During its sixty-nine-year history, the Soviet Union usually had a de facto leader who would not necessarily be head of state, but would lead while holding an office such as Premier or General Secretary. Under the 1977 Constitution, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or Premier, was the head of government and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet was the head of state. The office of the Chairman of the Council of Ministers was comparable to a prime minister in the First World whereas the office of the Chairman of the Presidium was comparable to a president. In the ideology of Vladimir Lenin, the head of the Soviet state was a collegiate body of the vanguard party (see What Is To Be Done?).
Following Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power in the 1920s, the post of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party became synonymous with leader of the Soviet Union because the post controlled both the Communist Party and the Soviet government both indirectly via party membership and via the tradition of a single person holding two highest posts in the party and in the government. The post of the General Secretary was abolished in 1952 under Stalin and later re-established by Nikita Khrushchev under the name of First Secretary. In 1966, Leonid Brezhnev reverted the office title to its former name. Being the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the office of the General Secretary was the highest in the Soviet Union until 1990.[incomplete short citation] The post of General Secretary lacked clear guidelines of succession, so after the death or removal of a Soviet leader the successor usually needed the support of the Politburo, the Central Committee, or another government or party apparatus to both take and stay in power. The President of the Soviet Union, an office created in March 1990, replaced the General Secretary as the highest Soviet political office.
Contemporaneously to establishment of the office of the President, representatives of the Congress of People's Deputies voted to remove Article 6 from the Soviet Constitution which stated that the Soviet Union was a one-party state controlled by the Communist Party which in turn played the leading role in society. This vote weakened the party and its hegemony over the Soviet Union and its people. Upon death, resignation, or removal from office of an incumbent President, the Vice President of the Soviet Union would assume the office, though the Soviet Union dissolved before this was actually tested. After the failed August 1991 coup, the Vice President was replaced by an elected member of the State Council of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Lenin was voted the Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Soviet Union (Sovnarkom) on 30 December 1922 by the Congress of Soviets. At the age of 53, his health declined from effects of two bullet wounds, later aggravated by three strokes which culminated with his death in 1924. Irrespective of his health status in his final days, Lenin was already losing much of his power to Joseph Stalin.Alexei Rykov succeeded Lenin as Chairman of the Sovnarkom and although he was de jure the most powerful person in the country, the Politburo of the Communist Party began to overshadow the Sovnarkom in the mid-1920s. By the end of the decade, Rykov merely rubber stamped the decisions predetermined by Stalin and the Politburo.
Stalin's early policies pushed for rapid industrialisation, nationalisation of private industry and the collectivisation of private plots created under Lenin's New Economic Policy. As leader of the Politburo, Stalin consolidated near-absolute power by 1938 after the Great Purge, a series of campaigns of political murder, repression and persecution.Nazi German troops invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, but by December the Soviet Army managed to stop the attack just shy of Moscow. On Stalin's orders, the Soviet Union launched a counter-attack on Nazi Germany which finally succeeded in 1945. Stalin died in March 1953 and his death triggered a power struggle in which Nikita Khrushchev after several years emerged victorious against Georgy Malenkov.
Khrushchev denounced Stalin on two occasions, first in 1956 and then in 1962. His policy of de-Stalinisation earned him many enemies within the party, especially from old Stalinist appointees. Many saw this approach as destructive and destabilising. A group known as Anti-Party Group tried to oust Khrushchev from office in 1957, but it failed. As Khrushchev grew older, his erratic behavior became worse, usually making decisions without discussing or confirming them with the Politburo.Leonid Brezhnev, a close companion of Khrushchev, was elected First Secretary the same day of Khrushchev's removal from power. Alexei Kosygin became the new Premier and Anastas Mikoyan kept his office as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. On the orders of the Politburo, Mikoyan was forced to retire in 1965 and Nikolai Podgorny took over the office of Chairman of the Presidium. The Soviet Union in the post-Khrushchev 1960s was governed by a collective leadership.Henry A. Kissinger, the American National Security Advisor, mistakenly believed that Kosygin was the leader of the Soviet Union and that he was at the helm of Soviet foreign policy because he represented the Soviet Union at the 1967 Glassboro Summit Conference. The "Era of Stagnation", a derogatory term coined by Mikhail Gorbachev, was a period marked by low socio-economic efficiency in the country and a gerontocracy ruling the country.Yuri Andropov (aged 68 at the time) succeeded Brezhnev in his post as General Secretary in 1982. In 1983, Andropov was hospitalised and rarely met up at work to chair the politburo meetings due to his declining health. Nikolai Tikhonov usually chaired the meetings in his place. Following Andropov's death fifteen months after his appointment, an even older leader, 72 year old Konstantin Chernenko, was elected to the General Secretariat. His rule lasted for little more than a year until his death thirteen months later on 10 March 1985.
