A 1982 obituary in the New York Times quietly noted that,
Mikhail A. Suslov, chief ideologist of the Soviet Communist Party and one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin after Leonid I. Brezhnev, died Monday at the age of 79, the official press agency Tass announced today.
For most people in the West, this announcement went unnoticed. Who, after all, was Mikhail Suslov? He wasn’t in the news, never got his photo taken, never made headlines or showed up at many public events (certainly none in the west).
Even in the secretive Soviet Union, Suslov was a cypher. The ‘eminence grise‘ of Soviet politics, once described by the CIA as the “high priest of Soviet Communism.”
But Suslov was the power behind the throne; in fact behind several thrones. He had been appointed National Party Secretary by Stalin in 1946 and survived three-and-a-half decades of intrigue, outlasting all of his compatriots in one of the most challenging – and often lethal – political environments. He was enrolled in the top echelon, the politburo, in 1952, becoming a full member in ’55.
The Harvard Crimson noted at the time of Suslov’s funeral,
With the ease of a charioteer covering dead-laden ground, Suslov survived Stalin’s purges and reached the Soviet hierarchy’s highest plane of power. Widely acknowledged as the kingmaker to the Communist party’s inner circle, Suslov was instrumental in the ascendency of Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to power in 1958, and again for his downfall in 1964. The many machinations of power politics never seemed to daunt the Soviet minister, whose ferocity found outlet for endeavor in uncounted tasks during the more than 40 years he serve the Kremlin.
In a piece titled, A Communist Purist, Theodore Shabad wrote,
As the leading ideologist and spokesman in relations with foreign Communist parties, Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov was among the Soviet party’s top leaders… in length of continuous service, he was senior member of the inner circle of the leadership… he was regarded as the guardian of Communist purity, watching over signs of Western inroads into the arts, literature and morality… Mr. Suslov’s career as the Soviet party’s principal liaison officer with the world’s Communist leaders spanned the end of the Stalin era, the period of Nikita S. Khrushchev and the Brezhnev years. He presided in effect over the disintegration of the once monolithic Communist system into an array of nationally oriented parties with varying degrees of allegiance, if any, to the Kremlin.
He was the ultimate Machiavellian in a very Machiavellian system. And this is his story.
Who was Mikhail Suslov? Almost no one in the West seems to know him, yet he was one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. His state funeral, in 1982, was one of the largest parades ever staged in the USSR, but most onlookers in the west – those few who even noted the event shown on TV news – scratched their heads in perplexed wonder. Even many Russians didn’t know the man being honoured, despite his decades as a leading Party apparatchik.
The CIA website gives grudging admiration to Suslov’s ability to survive in the tumultuous Soviet political sphere:
Mikhail Suslov, the Politburo member who served as the party’s top watchdog over ideological matters, was a typical Stalinist. He managed to retain his position and his restrictive influence over information flows, both during and after the de-Stalinization campaign of 1956-1962. Khrushchev evidently thought Suslov would generally follow his (Khrushchev’s) lead. He was mistaken; Suslov showed himself to be a tough and resourceful character. After Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, Suslov gained almost total domination over Agitprop. The next party chief, Leonid Brezhnev, was too lazy and too submissive to others’ opinions to make a serious effort to curb Suslov.
Suslov was hardly ever seen by western eyes; just a tall, gaunt figure lurking in the background at Party events, seldom photographed (in a cult where having one’s beaming face photographed for the media at every possible occasion was almost obligatory). He was unknown for his writing outside the USSR (many other Soviet leaders had prodigious bodies of works under their names, albeit often the product of state ghost writers).
The online Marxist Archives list only two of his works, both from 1949. A glance through “The Defense of Peace and the Struggle Against the Warmongers” gives a taste of his literary and political style:
Having taken the path of military-political conspiracy against peace and the security of the peoples, the ruling circles of the U.S. and Britain drive at full speed preparing a new war and are declaring with increasingly cynical shamelessness and insolence, their claims for world domination, the “American leadership of the world,” reviving the insane plans of German fascism and forgetting the historical lessons given to crazy pretenders for “world domination.”
