselves on the wrong side of the policy debate.


Until September 1988, the Secretariat headed the CPSU's central apparatus and was solely responsible for the development and implementation of party policies. The Secretariat also carried political weight because many of its members sat on the Politburo. In 1989 eight members of the Secretariat, including the general secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPSU, served as full members of the Politburo. One member, Georgii P. Razumovskii, was a candidate member of the Politburo. Those officials who sat on the Politburo, served in the Secretariat, and chaired a party commission were the most powerful in the Soviet Union.

After the formation of the party commissions in the fall of 1988, lines of authority over the central party bureaucracy became very unclear because the responsibilities of the secretaries and the responsibilities of the commissions considerably overlapped. Of the nine secretaries, excluding the general secretary, six chaired party commissions. One Western observer, Alexander Rahr, believed that this factor limited the power of the Secretariat because the influence of the secretaries who chaired the commissions was restricted to specific areas of competence as defined by their commission chairmanships. In addition, the secretaries became answerable to the commissions they chaired. Finally, in one case, a secretary served as a subordinate to another secretary in the latter's role as the chairman of a commission. Viktor P. Nikonov, a secretary responsible for agriculture, was deputy chairman of the Agrarian Policy Commission, which was chaired by Egor K. Ligachev, another party secretary.

Western specialists poorly understood lines of authority in the Secretariat. It was clear that the members of the Secretariat supervised the work of the Central Committee departments. Department chiefs, who normally sat on the Central Committee, were subordinate to the secretaries. For example, in 1989 Aleksandr S. Kapto, the chairman of the Ideological Department, answered to Vadim A. Medvedev, party secretary for ideology, and Valentin A. Falin, the head of the International Department, answered to Iakovlev, party secretary for international policy. Most department heads were assisted by a first deputy head (a first deputy administrator in the case of the Administration of Affairs Department) and from one to six deputy heads (deputy administrators in the case of the Administration of Affairs Department). However, the International Department had two deputy heads.

In 1989 a variety of departments made up the CPSU's central apparatus. Some departments were worthy of note. The Party Building and Cadre Work Department assigned party personnel in the nomenklatura system. The State and Legal Department supervised the armed forces, the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti; KGB), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the trade unions, and the Procuracy.

Before 1989 the apparatus contained many more departments responsible for the economy. These departments included one for the economy as a whole, one for machine building, and one for the chemical industry, among others. The party abolished these departments in an effort to remove itself from the day-to-day management of the economy in favor of government bodies and a greater role for the market. In early 1989, Gorbachev suggested that the agrarian and defense industry departments might be disbanded as well as part of his reform efforts.


At the September 30, 1988, plenum of the Central Committee, the CPSU announced that six new commissions would be formed to develop policy and oversee its implementation in a series of key areas. A resolution of the November 1988 plenum that actually established the commissions maintained that their purpose was to "facilitate the involvement of Central Committee members and candidate members in active work on major directions of domestic and foreign policy."

Several factors led to the formation of these new party bodies. First, Gorbachev probably sought to strengthen reformist influence at the top of the party hierarchy. Second, the move was designed to reduce the party's day-to-day involvement in the economy. Thus, only one of the six commissions was concerned with economic policy, while another dealt with agriculture. Finally, Gorbachev's desire to reduce the power of his conservative rival, Ligachev, also helped to explain the move. Prior to September 1988, Ligachev had been the party's second secretary, the official who usually chaired meetings of the Secretariat. By limiting the influence of the Secretariat and by placing Ligachev in charge of agriculture—the Achilles heel of the economy—Gorbachev eliminated Ligachev as a competitor for power.

As of May 1989, the actual work of the commissions belied the significance the party attached to them. In their first six months, none of the commissions had met more than once. All the communiqués reporting on their meetings have been devoid of substance.

General Secretary: Power and Authority

That certain policies throughout Soviet history have been so clearly identified with the general secretary of the CPSU demonstrated the importance of that position as well as of the stakes in the succession struggle upon a general secretary's death or removal from office. As general secretary, Stalin determined the party's policies in the economy and foreign affairs and thus gave his name to a whole era in Soviet history. Khrushchev put his stamp on a variety of policies, including peaceful coexistence with the West and the virgin land campaign. Soviet and Western observers identified Brezhnev with détente and the Soviet military buildup. In the late 1980s, Gorbachev associated his name with the policies of openness, restructuring, and democratization.

The general secretary possessed many powers. As chairman of the Politburo, the general secretary decided the agenda and timing of its deliberations. The general secretary acted as chief executive of the party apparatus and thus supervised the nomenklatura. The general secretary also chaired the Defense Council, which managed the Soviet military-industrial complex. Finally, through attendance at summit meetings with world heads of state, the general secretary acquired symbolic legitimation as the Soviet Union's top ruler.

Once selected for this position by other members of the Politburo and confirmed by the Central Committee, the general secretary had to proceed to build a base of power and strengthen his authority. Officials considered eligible for the position of general secretary held a great amount of power to begin with; they always occupied seats on the Politburo and Secretariat, and they developed a large number of clients throughout the party and government bureaucracies. The general secretary's efforts to extend this power base involved placing loyal clients in strategic positions throughout party and government hierarchies. One measure of the success of the general secretary's efforts in this regard was turnover in the Central Committee at the first party congress following the secretary's accession to the position. The general secretary used these clients to promote desired policies at all levels of the party and government bureaucracies and to ensure accurate transmission of information about policy problems up the hierarchy.