At the age of 54, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected to the General Secretariat by the Politburo on 11 March 1985. In May 1985, Gorbachev publicly admitted the slowing down of the economic development and inadequate living standards, being the first Soviet leader to do so while also beginning a series of fundamental reforms. From 1986 to around 1988, he was advertised in a Pizza Hut advertisement, dismantled central planning, allowed state enterprises to set their own outputs, enabled private investment in businesses not previously permitted to be privately owned and allowed foreign investment, among other measures. He also opened up the management of and decision-making within the Soviet Union and allowed greater public discussion and criticism, along with a warming of relationships with the West. These twin policies were known as perestroika (literally meaning "reconstruction", though it varies) and glasnost ("openness" and "transparency"), respectively. The dismantling of the principal defining features of Soviet Communism in 1988 and 1989 in the Soviet Union led to the unintended consequence of the Soviet Union breaking up after the failed August 1991 coup led by Gennady Yanayev.
|30 December 1922
21 January 1924+
|1st-10th[note 1]||Informal leader of the Bolsheviks since their inception. Lenin was leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) from 1917 and leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1922 until his death.||Chairman of Sovnarkom|
|21 January 1924
5 March 1953+
|Stalin initially ruled as part of a Triumvirate with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev until this broke down in April 1925.[incomplete short citation] Stalin also held the post of the Minister of Defence from 19 July 1941 until 3 March 1947 and Chairman of the State Defense Committee during World War II and became the only officer to hold the office of People's Commissar of Nationalities from 1921 to 1923.||General Secretary of the Communist Party|
|Chairman of the|
Council of Ministers
|5 March 1953
14 September 1953
|--||Succeeded to all of Stalin's titles, but he was forced to resign most of them within a month. Through the office of Premier, Malenkov was locked in a power struggle against Khrushchev.|
|14 September 1953
14 October 1964
|Served as the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (from September 1953) and Chairman of the Council of Ministers from 27 March 1958 to 14 October 1964. While vacationing in Abkhazia, Khrushchev was called by Leonid Brezhnev to return to Moscow for a special meeting of the Presidium to be held on 13 October 1964. At the most fiery session since the so-called "anti-party group" crisis of 1957, he was fired from all his posts. He was largely left in peace in retirement, but he was made a "non-person" to the extent that his name was removed even from the thirty-volume Soviet Encyclopedia. He died in 1971. He was seen overseas as a reformer of a "petrified structure"[incomplete short citation] and described his main contribution as removing the fear that Stalin had brought, but many of his reforms were later reversed.||First Secretary of the|
|Served as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Brezhnev was later renamed General Secretary and was co-equal with premier Alexei Kosygin until the 1970s. To consolidate his power, he later assumed the title of Chairman of the Presidium. At his death in 1982, he received a state funeral.||General Secretary of the Communist Party|
|10 November 1982
9 February 1984+
|--||General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium from 16 June 1983 to 9 February 1984.|
|9 February 1984
10 March 1985+
|--||General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium from 11 April 1984 to 10 March 1985.|
|10 March 1985
26 December 1991
|Served as General Secretary from 11 March 1985 and resigned on 24 August 1991, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1 October 1988 until the office was renamed to the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet on 25 May 1989 to 15 March 1990 and President of the Soviet Union from 15 March 1990 to 25 December 1991. The day following Gorbachev's resignation as President, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.|
On four occasions--the 2-3 year period between Vladimir Lenin's incapacitation and Joseph Stalin's dictatorship; the three months following Stalin's death; the interval between Nikita Khrushchev's fall and Leonid Brezhnev's consolidation of power; and the ailing Konstantin Chernenko's tenure as General Secretary -- a form of oligarchy known as a troika ("triumvirate") governed the Soviet Union, with no single individual dominating the regime alone.