The entire policy of the Anglo-American imperialist bloc serves the aim of preparing a new world war. It finds expression in the unrestrained economic, political and military expansion carried out by the U.S. on all continents in an attempt to seize military-strategic raw materials and other resources essential for war preparations. The U.S. imperialists are netting the entire globe with military, naval and air bases, and are preparing springboards for a new war. The support rendered by the Anglo-American imperialists to all outmoded reactionary regimes (the Franco Government in Spain, the monarcho-fascist Government in Greece, Chiang Kai-shek in China, and so on), to the remnants of the destroyed exploiting classes, spies, saboteurs and murderers in the People’s Democracies, to reactionary forces all over the world-all this serves the aim of preparing a new war. U.S. imperialism has become the center and mainstay of world reaction.
Suslov’s narrow chest wasn’t bedecked with racks of medals and ribbons handed out by the kilo to other leaders: only two appear in the photos I have seen where is is shown wearing any. Most of the time he is shown simply, but elegantly dressed in a modest suit.
Yet Suslov survived six decades in Soviet politics, four of them in its top levels – one of the most ruthless venues for power. And he prospered there. Depending on your source, he may have been the power behind the throne for much of that period, the kingmaker who made – and unmade – many of the top Communist leaders.
Mikhail Alexandrovich Suslov was born on November 21, 1902, in Shakhovskoye, a village in Russia west of the Volga, not far from Lenin’s own birthplace. He died of a stroke (or heart attack?) on January 25, 1982, in Moscow.
Suslov joined the Communist Party in 1921 and over the next two decades, rose quietly but indefatigably through the ranks, surviving purges, challenges and threats, until, eventually, he was made a member of the Politburo and Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In 1921, Suslov was sent to Moscow for his education, where he studied economics. For a short while, after graduation, he was a teacher of economics, but his real career lay in the Party ranks. Suslov left his job as a teacher to enter politics full-time in 1931.
He was chosen to supervise Stalin’s purges in the Urals and Ukraine in the 1930s. He was so successful in following Stalin’s wishes – always a path to advancement in that era – he was sent to the Caucasus to deal with similar matters there. He quickly rose to become a ruling member of the local Party apparatus. He was a regional party secretary in Rostov in 1937 and first secretary in Stavropol by 1939.
When World War II broke out, Suslov was picked to supervise Stalin’s deportation of ethnic minorities to Siberia.
In 1941, he was named to the party’s central committee, moving inward from the periphery to the centre of power. He rose rapidly in the political hothouse.
He quickly took over the role of the Party’s leading theoretician, and was known for his strident condemnation of any deviations from Soviet policy by Party members both domestically and internationally. He was particularly vocal in his anti-Yugoslav/anti-Tito propaganda in 1948.
In late 1944, the All-Union Communist Party denounced Lithuanian Communists for their apparent lack of zeal in implementing the land reform and “insufficient determination in uncovering Lithuanian-German bourgeois nationalists.” A bureau for Lithuanian affairs was organized, with Mikhail Suslov as its chairman. Suslov’s talent for previous hard-line repression in the provinces made him the obvious choice to re-impose Soviet rule. He became known as the “Second Hangman of Lithuania:”
Mikhail Murav’ev, the suppressor of Lithuania’s Insurrection of 1863, hung, killed, jailed or deported to Siberia around ten thousand Lithuanians. For his merits, the Tsar conferred upon him the title of ‘Graf.’ The Lithuanian nation ‘baptized’ him The Hangman. The number of Suslov’s victims in Lithuania is ten-fold. The new Russian Tsar bestowed on him the title of Hero of Socialist Labor, the Order of Lenin, and several other orders. For a long time now the Lithuanian nation has considered him The Second Hangman.
Suslov proved merciless in his repression of all attempts at resistance. He sent entire villages to prison camps in Siberia.