To secure his rule and advance his policies, the general secretary also had to increase his authority. American Sovietologist George Breslauer has written that efforts to build authority involved legitimation of the general secretary's policies and programs and demonstration of his competence or indispensability as a leader. The general secretary strove to show that his policies derived from Lenin's teachings and that these policies have led to successes in socialist construction. Moreover, the general secretary strove to demonstrate a unique insight into the teachings of Marx and Lenin and into the current stage of world development. The general secretary also emphasized personal ties to the people and a leadership motivated by the interests of the workers and peasants. One further means to strengthen the legitimacy of the general secretary's power has been the acquisition of high government offices. Thus in October 1988, Gorbachev became chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which was the title for head of the Soviet state. He retained his position as head of state when in May 1989 the Congress of People's Deputies close a new Supreme Soviet and elected Gorbachev to the just created position of chairman of the Supreme Soviet. In the past, the head of the Soviet state sometimes had been referred to as "president" in Soviet and Western media, although such a position was not identified in the Constitution.

Another means that Soviet general secretaries have used to ensure their authority is the cult of the leader. The cult of the leader has several intended audiences. For example, the general secretary used the cult of the leader to intimidate actual or potential rivals and thus force them to accept and follow his policies. In addition, the cult of the leader reassured those members of the party and government hierarchies whose careers depended upon the success of the general secretary's policies. The cult of the leader provided inspiration to those who wished to identify with a patriarchal figure.

Breslauer has written that Soviet general secretaries since Stalin have attempted to build their authority by creating a sense of national élan. For example, Iurii V. Andropov, general secretary from November 1982 to February 1984, sought to rouse Soviet society with his campaign against alcoholism and corruption. The general secretary has also sought to play the role of problem solver. For example, in the mid- and late 1980s, Gorbachev sought to reverse a decline in economic efficiency by promoting economic policies designed to curb the ministries' role in Soviet economic life and thereby encourage enterprise initiative.

Since the death of Lenin, the party elite had been unable to institute regulations governing the transfer of office from one general secretary to the next. The Nineteenth Party Conference called for limiting party officeholders to two five-year terms. However, it was unclear whether this proviso would apply to the general secretary and other top leaders. The party leadership has yet to devise procedures by which the general secretary may relinquish the office. The powers of the office were not set; neither were its rights and duties. These factors combined to generate a high degree of unpredictability in selecting a new leader and a period of uncertainty while the new general secretary consolidates power.

Three stages have characterized the efforts of various general secretaries to consolidate their power and authority. The first stage begins while the incumbent leader is in power and lasts through his death or ouster. Potential successors seek to place themselves in more powerful positions relative to their rivals. For example, under Konstantin Chernenko (general secretary from February 1984 to March 1985) Gorbachev chaired Politburo meetings in the general secretary's absence and also assumed responsibilities for cadre policy. These responsibilities enabled Gorbachev to set the agenda for Politburo meetings and to place persons loyal to him in important positions throughout the regime. Gorbachev's unsuccessful rivals for power, Grigorii V. Romanov and Viktor V. Grishin, had fewer such opportunities to influence the outcome of the struggle to succeed Chernenko.

The second stage occurs with the transfer of authority to the new leader and both the accumulation of positions and the authority that goes with them. This stage can occur over a prolonged period of time and coincide with the next stage. For example, only in 1977 did Brezhnev, named general secretary in 1964, become chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and thus de facto head of state. The third stage involves two steps: consolidation of the new leader's power through the removal of his predecessor's clients and those of his actual and potential rivals for power; and the installation of the new leader's clients in key positions. This stage probably lasts for the duration of the general secretary's tenure.

A succession struggle entails opportunities and problems for the new party leader and for the Soviet leadership as a whole. Transfer of office from one general secretary to another can improve the possibilities for change. Seweryn Bialer has written that "ambition, power, and the desire for innovation all meet in a succession struggle and so prepare the ground for change." Succession disrupts the normal pattern of business. Also, policy initiatives are a critical means of consolidating a new leader's position. Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin represented an appeal to party officials dissatisfied with Stalinism and an effort to define and control a new program that would better meet the needs of the party and society. Similarly, in the late 1980s Gorbachev's initiatives appealed to officials and citizens who were dissatisfied with the inertia of the late Brezhnev period and who sought to modernize the Soviet economy.

Yet, a succession struggle can also occasion serious difficulties for the leadership. A succession struggle increases the probability for personal and policy conflicts. In turn, these conflicts can lead to political passivity as the rivals for power turn their attention to that struggle rather than to policy development and execution. When the general secretary lacks the influence necessary to promote desired policies, a sense of inertia can debilitate the political system at the intermediate and lower levels. This factor partially explains the resistance that Khrushchev and, in the late 1980s, Gorbachev met in their respective efforts to alter the policies of their predecessors.

Intermediate-level party organizations

The intermediate-level party structure embraced the republic, oblast, raion (see Glossary), and city levels of the hierarchy. The organizational scheme of each of these levels resembled the others. In addition, at each of these levels the party organization corresponded to a similar layer in the government administration. According to the Party Rules, the authoritative body at each of these levels was the congress (republic level) or conference. These bodies elected a committee that, in turn, chose a bureau with several members (including a first secretary) and a secretariat. Conferences at one level elected delegates to the conference or congress at the next highest level. Thus, the rural or city conference designated delegates to the oblast conference or, in the case of the smaller republics, directly to the republic party congress. The oblast conference elected delegates to congresses of the larger republics. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic had no party congress. Delegates from provinces (oblasts, kraia, and autonomous subdivisions) in that republic were elected directly to the allunion party congress. Of course, at each level of the hierarchy the term election generally was a euphemism. By the norms of democratic centralism, party leaders at each level approved the makeup of the party conference or congress that ostensibly elected them, as well as the composition of party bodies on the next lowest level.

