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Structure of the CPSU

"Gorbachev Factor"

The party’s own structures paralleled that of the government and were designed to supervise and direct it. Every territorial subdivision—district, town, province, and so on—had a full-time party organization. A CPSU committee of a city, for example, was comprised of functional departments overseen by full-time senior party officials called secretaries. It was presided over by a first secretary. The first secretary of the party organization worked closely with the chairman of the executive committee of the city soviet. But the status of the party official was superior to that of the soviet official, and directives and guidance from the party secretary were binding on the executive arm of the city soviet.  

At each level of the territorial pyramid the pattern was repeated, with a full-time Communist Party committee shadowing and supervising the governmental structure for the given territorial unit. Similar to each city, each province or union republic had its own first secretary and party organization. They ensured that government and social organizations worked in unison following the leadership’s overall policy directions.


General Secretary
Secretariat and Departments
Central Committee
Republic Central Committee
Regional Party Committee
District or City Party Committee
Primary Party Organization at Workplace

At the top, ultimate power to decide policy rested in the CPSU Politburo. The Politburo was a small committee made up of the country’s most powerful leaders. It was presided over by the general secretary of the CPSU. In effect, he was the real head of the country. The Politburo also included the chairman of the Council of Ministers, senior secretaries of the CPSU Central Committee, one or two of the first secretaries of the Communist Party organizations in union republics, the minister of defense, the chairman of the KGB, and the foreign minister.

The Politburo worked closely with the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The Secretariat provided organizational support to the Politburo by helping to develop the agenda for its weekly meetings. Effectively, the Secretariat acted as the party’s central headquarters. Its functional departments, presided over by secretaries, monitored the political and economic situation throughout the country and around the world, developing policy options for the Politburo. In addition, the Secretariat managed the political careers of thousands of top political officials. It supervised the vast government bureaucracy, the army, the police, the law enforcement system, the KGB, and the governments of the republics and regions. Finally, it determined the ideological line that was to be echoed and reinforced throughout the country through the channels of party propaganda and the mass media.

The Politburo and the Secretariat issued their official decrees in the name of the CPSU Central Committee. The Central Committee was a larger body (it grew over the years from 25 members in 1921 to 307 in 1986) that included the most important and powerful figures in the country, such as regional party leaders and representatives of various economic and social interests. It was elected by the party congress, but this merely involved assenting to a list of candidates presented by the Politburo. Formally, the Central Committee was a party body, but it was the closest thing in the Soviet political system to a real parliament. It convened for its meetings (called plenums) only twice a year for a day or two and probably did not fulfil any important policy-making role. Yet it did serve to facilitate communication between the Politburo and the broader elite of the country.

Until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Communist Party had never been an ordinary social and political organization, or a political party in any conventional sense of the term. It was a mechanism to rule society and a key component of the Soviet political and economic system. At its peak, the Communist Party had around twenty million members, or around 9 percent of the adult population. But as a mass organization with a multimillion membership, the party did not elaborate national policy. This was the preserve of a narrow circle of top officials at the apex of the CPSU hierarchy and of the party’s central apparatus that served it. Party structures at lower levels, rank-and-file Communists in particular, were accorded the role of mere executants of the will of the party’s supreme leadership. The ordinary citizens, as well as the party rank and file, were effectively estranged from power, and potentially democratic institutions, such as the soviets, played the role of a smoke screen disguising an authoritarian regime.

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The Soviet System


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
Political Reform
The USSR's Collapse

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