Notes on Peaceful Coexistence, Khrushchev, the Secret Speech and 1956

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I have two versions of a paper by Professor Thomas Hammond. One is "Why Russia Preaches Coexistence, or What's behind Soviet Foreign Policy." The other is "Peaceful Coexistence--Past and Present." (*.PDF files) Both versions are from 1955. So, why do you think that was such a "hot topic" back in 1955?

Actually, the whole idea of the concept of peaceful coexistence, the idea that communism and capitalism could coexist, was being debated already in the Soviet Union after the Second World War in a controversy that involved the idea of the "inevitability of war" between the capitalist and socialist camps. You can read my old article on the "Varga Controversy" (*.PDF file) which appeared some time ago in a volume of Essays in History published by the history department of the University of Virginia. The article was a condensed version of my Master's thesis.

See also my remarks on Khrushchev in HIS 242 and HIS 135.

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Detached Lenin

You can be sure that Lenin never thought that there could be peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism. So where exactly did the idea of "peaceful coexistence" come from? Well, that is a pretty complicated theoretical question, but what is very interesting is that it did not originate with the United States or any other non-communist country. As far as I know, it originated in the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s after the death of Stalin, and the idea received its real boost with K's speeches at the 20th congress of the CPSU. The real impetus for the change from "capitalism and socialism are bound to go to war" to "capitalism and socialism can peacefully get along" is really quite simple, nuclear weapons. Now, why would Soviet leaders come up with this idea of living in peace and harmony with the non-communist world?

First of all there, there was The Thaw in the Soviet Union with the death of Stalin. When the great dictator finally died, one of the key ideas to emerge among the communist leadership was the idea that there should be "collective leadership." This was to allay the fear that any single man could again amass unlimited, dictatorial power. Another main point was to reduce the police terror rampant in the USSR, and finally another issue was to try and increase the production of consumer goods for the people. These internal issues would play themselves out in the internal power struggle between Georgii Malenkov and Nikita Khrushchev, which would have an impact on Soviet diplomacy.

After Stalin's death, at first it appeared that Georgii Malenkov would assume the positions of premier (head of state) and general secretary (head of the party) with Malenkov, Molotov and Beria (all closely connected to Stalin) as the key leaders, but Malenkov was quickly forced to give up his position as head of the party. He was succeeded by Khrushchev (although Khrushchev was not formally named first secretary until September 1953). Shortly thereafter, Beria was arrested and executed later in 1953--that was a very brave move! To combat Khrushchev, Malenkov advocated the production of more consumer goods, but he remained tagged by his former close connection to Stalin. In the meantime Khrushchev's power rose as he had orchestrated the removal of Beria, and he had achieved a modicum of success with his "Virgin Lands" scheme which resulted in a great 1956 harvest. Malenkov resigned as Premier In February 1955--but he was not killed--and Khrushchev's ally, Nikolai Bulganin, became premier. Khrushchev had won the struggle for power.

Sometimes the years between 1953 and 1956 with regard to Soviet diplomacy are called the "New Course" referring to the Soviet--and at first Malenkov and then Khrushchev--attempt to reduce Cold War tensions. Some of the key indicators of the changing nature of Soviet diplomacy are listed below, although I am not sure that the western world caught them all at the time.

Western critics of the idea of peaceful coexistence pointed to the ensuing events of 1956 in Eastern Europe as proof that there was, in reality, no such thing as "peaceful coexistence" (the tiger cannot change his stripes). By criticizing Stalin, Khrushchev had opened both the Russian party and the communist parties in Eastern Europe to further criticism. The popular uprising in Poland began in June 1956.

Then there was the Hungarian Revolt in October-November 1956.