Republic Party Organization

The republic party organization replicated the party structure on the all-union level except for the Russian Republic, which had no republic-level party organization in 1989. A congress, made up of delegates from the oblast or district and town organizations, elected a central committee to govern the republic in the five-year interval between party congresses. The central committee of the republic, which held a plenum once every four months, named a bureau (in the case of the Ukrainian Republic, this body was called a politburo) and a secretariat to run the affairs of the republic between plenums of the central committee.

Full and candidate (nonvoting) members of republic bureaus included officials who held seats on this body by virtue of their party or government positions. Party officials who sat on the republic party bureaus normally included the first secretary of the republic and the second secretary for party-organizational work, as well as others selected from among the following: the first secretary of the party organization in the capital city of the republic, the chairman of the republic party control committee, and the first secretary of an outlying city or province. Government officials who could serve on the republic bureau were elected from among the following: the chairman of the republic's council of ministers, the chairman of the presidium of the republic's supreme soviet, the first deputy chairman of the republic's council of ministers, the republic's KGB chairman, and the troop commander of the Soviet armed forces stationed in the republic.

In 1989 the secretariats of the fourteen republic party organizations included a second secretary for party-organizational work and a secretary for ideology. The number of departments has, however, shrunk as the party has attempted to limit its role in economic management. Some sources also indicated the formation of commissions similar to those of the central party apparatus. Thus, the republic first secretaries in the Kazakh, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Moldavian republics and the second secretaries in the Belorussian and Turkmen republics assumed the chairmanships of their republics' commissions on state and legal policy.

With the exception of the Kazakh Republic (where a Russian, Gennadii Kolbin, served as first secretary), the first secretaries of the republic party organizations in 1989 were all members of their republic's dominant nationality. However, in 1989 the officials responsible for party-organizational work—the second secretaries—were predominantly Russians. (The Kazakh party's second secretary was Sergei M. Titarenko, a Ukrainian; the second secretary in the Ukrainian Republic was a Ukrainian.) The second secretary supervised cadre policy in the republic and hence managed the republic's nomenklatura appointments. As an official whose primary loyalty was to Moscow, the second secretary acted as a vehicle for the influence of the CPSU's central apparatus on the affairs of the republic's party organization and as a watchdog to ensure the republic organization's adherence to Moscow's demands.

Oblast-Level Organization

Below the all-union organization in the Russian Republic (which sufficed for the Russian Republic's party organization in 1989) and the union republic party organizations in the Azerbaydzhan, Belorussian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kirgiz, Tadzhik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek republics stood the oblast party organization, 122 of which existed in the Soviet Union in 1989 (six large, thinly populated regions in the Russian Republic have been designated by the term krai; these regions are treated herein as oblasts). The Armenian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Moldavian republics had no oblasts. An oblast could embrace a large city or nationality unit. According to the Party Rules, the authoritative body in the province was the party conference, which met twice every five years and consisted of delegates elected by the district or city party conference. Between oblast party conferences, an oblast committee (obkom) comprising full and candidate members selected by the conference supervised the provincial party organization and, through it, the province as a whole. The oblast party committee met once every four months. That committee chose a bureau made up of voting and nonvoting members and a secretariat.

The bureau integrated officials from the most important sectors of the provincial party, economic, and governmental organizations into a unified political elite. Membership on the bureau enabled these officials to coordinate policies in their respective administrative spheres.

As of the mid-1980s five different kinds of specialists served on the obkom bureau. The first category, composed of agricultural specialists, could be selected from among the obkom agricultural secretary, the agricultural administration of the oblast, or the obkom first secretary in predominantly rural regions. A second category of bureau membership consisted of industrial specialists, who were drawn from among the obkom industry secretary, the first secretary of the provincial capital (where most provincial industries were located), the provincial trade union council chairman, the first secretary of a large industrialized city district, or the obkom first secretary. Ideology specialists made up the third category. They were selected from the obkom secretary for ideology, the editor of the provincial party newspaper, or the first secretary of the Komsomol. A fourth category was the cadres specialist, who supervised nomenklatura appointments in the province. The cadres specialist on the provincial party bureau normally occupied one of the following positions: obkom first secretary, head of the obkom party-organizational department, chairman of the provincial trade union council, or obkom cadres secretary. "Mixed generalists" made up the fifth category. These officials served on the obkom bureau to fulfill positions that required a broader background than those possessed by the functional specialists. A wide range of roles prepared the mixed generalists to carry out their tasks. Prior to serving on the provincial party bureau, these officials generally worked in industry, agriculture, party administration, or ideology.

Reform of the party's central apparatus, however, portended significant changes at the regional level. According to Georgii Kriuchkov, a senior official of the Central Committee, "the party is shedding the functions of dealing with day-to-day problems as they arise, because these problems are within the competence of the state, managerial, and public bodies." Hence, parts of the obkom bureau that paralleled government and managerial bodies - mainly in the area of economic management - were to be dismantled.

