In March 1953 Joseph Stalin, who had ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand for three decades, died. Stalin’s death led to a power struggle within the Soviet government. Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev, former secretary of the Communist Party in the Ukraine, emerged as Stalin’s successor. After consolidating his position, in February 1956 Khrushchev shocked the leadership of the Soviet Union. In a speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party he denounced the policies of his predecessor, condemning Stalin for creating a “cult of personality,” for murdering thousands of innocent Soviet citizens and loyal Communist Party members, and for committing a host of other crimes against the Soviet people. Khrushchev’s speech marked the beginning of his new policy of destalinization. Reversing a number of Stalin’s policies, Khrushchev lifted restrictions on intellectuals and artists, freed many political prisoners, and ended some of the terrorism of the secret police. He also loosened the central government’s tight grip on the economy.
Incentives were offered to increase agricultural production. Local factory and farm managers were given more control to help them meet production quotas. Khrushchev’s primary goal was to increase the availability of consumer goods to the Soviet people. Even under his reforms, however, a continuing emphasis on heavy industry, and especially military spending, prevented substantial advances in the production of consumer goods. In addition, although Soviet industry had been rebuilt after the war, it was rebuilt largely with prewar technology. With the limitations imposed by centralized planning, the only real innovations achieved by the Soviet Union were in military and space technology.
To the surprise of the world, the Soviets began the space age when they launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Despite these problems, over the next several decades the Soviet economy did expand, and living standards rose considerably. The Soviet Union gradually became a modern industrial society. By the 1970s, for example, it was producing more coal, steel, cement, cotton, natural gas, and oil than any other country in the world. For a time, Khrushchev also seemed anxious to improve relations with the Western powers. He adopted a policy known as peaceful coexistence. However, this temporary thaw in East-West relations lasted only until 1960, when an American U-2 spy airplane was shot down over the Soviet Union, leading to the cancellation of a summit talk planned between Khrushchev and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower.
Diplomatic relations further deteriorated with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and a crisis over Cuba in 1962 that brought the Soviet Union and the United States to the brink of nuclear war. After Khrushchev’s economic policies also failed to produce the desired results, in 1964 he was forced to resign from office. Under his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, both domestic and foreign policies were tightened once more.