In the post-war years, Suslov flourished. In 1947, he was appointed by Stalin as head of the important Agitprop Department of the Central Committee where he, “…personally scrutinized publications to ensure conformity. According to Fedor Burlatsky (1988), he would also comment on everything written by members of the Central Committee departments. In 1969 he directed the dismissal of the progressive Novy mir editorial board”.
In 1946, Suslov condemned the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), established by the Soviets in 1942 to mobilize international Jewish support for the Soviet war effort. The JAC’s leadership included the USSR’s top 25 writers, artists, doctors, scientists and government officials. After the war ended, responsibility for the JAC was transferred to Suslov. In November 1946, he made a secret report to the Politburo, warning the JAC was becoming increasingly nationalistic and Zionist in its support for “the reactionary idea of a single Jewish nation.”
Suslov recommended the JAC should be “liquidated”, but Stalin, wary of events unfolding on the international stage, was not ready to act. Events in the Middle East suggested that the Soviet regime could extend its influence, and this was not the time to alienate international Jewish opinion.
His next step up the ladder came in 1952 when he was appointed as a secretary to the Politburo. Stalin, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Brezhnev were among his peers. He was now at the pinnacle of Soviet power and he meant to stay there.
His first act – possibly under direction from Stalin – was to remove the editor of The Communist, the principal ideological and theoretical organ of the Russian Communist Party. Suslov publicly criticized its editor, P. Fedoseev, for propagating the economic theories of the then-disgraced N. Voznosensky, former head of Gosplan. Once a favourite of Stalin’s, Stalin soon disagreed with Voznosensky’s liberal approach to market economy and rejected his ideas. Voznosensky became persona non-grata and was removed from his post in 1949, more than three years before Suslov’s denouncement.
Although his protector, Stalin, died in 1953, Suslov managed to hold onto his seat in the struggle that followed. He was appointed chairman of the politburo’s Foreign Affairs Committee in 1954.
In their book, The Unknown Stalin, Roy and Zhores Medvedev put forward the theory Suslov was Stalin’s “secret heir,”and this was exposed by Khrushchev in his ‘secret speech’ of 1956. For a while, Suslov was demoted to secondary positions and his influence curtailled, but he managed to ride out the storm by supporting Khrushchev and rise again to prominence.
In 1955, Suslov was elected a full member of the Central Committee – the Presidium. He was re-elected to the Central Committee in 1956, when Khrushchev was appointed First Secretary. He stayed in it until his death, 26 years later.
Suslov had assumed a pivotal position in the ruling clique as the party’s ruling theoretician and foremost reactionary.
Suslov maneuvered behind the scenes – possibly having a lead, but hidden, hand in the coup that replaced Beria with Nikita Khrushchev in 1953. Although he was one of Stalin’s handpicked henchmen, Suslov managed deftly to survive the de-Stalinization campaign of 1956-1962 by throwing his support behind Khrushchev, at least ostensibly. When Khrushchev’s opponents – like Molotov – were removed from power, Suslov moved in as the leader of the conservative faction.
He would not be a supporter for long. He tried to have Khrushchev deposed several times, and when the latter became estranged with Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, Suslov tried to interpose himself as the peacemaker between them, heading a delegation intending to heal any rift between the two nations in 1963. It failed – probably because Mao had detested Suslov since their first meeting in 1957 – and he later criticized Mao’s cult of personality, and advocated a harder line against China.
Suslov also opposed Khrushchev’s attempts to have the gulag inmates rehabilitated and released from exile: he and Malenkov tried to sabotage the plans, but others informed on their efforts and they failed.
Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization had created a “relaxation of traditional ideological demands” that weakened Soviet control on its subject nations and led to clashes to restore control in East Germany, Poland and Hungary. Suslov became the party’s voice for military preparedness and pro-active security, and counselled against improved relations – détente – with the United States during his entire career.
During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Suslov supervised Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, on how to repress the Hungarian freedom movement. After Andropov returned to Moscow, in 1957, Suslov recommended him for the job of Head of Central Committee Department for Relations with Communist and Workers Parties in Socialist Nations. Later, Suslov would pull some strings to get Andropov appointed head of the KGB.