The first secretary of the party obkom was the most powerful official in the province. Paradoxically, much of that power stemmed from Soviet economic inefficiency. According to the norms of democratic centralism, the obkom secretary had to carry out decisions made by leaders at the all-union and republic levels of the party hierarchy. Nevertheless, the obkom secretary preserved some scope for independent political initiative on issues of national importance. Initiative, perseverance, and ruthlessness were necessary characteristics of the successful obkom secretary, who had to aggregate scarce resources to meet economic targets and lobby central planners for low targets. Soviet émigré Alexander Yanov has argued that the interest of the obkom secretary, however, lay in preserving an inefficient provincial economy. Yanov has written that the obkom secretaries were "the fixers and chasers" after scarce resources who made the provincial economy work. If the economy were decentralized to allow greater initiative and if efforts were made to ensure greater agricultural productivity, one element of the obkom secretary's power—the ability to find resources to meet the plan—would diminish. For this reason, the obkom secretaries formed an important source of resistance to Khrushchev's efforts at economic reform. Western observers held that these officials were an important source of opposition to Gorbachev's economic reforms because these reforms envisaged a greater role for the government and the market at the expense of the party.

District- and City-Level Organization

In 1988 more than 3,400 district (raion) organizations made up the position in the CPSU hierarchy below that of the oblast. Of these organizations, 2,860 were located in rural areas and 570 in wards of cities. In addition, this hierarchical level encompassed 800 city (gorod) organizations.

The structure of these organizations resembled that of organizations on the republic and oblast levels. In theory, the party conference, with delegates selected by the PPOs in each district or city, elected a committee composed of full and candidate members. In practice, the party leadership in the district or town chose the delegates to the party conference and determined the composition of the district or town committee. Party conferences took place twice every five years. In the interim, the district committee (raion komitet-raikom) or city committee (gorodskoi komitet-gorkom) was the most authoritative body in the territory. The committee consisted of party officials, state officials, local Komsomol and trade union officers, the chairmen of the most important collective farms, the managers of the largest industrial enterprises, some PPO secretaries, and a few rank-and-file party members.

The raikom or gorkom elected a bureau and a secretariat, which supervised the daily affairs of the jurisdiction. The bureau numbered between ten and twelve members, who included party officials, state officials, and directors of the most important economic enterprises in the district or city. The composition of the bureau at this level varied with location. For example, the gorkom had no specialist for agriculture, and the rural raikom had no specialist for industry. The raikom and gorkom bureaus met two to three times per month to review the affairs of the district or city and to examine the reports of the PPOs.

The first secretary of the raikom or gorkom bureau headed the party organization at this level. As part of its nomenklatura authority, the oblast party organization made appointments to these positions. In 1987, however, reports of multicandidate elections for first secretary of a raikom appeared in the Soviet press. Two candidates competed for the position of raikom secretary in the Kemerovo and Vinnitsa districts. In the case of Kemerovo, Pravda reported that the oblast party secretary nominated the candidates, and the party conference at the district level settled the contest in a secret ballot. The Nineteenth Party Conference called for the institutionalization of multicandidate elections for these and other party positions.

The secretariat of a raikom and gorkom resembled that of the oblast party committee. In contrast to the party committee of the oblast level, however, the composition of this body varied with location. All had a department for agitation and propaganda; an organizational department, which staffed the positions for PPO secretaries and supervised the performance of the PPOs; and a general department, which coordinated the affairs of the district and city party organizations by circulating documents, administering party work, and preparing the agenda and materials for conferences, plenums, and bureau meetings. In 1988 the raikom or gorkom included a department for either agriculture or industry, which supervised those elements of the Soviet economy on the district level. In contrast to efforts to reduce the number of departments at higher levels of the party apparatus, no such reduction on the district level was planned as of early 1989.

As in the oblast, until the late 1980s the party organization in the district and city tended to involve itself in economic administration and production, which Gorbachev intended to place within the purview of the government. The CPSU judged its officials on their ability to meet and exceed the state economic plan. Party officials used their power as the representatives of the leading political institution in the country to engage themselves in economic administration. For fear of offending party officials and in the expectation that the party would solve their problems, until the late 1980s government and economic administrators were reluctant to exercise initiative and take responsibility in economic matters. The ability of raikom and gorkom secretaries to involve themselves in government activities formed one aspect of their power and influence within their respective jurisdictions. During the Khrushchev era, these officials resisted reforms that led to a diminution of their responsibilities.

Primary party organization

In 1987 primary party organizations (PPOs) numbered 441,851. The PPO was the lowest rung on the party's organizational ladder (PPOs were called party cells until 1934). One existed in every factory, office, collective farm, military unit, and education institution having more than three party members. According to the party rules, the highest organ of the PPO was the party meeting, which comprised all party members in a given work unit. PPOs having more than fifty members could be divided into groups led by steering committees. Party meetings generally convened at least once a month, although the interim could be longer for PPOs having more than 300 members. The party meetings elected a bureau of two or three persons to supervise the affairs of the PPO. The secretary of the PPO, nominally elected by the party meeting but actually appointed by the next highest party organization, managed the work of the PPO and was a full-time, salaried member of the party.

The PPO performed many important tasks. It admitted new members into the party; apprised rank-and-file party members of their duties, obligations, and rights within the party; organized agitation and propaganda sessions to educate party members in the ideology of Marxism–Leninism; stimulated productivity in the enterprise; encouraged efficiency and effectiveness of production methods and innovation; and disciplined party members for dereliction of their duties. An enumeration of the activities of the PPO only begins to suggest the importance of this organization to the party. For several reasons, the PPO was an important factor underlying the party's control over society. The PPO possessed what was known as the right of verification (pravo kontrolia), checking how managers met the demands of their position and how faithfully they implemented the plan for their enterprise. This power led to the PPO secretary's involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the enterprise. Moreover, factory managers or chairmen of collective farms, as well as chiefs of the enterprise trade unions normally were party members; consequently, they were bound by democratic centralism to follow the orders and suggestions of their party leader, the PPO secretary. Thus, the PPO secretary and not the manager carried primary responsibility to the party for the work of the enterprise.

The PPO itself was also critical to the implementation of the economic plan. The state devised its economic plan on the basis of party requirements. The government implemented the party's plan, and therefore the norms of democratic centralism obligated the PPOs to enforce it. At the enterprise level, the principal activity of the PPO secretary and of all party members was to stimulate production. Party members had to set an example with their work and encourage nonmembers to fulfill their production quotas and improve their labor productivity.

The PPO not only conveyed party policies to nonmembers in the enterprise but also apprised the party hierarchy of the mood of the masses and prevented the formation of groups to promote grass-roots change. Rank-and-file party members were scattered throughout the Soviet Union. Party members had hands-on experience in their jobs and knew nonparty members personally. Because of this intimate knowledge of their surroundings, party members were in a position to inform their superiors about the concerns and problems of people in all walks of life. With this knowledge, the party could take steps to stem potential sources of unrest, to institute new methods of control, and, more generally, to tailor its policies toward the maintenance of the population's political quiescence.


The nomenklatura referred to the CPSU's authority to make appointments to key positions throughout the governmental system, as well as throughout the party's own hierarchy. Specifically, the nomenklatura consisted of two separate lists: one was for key positions, appointments to which were made by authorities within the party; the other was for persons who were potential candidates for appointment to those positions. The Politburo, as part of its nomenklatura authority, maintained a list of ministerial and ambassadorial positions that it had the power to fill as well as a separate list of potential candidates to occupy those positions.

Coextensive with the nomenklatura were patron-client relations. Officials who had the authority to appoint individuals to certain positions cultivated loyalties among those whom they appointed. The patron (the official making the appointment) promoted the interests of clients in return for their support. Powerful patrons, such as the members of the Politburo, had many clients. Moreover, an official could be both a client (in relation to a higher-level patron) and a patron (to other, lower-level officials).

Because a client was beholden to his patron for his position, the client was eager to please his patron by carrying out his policies. The Soviet power structure essentially consisted of groups of vassals (clients) who had an overlord (the patron). The higher the patron, the more clients the patron had. Patrons protected their clients and tried to promote their careers. In return for the patron's efforts to promote their careers, the clients remained loyal to their patron. Thus, by promoting his clients' careers, the patron could advance his own power.

Appointment authority

The nomenklatura system arose early in Soviet history. Lenin wrote that appointments were to take the following criteria into account: reliability, political attitude, qualifications, and administrative ability. Stalin, who was the first general secretary of the party, also was known as "Comrade File Cabinet" (Tovarishch Kartotekov) for his assiduous attention to the details of the party's appointments. Seeking to make appointments in a more systematic fashion, Stalin built the party's patronage system and used it to distribute his clients throughout the party bureaucracy (see Stalin's Rise to Power, ch. 2). Under Stalin's direction in 1922, the party created departments of the Central Committee and other organs at lower levels that were responsible for the registration and appointment of party officials. Known as uchraspredy, these organs supervised appointments to important party posts. After Brezhnev's accession to power in October 1964, the party considerably expanded its appointment authority. However, in the late 1980s some official statements indicated that the party intended to reduce its appointment authority, particularly in the area of economic management, in line with Gorbachev's reform efforts.

At the all-union level, the Party Building and Cadre Work Department supervised party nomenklatura appointments. This department maintained records on party members throughout the country, made appointments to positions on the all-union level, and approved nomenklatura appointments on the lower levels of the hierarchy. The head of this department sometimes was a member of the Secretariat and was often a protégé of the general secretary.

Every party committee and party organizational department - from the all-union level in Moscow to the district and city levels - prepared two lists according to their needs. The basic (osnovnaia) list detailed positions in the political, administrative, economic, military, cultural, and educational bureaucracies that the committee and its department had responsibility for filling. The registered (uchetnaia) list enumerated the persons suitable for these positions.

Patron-Client Relations

An official in the party or government bureaucracy could not advance in the nomenklatura without the assistance of a patron. In return for this assistance in promoting his career, the client carried out the policies of the patron. Patron-client relations thus help to explain the ability of party leaders to generate support for their policies. The presence of patron-client relations between party officials and officials in other bureaucracies also helped to account for the control the party exercised over Soviet society. All of the 2 million members of the nomenklatura system understood that they held their positions as a result of a favor bestowed on them by a superior official in the party and that they could be replaced if they manifested disloyalty to their patron. Self-interest dictated that members of the nomenklatura submit to the control of their patrons in the party.

Clients sometimes could attempt to supplant their overlord. For example, Khrushchev, one of Lazar M. Kaganovich's former protégés, helped to oust the latter in 1957. Seven years later, Brezhnev, a client of Khrushchev, helped to remove his boss from power. The power of the general secretary was consolidated to the extent that he placed his clients in positions of power and influence. The ideal for the general secretary, writes Soviet émigré observer Michael Voslensky, "is to be overlord of vassals selected by oneself."

Several factors explain the entrenchment of patron-client relations. First, in a centralized nondemocratic government system, promotion in the bureaucratic-political hierarchy was the only path to power. Second, the most important criterion for promotion in this hierarchy was not merit but approval from one's supervisors, who evaluated their subordinates on the basis of political criteria and their ability to contribute to the fulfillment of the economic plan. Third, political rivalries were present at all levels of the party and state bureaucracies but were especially prevalent at the top. Power and influence decided the outcomes of these struggles, and the number and positions of one's clients were critical components of that power and influence. Fourth, because fulfillment of the economic plan was decisive, systemic pressures led officials to conspire together and use their ties to achieve that goal.

