Why you should care
Because power corrupts, and a power vacuum corrupts absolutely.
It’s March 30, 1981, just after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the Soviets, having watched Secretary of State Alexander Haig declare (wrongly) on television that he was now in charge of the federal government, are preparing for a Haig-led putsch of the U.S. presidency. This may be the plot for episode 4 of the first season of FX’s The Americans, but the skeptical response that Soviet spy Phillip Jennings gives to wife and fellow spy Elizabeth’s coup concerns is much more than a TV punch line: “[T]he last two times our leaders died, our government pretended they weren’t dead for weeks. Things are different here.”
By 1981, it was clear that, unlike in the U.S., transitions of 20th-century Soviet power were moments of enormous uncertainty and intrigue, moments that could last months, even years, with each of the country’s three previous leaders — Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev — making somewhat unexpected, outside runs to power. With each, the transitions entailed a power struggle of some kind, says Alexander Motyl, politics professor at Rutgers University–Newark. “There was a period of some uncertainty and a front-runner who then turned out to lose.”
So in speculating about a post-Putin Russia, Motyl suggests we look to the past. “There’s likely to be a period of uncertainty where a bunch of people are jockeying for power,” he says. “That’s happened every single time.”
Divide and Conquer: Stalin’s Power Ploys
When he died, in January 1924, Vladimir Lenin, the beloved leading architect of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, left a power vacuum that would take years of political maneuvering to fill. The shrewd political operative who would eventually take Lenin’s place was Joseph Stalin, the son of a washerwoman, who used a combination of effective messaging and canny personnel moves to outmaneuver his rivals. As Isaac Deutscher chronicles in Stalin: A Political Biography, Stalin first set his sights on the most likely successor to Lenin, Leon Trotsky, the eloquent Marxist and a powerful figure within the party. By aligning with Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, two other rising party leaders (and Trotsky opponents) before Lenin’s death, Stalin helped forge a powerful triumvirate whose combined influence could counter Trotsky’s rise. Stalin would also transform the modest Lenin’s death into an ostentatious act of public mourning, the first act of a new cult of Lenin, for which he was the chief cheerleader and beneficiary.
Khrushchev completed his rise by extinguishing Stalin’s cult of personality.
Stalin’s opportunistic stage management skills built on the years he had spent consolidating his position in the Communist Party by hiring personnel who owed their positions to him. “He was slowly stacking his cards,” writes Deutscher, “and waiting.” And, once Trotsky’s star had fallen — and the very reason for the triumvirate alliance with it — Stalin quickly moved to take power for himself.
Dilute and Deride: Khrushchev’s Calculated Coup
Stalin’s death, in March 1953, left another power vacuum with no clear successor. Initially, Georgy Malenkov, the nominal heir apparent, succeeded Stalin as both the premier and secretary of the Communist Party. But a week later, a coalition of party leaders removed Malenkov from the second post, replacing him with a multimember secretariat. The driving force behind that dilution of power was none other than the man at the top of the new secretariat’s ranking, Nikita Khrushchev.
It would take Khrushchev years to fully consolidate power, the master stroke being an uncompromising, and politically risky, speech to the party congress in 1956 in which he criticized Stalin’s reign of terror (in which he himself had participated). Stalin may have fanned the flames of Lenin worship, but Khrushchev completed his rise to power by extinguishing Stalin’s cult of personality.
Slow and Steady: Khrushchev’s Surprise Betrayal
In 1964, after a decade in charge, a vacationing Khrushchev was removed from power by a coalition of party leaders led by his protégé, and former trusted associate, Leonid Brezhnev. For years, Brezhnev, as general secretary, shared power in another troika with Nikolai Podgorny (the party chairman) and Alexei Kosygin (the premier). Like Stalin, Brezhnev slowly consolidated power by elevating followers to high office and demoting potential rivals; only in the 1970s, after years of personnel moves, was it clear that Brezhnev had indeed risen to become the party’s alpha male.
In the post-Soviet era, things have gotten less turbulent but no less unpredictable when it comes to Russian transitions of power. Current president Vladimir Putin’s highest office before coming to power was deputy mayor in St. Petersburg, but the former KGB officer, who had been in East Germany during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika movement, used his outsider status to his advantage. “He allowed — even actively encouraged — people to underestimate him,” Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill write in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Putin, like many of his predecessors, also exploited public sentiment, Gaddy tells OZY. In Putin’s case, it was to exploit the shame that Russians felt in the late 1990s about then-president Boris Yeltsin, “a boisterous drunkard who had become an international laughingstock,” and to present himself as the virile anti-Yeltsin who could bring stability and pride back to the country.
Russia’s next leader, Putin’s heir apparent — or maybe his repudiator — is no doubt out there too, biding his time, consolidating allies, stacking his cards and waiting.