When Khrushchev faced a conspiracy in the Politburo in 1957, Suslov helped quell the opposition. In propping up Khrushchev, the conservative Suslov further cemented his position as defender of the status quo. But he later turned on the increasingly eccentric and voluble Khrushchev, and helped organize the subsequent coup that installed Leonid Brezhnev at the top of the Politburo, in 1964.
The break between Suslov and Khrushchev likely began with Khrushchev’s public declaration that the USSR had achieved socialism, in 1961, combined with Khrushchev’s mishandling of the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises. As ideologue, Suslov – and many other Politburo members – did not want to announce socialism as a Soviet achievement yet, because it simply had not been reached. It was seen as an important stage along the journey to Communism (and that journey to socialism was justification for many of the party’s policies and actions).
Worse for the nation, the growing conflict with the West was causing significant stress on the economy, putting socialism in a bad light, not the shining goal it had been previously.
Khrushchev wanted a PR coup to boost his flagging popularity, so he overrode his party’s objections and declared it. Suslov, the party’s top watchdog over ideological matters for much of his time in the Secretariat, was not impressed with Khrushchev’s incursion into his realm. Khrushchev evidently thought the quiet Suslov would follow his lead, but he was wrong. Shortly after, Khrushchev was ousted and Brezhnev inserted as leader.
Officially, however, it was Khrushchev’s failed policy over the belligerent Chinese Communists that brought him down. Suslov, of course, had been the author of the policy Khrushchev had flouted (Suslov and Andrei Gromyko were the only Soviet officials who took part in all of Khrushchev’s talks with Mao Tse Tung and Zhou Enlai) . Suslov allied with Shelepin, Brezhnev and Malinkovsky to bring him down, making a secret speech of his own in which he criticized Khrushchev’s one-man rule. Many of Khrushchev’s policies and appointments were reversed after he was ousted.
Prior to 23rd Party Congress, a power struggle broke out between Suslov and Shelepin as to which of the two might be elected as First Secretary, replacing Khrushchev. This allowed Leonid Brezhnev to move in and consolidate power, taking the position for himself. The ever-adaptable Suslov then hitched his wagon to the dull-witted Brezhnev’s rising star.
His greatest advantage was his intelligence. he was widely-read, well-spoken and intellectually sharp in an environment where those aptitudes had been liabilities. Few of his fellow politburo members were as sharp, and, not wanting to be seen as ill-educated or dull, they let the articulate Suslov take the lead on intellectual and international issues.
Suslov’s position as the chief ideologue was fixed in the Soviet firmament. He concentrated his attention on relations between the Soviet Communist Party and other communist parties around the world.
Tall, lanky and looking intellectual behind thick-framed glasses, Suslov gathered his resources quietly, didn’t make waves, and built himself a power base that lasted until his death in 1982. According to some analysts, Suslov essentially ran the Party between 1952 and 1982, although he never assumed a public face in that role. One note of interest: in the invective-dense conversations of Politburo members, Suslov was one of only three members who never cursed (Andropov and Gromyko being the other two).
Suslov was able to gain almost total control over Agitprop, tightly controlling the Party’s direction through its release of information both internally and externally. As one writer described him,
Suslov was such a master of propaganda that the Western politicians seemed like rank amateurs in any ideological confrontations with him.
As the Party ideologue, Suslov had control over much, if not all, of the Party’s information flow and output, but he also took control over the output from the intelligentsia.
Writer Vasiliy Grossman submitted his novel about Stalingrad and Stalinism, Life and Fate, for publication in 1960. However, despite promises of publication, in February 1961, the KGB seized the manuscript, and confiscated all known copies from Grossman’s flat. Suslov told Grossman that his novel was “more hostile to the ideals of the Russian Revolution than was Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.” He declared that Life and Fate could not be published for at least 250 years (it was published in the West in the 1980s).
