Nationalism and Purges in the Khrushchev Era: The Soviet Apparatus and the Republics

  • Date: –17:00
  • Location: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) Gamla torget 3, 3rd floor, IRES Library
  • Website
  • Organiser: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES)
  • Contact person: Jevgenija Gehsbarga
  • Phone: 018 471 1630
  • Föreläsning

with Dr. Michael Loader (IRES)

During the mid-late 1950s, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the helm, the USSR embarked on a course of de-centralising some economic and political powers to the constituent Soviet Republics around Russia’s periphery that comprised the Soviet Union. The result was to encourage leaders in these Republics to seek greater autonomy and decision-making power, which was popular with the titular nationalities of these Republics. The privileged position of Russians in the Republics began to diminish.

This situation was unacceptable to a group of hardliners within the Kremlin. This paper uncovers how this group took control of a little-known administrative department responsible for acting as the conduit for the communication and transmission of Moscow’s instructions and for supervising the communist parties in the Republics. Over a thirty-month period between 1958 and 1961, these hardliners were the architects of a wave of purges of regional elites in ten Soviet Republics, conducted through the aforementioned department (the Party Organs Department for Union Republics).

These purges were designed to remove local leaders promoting a nationalist agenda and to confront centrifugal tendencies within the Party’s republican branches. The masterminds of these purges, Soviet chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov, KGB Chairman Aleksandr Shelepin and Department for Union Republics Chairman Vladimir Semichastnyi attempted to manipulate Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s opinion about the threat of nationalism in the Soviet periphery. Consequently, the targeting and removal of these leaders from the Republics constituted an attempt to weaken Khrushchev, because they were his supporters. Khrushchev emerged damaged by the purge of his allies in the periphery and was ultimately forced to abandon the decentralisation of the Soviet system.

Connections between the Department for Union Republics, this wave of purges and their impact on the Kremlin have been almost totally overlooked in the literature on Soviet politics during this period. Finally, this paper will explain how purges were conducted in the Khrushchev era in contrast to the bloody Stalin period, demonstrating a break with the Stalinist system.

Dr. Michael Loader received his PhD in the History of the Soviet Union from King’s College London in 2015 with a thesis entitled ‘The Thaw in Soviet Latvia: National Politics 1953-1959’. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the International Centre for the History and Sociology of WWII and its Consequences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2016–2017. He has been a Postdoc at IRES since August 2017. He is also the Assistant Editor of the Journal of Baltic Studies. His research interests include the workings of the Soviet Communist Party, nationality politics and centre-periphery relations in the USSR particularly Soviet Latvia. In March 2020 he will begin a three-year Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Glasgow with a project entitled ‘Centre-Periphery Relations in Flux: National Politics in the Soviet Borderlands’. Last year he was the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies’ ‘Emerging Scholar’. His publications have appeared in Europe-Asia Studies, Nationalities Papers, the Slavonic and East European Review and the Journal of Baltic Studies.