Stalin died in 1954, leaving behind a country that was still comparatively poor, but enormously powerful. In addition, Stalin left a legacy of death and imprisonment that touched nearly every family in the USSR, with millions still trapped in the gulags of Siberia. After a power struggle between the top members of the communist party, Stalin’s successor emerged: Nikita Khrushchev, a former coal miner and engineer who rose in the ranks of the party to become its leader. Khrushchev was a “true believer” in the Soviet system, genuinely believing that the USSR would overtake the west economically and that its citizens would in turn eventually enjoy much better standards of living than those experienced in the west.
Khrushchev broke with Stalinism soon after securing power. In 1956, he gave a speech to the leaders of the communist party later dubbed the “secret speech” - it was not broadcast to the general public, but Khrushchev allowed it to leak to the state-controlled press. In it, Khrushchev blamed Stalin for bringing about a “cult of personality” that was at variance with true communist principles, and for “excesses,” a thinly veiled acknowledgement of the Siberian prison camps and summary executions. Shortly after the speech, Khrushchev had four million prisoners released from the gulags as a practical gesture demonstrating his sincerity. This period is called “The Thaw” in Soviet history. For a brief period, there was another flowering of literary and artistic experimentation comparable to that of the early 1920s. The ubiquitous censorship was relaxed, with a few accurate accounts of the gulags making it into mainstream publication. In turn, among many, there were genuine hopes for larger political reforms of the system.
This hope of a new beginning was not limited to the Soviet Union itself. In October of 1956, a reformist faction of the Hungarian communist party inspired a mass uprising calling for not just a reformed, more humanistic communism, but the expulsion of Soviet forces and “advisers” completely. That led to a full-scale invasion by the Soviet army that killed several thousand protesters in violent clashes (primarily in the capital city of Budapest), followed by the arrests of over half a million people in the aftermath. It was clear that Khrushchev might not want to follow directly in Stalin’s footsteps, but he had no intention of allowing genuine independence in the Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe.
Angered both by the events in Hungary and by the growth of outright dissent with the Soviet system in the USSR itself, Khrushchev reasserted control. A few noteworthy works of art that hinted at dissent were allowed to trickle out (until Khrushchev was ousted by hardliners in 1964, at any rate), but larger-scale change was out of the question. The state instead concentrated on wildly ambitious - sometimes astonishingly impractical - economic projects. Soviet engineers and planners drained whole river systems to irrigate fields, Soviet factories churned out thousands of tons of products and materials no one wanted, and whole regions were polluted to the point of becoming nearly uninhabitable. Over time, cynicism replaced terror as the default outlook of Soviet citizens. It was no longer as dangerous to be alive as it had been under Stalin, but people recognized that the system was not "really" about the pursuit of communism. Instead, for most, the only hope of achieving a decent standard of living and relative personal stability was forming the right connections within the enormous party bureaucracy. The USSR went from a murderous police state under Stalin to a bloated, corrupt police state under Khrushchev and the leaders who followed him.
It was also under Khrushchev that the Cold War reached its most frenzied pitch. Khrushchev himself was an explosive personality who sincerely believed in the possibility of the USSR “winning” the Cold War by outstripping the western world economically and winning over the nations of the Third World to communism politically. To that end, he continued the Stalinist focus on building up heavy industry and, especially, military hardware, but he also devoted huge energies toward science and engineering.
During Khrushchev’s tenure as premier the “space race” joined the arms race as a major centerpiece of Cold War policy. Despite the limited practical consequences of some aspects of the space race, it was symbolically important to both sides – it was a very visible demonstration of scientific superiority, and the first superpower to reach a given breakthrough in the space race had thus “won” a major symbolic victory in the eyes of the world. In addition, since the space race was based on the mastery of rocket technology, the military implications were obvious. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, an event which was perceived as a major Soviet triumph in the Cold War. Khrushchev claimed that the USSR had also developed missiles that could strike targets on the other side of the world, and thus the west feared that the Soviets could as easily detonate a nuclear weapon in the US as in Europe.