Suslov suffered a political setback that to Politburo men might have proved fatal, when he attempted to rehabilitate Stalin in the late 1960s. Although party chief Leonid Brezhnev was generally too self-indulgent and lazy to make a serious effort to curb Politburo members, Suslov’s efforts upset the Central Committee elite (then basking in the entitlements they accorded themselves). They, along with foremost members of the Soviet intelligentsia, launched a protest that forced Brezhnev to step in and stop Suslov’s project.
Despite this setback, Suslov, an unapologetic Stalinist, retained his Politburo seat and worked to regain his influence. The State’s ultra-orthodox advocate for ideological purity, he became increasingly rigid in his stance.
Brezhnev, who disliked anything intellectual, recognized he was no innovator in Marxist-Leninist theory, and increasingly relied on Suslov’s analyses of theoretical issues. Suslov’s dogmatism and caution suited Brezhnev, although Suslov’s unyielding view often exacerbated the Soviet Union’s relations with reform-minded communist parties, such as the Yugoslav and Italian parties. Brezhnev turned to Suslov to advise him on China policy as soon as Khrushchev had been removed.
Brezhnev basically turned over the responsibility of administering the party and state apparat to Suslov, including the Department for Liaison with Socialist Countries. Suslov also managed the personnel policy, using his power to position his own people – preferably ideological hardliners like himself – in key roles, and to remove those who (like Alexander Yakolev, later a Gorbachev supporter) opposed him.
Suslov spent much of the 1960s supporting, funding and encouraging Communist parties around the world, particularly those in capitalist nations looking to foment an uprising (he always believed the use of force by those parties was justified). That included supplying and arming Communist, but nationalist, German rebels in the former Saarland, in 1965. He was supportive of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, but did not get along well with the independently-minded Che Guevara.
In 1967, Suslov, declared that Communism had grown faster than any other ideology in history, faster than the great religions of the world had spread. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, he argued, Communism had spread from Russia to the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe and to China. By Suslov’s count, seven million Communist militants were active in 27 developed capitalist countries and in 47 national liberation movements. He predicted the excesses of capitalism would continue to push the historical dialectic in the direction of Communism, as Karl Marx had foretold.
However, he may have been feeling unease as the grip on some of the client states continued to weaken. Suslov was one of only four Politburo members (out of 11) who opposed the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
An odd occurrence happened in January, 1969. Twenty-two-year-old Viktor Ilyin apparently decided to kill Brezhnev to let Suslov take his place. On January, 22, he fired at Brezhnev’s motorcade as it was driving into the Kremlin’s gate. He succeeded in killing one of the chauffeurs and wounding a cyclist, but Brezhnev escaped. Suslov was never indicted for involvement in the case, although in Stalin’s time, he would have been purged.
In 1970, Suslov made a speech declaring “the general crisis of capitalism” favoured a rapid increase in industrial strikes. He argued that, in 1965, a total of 26 million people went on strike in Western nations, but by 1969 the figure had grown to more than 60 million. And in the ten months up prior to his speech, the total had passed the 63 million mark. He warned the non-Communist nations were doomed to defeat against the increasing impact of subversion and revolution. He also chaired the Politburo meetings in the mid-1970s.
Around that time, a young Mikhail Gorbachev came to the attention of Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov – the two top Politburo members. They brought him to Moscow and took him under their collective wing and got him elected to the Central Committee in 1971. They also arranged foreign trips for their rising star – a rare privilege in the USSR. Gorbachev was appointed a party secretary of agriculture in 1978. He became a candidate member of the Politburo in 1979 and a full member in 1980. Suslov became Gorbachev’s political mentor (in part as a counterbalance to the Brezhnev clique).
In 1975, Brezhnev suffered a stroke that incapacitated him while he recovered. Suslov and Andrey Kirilenko assumed many of his functions until he recovered. Brezhnev never fully got his health back, and Suslov never fully relinquished his control.