The faction led by Brezhnev provides a good case study of patron-client relations in the Soviet system. Many members of the Brezhnev faction came from Dnepropetrovsk, where Brezhnev had served as first secretary of the provincial party organization. Andrei P. Kirilenko, a Politburo member and Central Committee secretary under Brezhnev, was first secretary of the regional committee of Dnepropetrovsk. Volodymyr Shcherbyts'kyy, named as first secretary of the Ukrainian apparatus under Brezhnev, succeeded Kirilenko in that position. Nikolai A. Tikhonov, appointed by Brezhnev as first deputy chairman of the Soviet Union's Council of Ministers, graduated from the Dnepropetrovsk College of Metallurgy and presided over the economic council of Dnepropetrovsk Oblast. Finally, Nikolai A. Shchelokov, minister of internal affairs under Brezhnev, was a former chairman of the Dnepropetrovsk soviet.

Patron-client relations had implications for policy making in the party and government bureaucracies. Promotion of trusted subordinates into influential positions facilitated policy formation and policy execution. A network of clients helped to ensure that a patron's policies could be carried out. In addition, patrons relied on their clients to provide an accurate flow of information on events throughout the country. This information assisted policymakers in ensuring that their programs were being implemented.

Party Membership

The CPSU placed stringent requirements on its membership. Party members had to work indefatigably on the party's behalf, actively participate in the political life of the country, and set a moral and political example for those who were not members of the party. Despite these obligations, the benefits of membership compelled many to join the party. Membership in the CPSU was a requirement for career advancement. In addition, a career in the party could also serve as a means for upward mobility from the working class or peasantry into white-collar positions. Moreover, for those interested in political activities, the party was a vehicle for political participation.

Party members had a duty to increase their political knowledge and qualifications. Such efforts indicated a willingness to make a career of party work. The CPSU has set up a series of party schools whose courses range in difficulty from the elementary to the advanced. These schools were located at the local, intermediate, and all-union levels of the political system. Training in party schools strengthened the ideological, political, and administrative abilities of party members, especially officials of the CPSU apparatus. Although the stated purpose of party training was to better equip party members to perform their jobs, it acted as one additional means to promote a common outlook and ideological perspective among members of the party apparatus.

Selection Procedures

The standards for admission into the CPSU required that a person be at least eighteen years old, have a good personal record, and possess some knowledge of the principles of Marxism–Leninism. Those who wanted to become party members had to secure references from at least three party members of at least five years' standing. In the case of prospective members entering the party from the Komsomol, one of the references had to have been written by a member of the Komsomol city or district committee. These references attested to the candidate's moral, civic, and professional qualities.

Only the PPO general meeting could accept or reject an application for membership. Before the general meeting, however, the PPO secretary reviewed that person's application, and the secretary's recommendations counted heavily in the selection process. The district or town party committee then confirmed the acceptance of the prospective member. Upon acceptance, the individual became a candidate (non-voting) member of the party for one year. The new candidate paid an admission fee of 2 rubles and monthly dues that varied from 10 kopeks to 3 percent of salary, depending on the person's income.

During the candidate stage, the individual had to faithfully carry out responsibilities assigned by the party. Candidates had to demonstrate their ability to cope with the obligations of party membership, which included attendance at party meetings, improvements in labor productivity, and efforts to strengthen one's understanding of Marxism–Leninism. After one year, the candidate had to again solicit recommendations from three members of five years' standing and undergo a review by the PPO secretary. The PPO general meeting then voted on the candidate's application for full membership, and the district or city organization confirmed the acceptance of the full member.

The party rules defined many obligations for CPSU members. For example, the party member had to resolutely execute the general line and directives of the party, explain to the nonparty masses the foreign and domestic policies of the CPSU, and facilitate the strengthening of the party's bonds with the people. In addition, party members had to strive to increase productivity in their regular jobs, improve the quality of their work, and "inject into the economy the achievements of science and technology." The Party Rules required that members participate in party activities, broaden their political horizons, and struggle against any manifestation of bourgeois ideology and religious prejudices. Party members had to strictly observe the norms of communist morality, place social interests higher than personal interests, and exhibit modesty and orderliness. Party members also undertook criticism of other members and self-criticism in meetings. Criticism and self-criticism uncovered conflicts, mistakes, and shortcomings that resulted from personal or organizational inadequacies. Once flaws were uncovered, criticism and self-criticism generated peer pressure to remove the problem. Finally, party members had to consistently promote the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and work to strengthen the defense forces of the country.

In addition to their obligations, full members of the CPSU had certain rights. They participated in elections of candidates to party organs, and they could be chosen for positions in the hierarchy. At party meetings, conferences, meetings of party committees, and in the party press, party members could freely discuss issues connected with the policy and activities of the party. According to the Party Rules, party members could criticize any party organ and any other party member (including members of the leadership) at party meetings, plenums and conferences, and congresses at all levels of the party hierarchy. The norms of democratic centralism precluded such criticism, however. Any party member brave enough to make such criticism would have been subject to party discipline and possible exclusion from the CPSU. A party member had the right to participate in party meetings, bureau sessions, and committees when these bodies discussed that person's activities or behavior. In addition, a party member could submit questions, statements, and suggestions to any party body, including the Central Committee, and demand a reply.

The party could take several forms of disciplinary action against members who broke its rules. The lightest penalty was a reprimand, followed by a censure. Both of these measures were entered into the member's permanent party record. A harsher punishment was reduction to candidate status for one year. For severe rule infractions, a party member could be expelled. The stigma attached to expulsion from the party remained with the individual throughout his life and precluded career advancement, access to better housing facilities, and educational opportunities for the person's children. In some instances, expelled party members have lost high-status positions.

