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For 30 years, much of the West looked on with disdain as the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and created and consolidated the Soviet Union. As bad as Vladimir Lenin seemed in the early 20th century, Joseph Stalin was so much worse that Churchill later remarked of Lenin, “Their worst misfortune was his birth... their next worst his death.”
Stalin had ruled with an iron fist for nearly 30 years before his death in 1953, which may or may not have been murder, just as Stalin was preparing to conduct another purge. With his death, Soviet strongman and long-time Stalinist Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), became the Soviet premier.
A barely known figure outside of the Eastern bloc, Khrushchev was derided as a buffoon by one Western diplomat and mocked for his physical appearance by others, but any Western hopes that he would prove a more conciliatory figure than Stalin were quickly snuffed out as the hard-line Khrushchev embraced confrontational stances.
Personal histrionics aside, Khrushchev meant business when dealing with the West, especially the United States and its young president, John F. Kennedy. After sensing weakness and a lack of fortitude in Kennedy, Khrushchev made his most audacious and ultimately costly decision by attempting to place nuclear warheads at advanced, offensive bases located in Cuba, right off the American mainland. As it turned out, the Cuban Missile Crisis would show the Kennedy Administration’s resolve, force Khrushchev to back down, and ultimately sow the seeds of Khrushchev’s fall from power. By the time he died in 1971, he had been declared a non-citizen of the nation he had ruled for nearly 20 years.
Leonid Brezhnev became First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in late 1964 after a plot to oust Khrushchev. Little is remembered in the public imagination about Brezhnev in comparison to Mikhail Gorbachev, Vladimir Lenin, or Joseph Stalin, despite the fact Brezhnev ruled the USSR from 1964-1982, longer than any Soviet leader other than Stalin. In fact, he held power during a tumultuous era that changed the world in remarkable ways, and that era has been favorably remembered by many former Soviet citizens. It marked a period of relative calm and even prosperity after the destruction of World War II and the tensions brought about by Khrushchev. Foremost amongst Brezhnev’s achievements would be the détente period in the early 1970s, when the Soviets and Americans came to a number of agreements that reduced Cold War pressures and the alarming threat of nuclear war.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Brezhnev oversaw a malaise in Soviet society that later became known as an era of stagnation during which the Communist Bloc fell far behind the West in terms of economic output and standard of living. His regime also became notorious for its human rights abuses.