Suslov’s last known major political gambit came in 1979 when he prepared a plan to assassinate Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope elected in 1978. KGB files from the former Communist Czech secret service revealed the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow became greatly alarmed at John Paul II’s election. Because party chief Leonid Brezhnev was terminally ill at that time, Suslov prepared the plan himself. He was evidently deeply concerned that John Paul II could establish close relations with the Russian Orthodox church in the Soviet Union and undermine the regime.
Also in 1979, Suslov encouraged invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow former poster-boy for Communism, Hafizullah Amin, whose bent for modernization was upsetting the conservative religious community in Afghanistan, and replace him with Babrak Karmal – someone Suslov saw as more compliant towards Soviet goals and less likely to cause trouble. But the Afghanis wanted no part of a Soviet puppet regime and war broke out.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Suslov fought to curb any attempt at moderation by the Polish Communist Party to find a political compromise to social conflict with the Solidarity movement. In 1980, Suslov visited Poland to give a stern warning to the Polish party, and when he returned to Moscow, published a statement in TASS on the danger in the Polish Communist Party of revisionists who sought to “paralyze” the party’s role as “the leading force in society.” That was followed by a letter from the Central Committee to the Polish Communist Party deploring how the Polish Communist Party leadership had surrendered “one position after another to the counter revolution.” In 1981, following a recommendation by a Politburo commission chaired by Suslov, martial law was declared in Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement.
According to Andrei Gromyko, in 1980, Suslov was adamant the USSR had to respond to the pleas for help from the Soviet’s puppet government in Afghanistan, and act in accordance with the Soviet-Afghan treaty to save the government from being overthrown. He convinced Brezhnev troops were required, and Brezhnev convinced the rest of the Politburo. In June, 1980, the Assembly of the Central Committee unanimously approved the decision of the Politburo.
Two days before he died, Suslov maneuvered to protect his boss, Brezhnev, from a political scandal that involved his aging party-girl daughter, Galina Churbanova, and her flamboyant consort, Boris Buryatia (Galina’s high-flying antics while she was married to the Deputy Minister of the Interior were a constant source of embarrassment for Brezhnev). The KGB had traced a theft of diamonds to Boris, who was running a successful diamond-smuggling operation with Galina.
When KGB Gen. Semyon Tsvigun – the number-two man at the KGB, and Brezhnev’s brother-in-law – tried to arrest Boris, Suslov intervened. He confronted Tsvigun and advised him to commit suicide rather than embarrass the Leader. The general shot himself on Jan. 19. Two days later, Suslov suffered a heart attack and died on Jan. 25.
One day later, during Suslov’s state funeral, the KGB arrested Boris. The next day, Yuri Andropov moved into Suslov’s former office.
Suslov’s death was followed by a bitter internecine battle among the aging leaders (the ‘gerontocracy’) who remained. Yuri Andropov, KGB head, secured Suslov’s role as head of Soviet ideology (quickly bumping Konstantin Chernenko from the spot) , using his power to sideline his opponents Kirilenko and Chernenko. Chernenko took over as General Secretary in 1984, when Andropov died, to be succeeded by Gorbachev, in 1985.
Shortly after that, the USSR fell apart and Communism ceased to be a major political or economic power anywhere (even in China, where, although it pays lip service to the name, it has been gradually replaced by a market economy since 1975).
Suslov was perhaps the most powerful man in the USSR and held his power for longer than most of its leaders. He survived – and prospered – in the most competitive, voracious political environment of our time. He played kingmaker, he ruled the administration, he set policy and procedure. Yet despite four decades climbing the Party’s hierarchy few of us in the west even recognize his name.
Surely no modern politician deserves more to be called a Machiavellian. However, despite how the doomed Soviet regime regaled him at his funeral, many of Suslov’s acts are now embarrassments, even seen as criminal, not accomplishments to celebrate.
I first wrote about Mikhail Suslov in early 2005 on my former blog. This post is an updated edition of that earlier piece. This material comes from a variety of printed and online sources, but I have since lost my notes indicating the sources. I have tried to provide links to online sources where I could find them. My printed sources go back to the mid-1980s, however. I apologize to any authors from whom this material was copied without a link or recognition.
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