Another form of disciplinary action, which occurred on a wider scale, was the so-called "exchange of party documents." This entailed a review of the party's membership and discussions between party members and their superiors, followed by replacement of old party cards. The exchange of party documents provided an occasion for the CPSU to rid itself of members who breached party discipline. Party sources reported that exchanges of party cards were not purges. Nevertheless, the Russian word chistka, which means purge, was the term the party used to describe these exchanges. The last exchange of party documents occurred in 1975.

Several reasons accounted for the desire of Soviet citizens to join the party, despite the stringent obligations it placed upon its members and the formal nature of their rights. The primary reason for joining the party was opportunity for career advancement and social mobility. Party membership was a prerequisite for promotion to managerial positions in Soviet society. In addition, party membership opened up the possibility for travel abroad, admission to special shops for consumer goods, access to Western media, and cash bonuses for work. Party membership also provided the chance for upward mobility from the working class or peasantry into professional, white-collar positions in the party apparatus. Children of lower-class parents tended to enter this "political class" in order to raise their status. Having become members of this class, these people could then sure their offspring access to the amenities Soviet life has to offer.

Party membership had other, less tangible rewards. It enabled an individual to claim membership in an organization linked to Russian historical tradition, to the Bolshevik Revolution, and to the world-historical movement the CPSU claimed to lead. In addition, as the dominant political institution in society, the party offered the most important outlet for political participation. These benefits encouraged a feeling of in-group solidarity with other members of the CPSU and a sense of civic efficacy.


The CPSU obligated its members constantly to improve their understanding of Marxism–Leninism and political qualifications. Toward these goals, the party operated a series of schools to train party members in Marxism–Leninism, to recruit rank-and-file members into its administration, and to communicate party principles and policies to the membership, particularly to officials in the apparatus.

Party schools operated at all levels of the hierarchy. The primary party schools formed the elementary level of the training system. These schools were informal; they could be as simple as a circle of workers who met after work to discuss the life of Lenin, political and economic affairs, or current party policies. Since the mid-1960s, enrollments in these schools have been declining because of the increased education level of the population. These courses were open to nonmembers, whose participation could be used to demonstrate a desire to join the party. Trade unions and the Komsomol administered schools with similar levels of instruction. Trade unions operated "people's universities" and "schools of communist labor." The former treated a variety of topics and enrolled students in a group that advanced as a class from level to level. Schools of communist labor were oriented to problems of production. Lectures often dealt with the correct attitude toward work.

The party had a variety of schools at the intermediate level. Schools of the fundamentals of Marxism–Leninism, administered by district and city party committees, required some knowledge of Marxism–Leninism. Classes were small, which permitted individual attention to students and the examination of subject matter in detail. Courses in these schools reviewed the fundamentals of party doctrine and included subjects such as party history, political economy, and Marxist–Leninist philosophy. Since the mid-1970s, enrollment in these schools has grown. In 1981 the party formed the Schools for Young Communists. These institutions offered instruction to candidate members of the party and to people who had recently become full members.

The Schools of Scientific Communism offered more specialized instruction at the intermediate level. In 1989 topics included current events in domestic and international affairs. Schools for the party's economic specialists offered training in such areas as party direction of trade unions, economic policy, and the theory of developed socialism. Schools for ideological specialists included courses for PPO secretaries and group leaders, party lecturers, and media personnel. These schools offered courses on the principles of Marxism–Leninism and on the means and methods of the party's control over ideological affairs.

Party training at the intermediate level also encompassed seminars in Marxist–Leninist theory and methods. Members of the scientific intelligentsia and professors at institutions of higher education attended these seminars. Subjects included philosophical and social science topics: the scientific-technical revolution, economics, the theory of proletarian internationalism, Communist morality, and socialist democracy.

Finally, the party offered courses for raising the qualifications of party and soviet officials at the provincial and republic levels. These courses involved supplementary training in a variety of subjects first treated in lower-level party schools. Party officials also could take correspondence courses offered either by the Higher Party School of their republic or under the auspices of the Academy of Social Sciences of the CPSU Central Committee.

At the all-union level, the Higher Party School and the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow were staffed with instructors attached to the CPSU Central Committee departments. These schools trained officials to enter the party elite at the all-union level. The Higher Party School graduated about 300 students per year; the Academy of Social Sciences graduated approximately 100.

Training at party schools served a variety of purposes. Willingness to participate in party courses at the lowest level could indicate an aspiration to join the party or ensure advancement from candidate status to that of full member. Once in the party, participation in training courses demonstrated a desire to enter into full-time, salaried party work. Indeed, such coursework was a prerequisite for this kind of a career. Party training also created an in-group consciousness among those who attended courses, particularly at the intermediate and all-union levels. Various kinds of specialists from wide-ranging backgrounds took these courses; hence, party schools integrated officials from all sectors of the party and government bureaucracies and inculcated a shared consciousness of their duties and status. Equally important, party schools, according to American Soviet specialists Frederick C. Barghoorn and Thomas F. Remington, underscored the CPSU's legitimacy by providing a theoretical basis for its policies. Courses in party schools examined current events and policy issues from the party's perspective. Thus, party training counteracted the insular viewpoints that could arise as a result of officials' attention to their narrow fields of specialization.

Social Composition of the CPSU

The Bolshevik organization began as a tightly knit group of revolutionaries whose leadership was dominated by members of the Russian, Jewish, and Polish intelligentsia but whose mass base consisted mainly of industrial workers from Russia's largest cities. By the late 1980s, for the most part the social characteristics of the party membership reflected the social and economic changes the Soviet Union had undergone over the more than seventy years of its existence. Consequently, professionals made up a percentage of party membership that exceeded their percentage of the population, and the number of party members with a secondary or higher education had constantly risen since the mid-1930s. Similarly, the party had recruited its members from all nationalities. As a result, the gap between the ethnic groups that dominated the party and other ethnic groups in the early years narrowed. However, this gap did not disappear completely. By contrast, the percentage of women in the party continued to lag behind the percentage of women in the population. Altogether, the social characteristics of party members confirmed their status as an elite in the society. The social composition of the party reflected the decision made by Stalin in the 1930s and reaffirmed since that time both to make professional achievement and merit the primary criteria for admission into the party and to strive for the proportional representation of all groups within the party's ranks.

In 1987 the CPSU numbered more than 19 million members. Party members constituted about 9.7 percent of the adult population. This figure represented an increase of 4 percent since 1956. Most of that increase, however, reflected the CPSU's rapid growth between 1956 and 1964 under the leadership of Khrushchev. Since 1971 the share of party membership in the adult population has risen only 0.3 percent.

In general, party members possessed a high occupational status in society, which belied the party's claims to be the vanguard of the working class. The party did not publish statistics on the social status of its membership. Nevertheless, the CPSU did publish statistics on its membership's "social position," which denoted the class affiliation of members at the time they joined the CPSU. Workers and peasants who joined the party often used their membership to advance into white-collar positions. Were statistics available on the social status of party members, they would reveal the disproportional representation of white-collar professionals in party ranks. Available figures on the social position of party members, however, also indicated the importance of professionals in the party. In 1987 persons who were members of the white-collar professions when they joined the CPSU made up 43.1 percent of the party, while those who were members of the working class made up 45.3 percent and those who were peasants made up 11.6 percent. By contrast, in 1987 Soviet sources reported that 27.8 percent of the working population consisted of white- collar professionals, 62.7 were workers, and 9.5 percent were peasants. The high percentage of members who were professionals when they joined the party, together with the accelerated advancement into white-collar positions by members who were workers or peasants, suggested that the CPSU was not a proletarian party but rather one dominated by white-collar professionals.

Statistics on the percentage of party members with higher education replicated this pattern. Between 1967 and 1987, the percentage of party members who had completed higher education almost doubled. In 1987 over 32 percent of the party membership had received a degree from an institution of higher education. By contrast, in that same year only 7.3 percent of the general population had received a similar degree. Again, the figures indicate that the CPSU was less the party of the working class than the party of the white-collar intelligentsia.

The ethnic composition of the party reflected further disproportions between the party and the population as a whole. In 1922 the share of Russian members in the party exceeded their proportion of the population by 19 percent. Since that time, the gap between Russians and other nationalities narrowed. In 1979 Russians constituted 52 percent of the Soviet population; however, they constituted 60 percent of the party in 1981. Moreover, the percentage of Russians in the party apparatus was probably even greater than their percentage in the party as a whole.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, other major nationalities whose share of party membership exceeded their proportion of the population were the Belorussians, the Georgians, and the Jews (the percentage of Jews in the party was twice their percentage in the Soviet population as a whole). The proportion of Ukrainians and Armenians in the party equaled their share of the Soviet population. Armenians and Jews shared certain characteristics that help explain their relatively high proportion of party membership. Members of these nationalities tended to be more urbanized, educated, and geographically mobile than the norm. These characteristics correlated strongly with party membership. The Georgians, although not as urbanized as the Armenians or the Jews, tended to be highly educated. Other reasons explained the relatively high percentage of party membership among the Belorussians and Ukrainians. These two East Slavic nationalities are culturally close to the Russians. In addition, the central party apparatus has sought to demonstrate that political opportunities for Belorussians and Ukrainians equal those for Russians.

Those major nationalities having the lowest proportion of party members compared with their share of the population were the Tadzhiks, Uzbeks, Kirgiz, and Turkmens of Central Asia, and the Moldavians. The Central Asians resisted membership in an organization they perceived to be dominated by East Slavs in general and Russians in particular. Similar considerations applied to the Moldavians, whose territory the Soviet Union seized from Romania in World War II.

The percentage of women in the party lagged far behind the proportion of women in the population. In 1987 women comprised 29.3 percent of the party and 53 percent of the population. Several reasons explained women's lack of interest in joining the party. First, party work required a substantial commitment of time from each member. Approximately 80 percent of Soviet women held jobs and, in addition, spent long hours caring for children, shopping, and running households. Second, Muslim peoples, who constituted a high percentage of the Soviet population, discouraged female participation in politics. Third, Soviet women might not enter the CPSU because they perceived that the social mores of that organization restricted their ability to move up the hierarchy into positions of power. The 307 members elected to the CPSU Central Committee at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986 included only 13 women. In the 1980s, women made up only about 33 percent of PPO secretaries, 20 percent of district party organization secretaries, and 3.2 percent of obkom bureau members. No woman has been a full member of the Politburo. Thus, the higher the level in the party hierarchy, the lower the percentage of women.

In his report to the CPSU Central Committee on January 27, 1987, General Secretary Gorbachev called for the promotion of more women and representatives of national minorities and ethnic groups into leading positions in the party. That policy, together with the pursuit of other policies that encourage greater urbanization, geographic mobility, and higher education levels, may lead to a greater proportion of women and national minorities in influential party positions. If women and national minorities perceive the opportunity to move up the hierarchy into positions of power, a greater number of these underrepresented groups might be willing to join the party and thus help to balance the sexual and ethnic composition of the CPSU with that of the population as a whole.