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Survival of the "Unfittest"

"Gorbachev Factor"

The Communist Party’s power monopoly and the nomenklatura principle with which it was enforced led gradually to the physical and intellectual degeneration of the leadership. Increasingly, people unsuitable for positions of responsibility controlled the levers of power. Bureaucratic blunders became an endemic disease of the system. This inherent flaw of the Soviet system has been described as “the law of a totalitarian pyramid.” A leader selected his team on the principle “more stupid than I.” As there was no regular mechanism for handing over power, the next leader could only be a person from his team. He, in turn, picked his inner circle in accordance with the same principle. 


As a result, the system aided the survival of the “unfittest,” promoting to leadership positions individuals like Leonid Brezhnev (1906–82) and Konstantin Chernenko (1911–85) in the Soviet Union, or Erich Honecker (1912–94) and Nicolae Ceausescu (1918–89) in the Soviet bloc countries. A creeping degeneration and a lowering of the intellectual caliber of leaders affected not just politics but also the economy and culture: the regime promoted not the most talented people, but those who were prepared to work within its rigid administrative and ideological constraints. 


Soviet  rulers

Period in power

Reason for end of office

Vladimir Lenin



Joseph Stalin



Nikita Khrushchev



Leonid Brezhnev



Yuri Andropov



Konstantin Chernenko



Mikhail Gorbachev



The most serious flaw of the Communist regime was that it did not have a peaceful and regular system of the transfer of power from one leader to another. The struggle for power was particularly intense at the time of succession. Still, the enormous powers of the country’s top leader—the general secretary of the CPSU—enabled him to stay in power as long as he could command the loyalty of the Politburo and the Secretariat. By appointing his supporters to leading party posts in the party leadership at the center and in the regions and by removing in time those who might oppose him, the general secretary could expect to stay in office until the end of his life. Most in fact did so. The result was a gradual aging of the entire ruling elite of the USSR.

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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

Models of Soviet Power

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