|When Vladimir Lenin suffered his first stroke in May 1922, a troika was established to govern the country in his place, although Lenin briefly returned to the leadership from 2 October 1922 until a severe stroke on 9 March 1923 ended Lenin's political career. The troika consisted of Lev Kamenev, Joseph Stalin and Grigory Zinoviev. The troika broke up in April 1925, when Kamenev and Zinoviev found themselves in a minority over their belief that socialism could only be achieved internationally. Zinoviev and Kamenev joined forces with Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition in early 1926. Later, Kamenev, Zinoviev and Trotsky would all be murdered on Stalin's orders.|
26 June 1953
|This troika consisted of Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov and ended when Malenkov and Molotov joined Nikita Khrushchev in the arrest and execution of Beria.|
16 June 1977
|After Nikita Khrushchev's ouster, a troika took power consisting of Leonid Brezhnev as First Secretary, Alexei Kosygin as Premier and Nikolai Podgorny who assumed the post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on 9 December 1965. During Brezhnev's consolidation of power, the troika was ultimately dissolved in 1977 when Podgorny was replaced as head of state. However, the collective leadership continued to exist in a different shape after Podgorny's ouster in the party leadership throughout the rest of Brezhnev's rule.|
20 December 1984
|Despite succeeding Yuri Andropov as the Soviet Union's General Secretary and head of state, Konstantin Chernenko was unable to secure full control over the regime's apparatus due to his poor health  and lack of a mandate from the nomenklatura. This resulted in a troika where Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko dominated the nation's military and foreign affairs respectively while Chernenko was left in charge of its domestic policies. This triumvirate dominated Politburo decision-making until Ustinov's death in December 1984.|
|No.||Leaders||Date of birth||Age at ascension
|Time in office
|Age at retirement
|Date of death||Longevity|
|1||Vladimir Lenin||April 22, 1870||52 years, 252 days||1 years, 22 days||53 years, 274 days||January 21, 1924||53 years, 274 days|
|2||Joseph Stalin||December 18, 1878||45 years, 34 days||29 years, 43 days||74 years, 77 days||March 5, 1953||74 years, 77 days|
|3||Georgy Malenkov||January 8, 1902||51 years, 56 days||0 years, 183 days||51 years, 229 days||January 14, 1988||86 years, 6 days|
|4||Nikita Khrushchev||April 15, 1894||59 years, 143 days||11 years, 39 days||70 years, 182 days||September 11, 1971||77 years, 149 days|
|5||Leonid Brezhnev||December 19, 1906||57 years, 300 days||18 years, 27 days||75 years, 326 days||November 10, 1982||75 years, 326 days|
|6||Yuri Andropov||June 15, 1914||68 years, 150 days||1 years, 89 days||69 years, 239 days||February 9, 1984||69 years, 239 days|
|7||Konstantin Chernenko||September 24, 1911||72 years, 142 days||1 years, 26 days||73 years, 167 days||March 10, 1985||73 years, 167 days|
|8||Mikhail Gorbachev||March 2, 1931||54 years, 9 days||6 years, 287 days||60 years, 298 days||Living||88 years, 264 days (living)|
|9||Gennady Yanayev||August 26, 1937||53 years, 358 days||0 years, 2 days||53 years, 360 days||September 24, 2010||73 years, 29 days|
|url=missing title (help).