The resulting fear and resentment between the two sides saw even greater emphasis on both the space race and the buildup of nuclear arms going into the 1960s. The American President John F Kennedy was a hard-line anti-communist, a “cold warrior,” and he believed it was important to stand up to the Soviets symbolically and, if necessary, militarily. In 1959, Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista (who had been an American ally), and fearing American intervention, eventually aligned themselves with the USSR. Thus, as Kennedy took office in 1960, he faced not only the growing technological and military power of the USSR itself, but what he regarded as a Soviet puppet on the very doorstep of US territory.
In 1962, the US Central Intelligence Agency staged an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro, an event known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In the aftermath, Castro and Khrushchev agreed to install missile batteries in Cuba both as a deterrent against a potential invasion by the US in the future and to redress the superiority of American missile deployments. Khrushchev was eager to establish a military presence in the western hemisphere, especially since the US had already installed missile batteries in its allied nations of Italy and Turkey within striking distance of the USSR. American spy planes, however, detected the construction of the missile site in Cuba and the shipments of missiles en route to Cuba, leading to the point in history when the human race stood closest to complete extinction: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When the US government learned of the Soviet missiles, there was serious consideration of launching a full-scale assault on Cuba, something that could have led directly to nuclear war. Many American military leaders believed at the time in the possibility of a “limited nuclear war” in which missile sites would be destroyed quickly enough to prevent the Soviets from launching counter-strikes. Instead, however, Kennedy and Khrushchev carefully engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy, both of them realizing the stakes of the conflict and, thankfully for world history, not wanting to destroy the world in the name of national pride. The American and Soviet navies faced off in the Atlantic while frenzied diplomacy sought an end to the crisis. After thirteen panicked days, both sides agreed to withdraw their missiles, but not before an incident in which a Soviet submarine very nearly launched nuclear torpedoes at an American ship. A single Soviet officer called off the strike that could have led directly to nuclear war.
In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US and USSR agreed to create a “hotline” to ensure rapid communication in the event of future crises. The United States dropped the very idea of “limited” nuclear war from its tactical repertoire and instead recognized that any nuclear strike was the equivalent of “M.A.D.” (Mutually Assured Destruction). While the arms race between the superpowers continued, spiking again during the 1980s, both sides did enter into various treaties that limited the pace of nuclear arms production as well.
In 1964, having lost the confidence of key members of the Politburo, Khrushchev was forced out of office. He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, a lifelong communist bureaucrat. Brezhnev would hold power until 1982, overseeing a long period of what is usually characterized as stagnation by historians: the Soviet system, including its nominal adherence to Marxism-Leninism, would remain in place, but even elites abandoned the idea that “real” communism was achievable. Instead, life in the USSR was about trying to find a place in the system, rather than pursuing the more far-reaching goals of communist theory. The state and the economy - deeply wedded in any case - were rife with corruption and nepotism, and a deep-seated, bitter cynicism became the outlook of most Soviet citizens toward their government and their lot in life. Arguably, this pattern had already emerged under Khrushchev, but it truly came of age under Brezhnev.
During Brezhnev’s tenure as the Soviet premier, another eastern bloc nation tried unsuccessfully to break away from Soviet domination: Czechoslovakia. In the Spring of 1968, the Czech communist leader Alexander Dubcek (who had fought against the Nazis in the war and had been a staunch ally and trusted underling of the Soviets up to that point) received permission from Moscow to experiment with limited reforms. He called for “socialism with a human face,” meaning a kind of communist government that allowed freedom of speech, a liberalized outlook on human expression, and a diversified economy that could address sectors besides heavy industry. Dubcek relaxed censorship and allowed workers to organize into Soviets (councils) as they had in the early years of communist revolution in Russia. These reforms were eagerly embraced by the Czechs and Slovaks.
Predictably, the reforms proved too radical for Moscow. Brezhnev sent in the Soviet military, and all of the other Warsaw Pact countries (except Romania) also sent in troops. This reaction was regarded around the world as especially crude and disproportionate, given that the Czechs and Slovaks did not rise up in any kind of violent way (as the Hungarians had done, at least briefly, twelve years earlier). Instead, the message was clear: no meaningful reform would be possible in the East unless the leadership in Moscow somehow underwent a fundamental change of outlook. That change did eventually come, but not until the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev.