Ten leaders were in control of the Soviet Union from its beginning in 1917 to 1991 when it was dissolved. Five of the most prominent were: Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971), Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982), and Mikhail Gorbachev (1931– ).
After the czar (emperor) was ousted in the 1917 Russian Revolution, Lenin took control of the country as a dictator. During his years in power, Lenin negotiated a treaty with the Germans, ending Russia's involvement in World War I (1914–18). After Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, Stalin took control of the Soviet Union. Stalin established absolute rule by imprisoning or killing his enemies. Between 1934 and 1938, 8,000,000 Soviet citizens were murdered under his orders. During World War II (1939–45), the Soviet Union, United States, and Britain worked together to defeat the Nazis (abbreviation for the National Socialist German Workers's Party) under Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). After the war, however, Stalin built up power in Eastern Europe, entering a cold war (ideological conflict) with the noncommunist world. (Communism is the system of government in which the state controls the economy and only one political party holds power.)
When Stalin died in 1953, Soviet leaders struggled against one another to seize control. Communist Party Secretary Khrushchev took power as premier (leader) in 1958. Criticizing the oppression of the regime under Stalin, Khrushchev worked to improve living standards in the Soviet Union and to form international relations with the West. Previously Soviet Communists had declared that Communism and capitalism (private ownership of the means of production) could not co-exit; instead, they would have to battle in war until only one system remained. Khrushchev, however, did not want war. Instead he supported peaceful co-existence with noncommunist countries. He also strongly promoted the Soviet race with the United States to launch the first man into outer space as a way to prove Soviet technological superiority.
Eventually Khrushchev's interpretation of communism led to disagreements with Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the leader of the Communist People's Republic of China. In October 1964, First Secretary of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev forced Khrushchev to retire. Brezhnev led the Soviet Union until 1980, strictly controlling other communist countries in Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia) and promoting an arms race (build-up of military weapons) with the United States. During Brezhnev's regime the struggling Soviet economy went into further decline. When Brezhnev died in 1982, two leaders—Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985)—controlled the country for brief periods.
In 1985 the head of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the leader of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev believed in communism, he realized he needed to modernize the economy, provide citizens with limited freedom of choice, and end the arms race. In 1987 Gorbachev allowed the Soviet people to start private businesses and own farms. He also signed an arms-control treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911– ) and withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, where they had kept an unpopular communist government in power. Events took place faster than Gorbachev could control them, however, and in 1991 the Soviet Union finally was dissolved. Gorbachev then resigned as leader of a nonexistent country.
Further Information: Kallen, Stuart A. Gorbachev-Yeltsin. Minneapolis, Minn.: ABDO, 1992; Kallen, Stuart A. The Lenin Era. Minneapolis, Minn.: ABDO, 1992; Kort, Michael G. Marxism in Power: The Rise and Fall of a Doctrine. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook, 1993; Otfinoski, Steven. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Innovator. Madison, Wis.: Turtleback Books, 1989.