Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union came into a period of transition. Georgy Malenkov was the dictator's heir as Premier while Stalin's position as First Secretary of the Communist Party went to Nikita Khrushchev. Other positions were continued by their respective members of the Presidium, the highest committee in the SU. This separation of powers was defended when Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beriya was arrested and executed in secret. Beriya had headed Soviet security with extensive powers and aided in the spread of Communism throughout Eastern Europe by the overthrow of governments. Rumors stated that Beriya was working toward a military coup in Moscow itself, and an alliance of Khrushchev and Malenkov managed to defeat him.
Khrushchev began to institute further reforms and, in 1956 at the 20th Party Congress, gave his "Secret Speech." Point by point over the course of four hours, Khrushchev gave a description of Stalin's cruelty and abuse of power. He later recalled, "congress listened to me in silence. As the saying goes, you could have heard a pin drop." The initial speech was behind closed doors, although it was later repeated slowly to Eastern European leaders and finally published, though stamped "not for press." Stalin remained an icon, but his reputation was destroyed along with those who had supported him during the Great Purge. Outrage exploded on both sides, including four days of rioting in Stalin's homeland of Georgia. Most sentiment supported Khrushchev as a new leader for a new Soviet Union.
Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who had long served under Stalin, received much of the flack from Khrushchev's speech and was demoted. He joined with other conservatives such as Malenkov and Old Bolshevik Lazar Kaganovich, determined to knock Khrushchev out of power. They sought a political maneuver, arguing before the Central Committee to remove Khrushchev, but eventual discussion prompted them to ensure that they could remove him before acting. Molotov approached Premier Bulganin, who wavered and would not give total support as Khruschev controlled the public at large as well as the military under Minister of Defense Georgy Zhukov. Zhukov and Khrushchev had served together in the Ukraine, and Zhukov had begun the calls for reform and the ousting of Stalin's abuses even before the Secret Speech. Any action against Khrushchev would be opposed by Zhukov and, in turn, the military he controlled.
It was clear that their efforts would meet with at most partial success unless they ousted Zhukov. Now, rather than targeting the chairman himself, they began a plot to remove Zhukov from office. He had risen to great new heights, becoming the most decorated figure in the Soviet military. After a meeting of the Presidium in June of 1957 when the general was granted full membership in the Presidium, Molotov mentioned to Khrushchev that Zhukov's fame as Minister of Defense was likely to make him Premier, like Bulganin. Khrushchev became nervous about losing his engineered popularity due to the fall of Stalinism to Zhukov and began to orchestrate the general's removal, effectively making Khrushchev a conspirator in the plot against himself. That October, while visiting Albania, Zhukov was voted into forced retirement.
Khrushchev began pushing for military reform, attempting to undo Zhukov's policy of the political agencies of the military reporting to commanding officers before the Communist Party. The move lost him a great deal of support politically as it became evident he was consolidating power. By the beginning of spring the next year, the Presidium voted to remove him as they had Zhukov. Khrushchev was demoted to managing agricultural materials in the Ukraine, where he would live out the rest of his life.
With the conservatives back in control of the Soviet Union, they attempted to recast the nation away from Khrushchev's policies. The Virgin Lands Campaign began to fail, leading to a new campaign of improving production on existing land and increasing sophistication in communal farms. The use of tanks in Hungary in 1956 was seen as widely unpopular, and the USSR was saved from international scorn only by the timely seizure of the Suez Canal. Molotov set to work rebuilding the Soviet image, capitalizing on Russian advantages in the Space Race to encourage communist action in other countries as Colonialism ended. Relations with Mao's China improved, and gradually China, Mongolia, North Korea and later countries in Southwest Asia were inducted into the Warsaw Pact.
As Communism spread, the West became increasingly nervous. In 1960, an American U2 spy plane was shot down, but long talks at the Four Powers Summit enabled the East and West to divide up the world into agreed upon spheres of influence. The Cuban-Turkish Missile Crisis tested the agreement, which brought about suspicious but peaceful coexistence as both sides removed weapons from near the other's border. The twentieth century continued, and the Soviet economy stagnated under conservative rule and eventually gave way to introductions of minor capitalism through East Germany and Poland. Similar experiments went forward in China after the death of Mao. Liberalization proved to be beneficial for the Communist nations, who thrived while the economies of the West struggled to recuperate from the recessions of the 1970s. Massive expenditures in governments such as Britain and America proved beneficial for a time in the 1980s, but, by the 1990s, attention shifted to the Communists, who by 2010 were the world economic leaders as the West attempted to repay its massive tax capital.
In reality, the "Anti-Party Group," as they were dubbed by Khrushchev during speeches in his defense, did not wait to gain support from the military. Their action to remove Khrushchev was supported in the Presidium, but the meeting of the Central Committee supported him, especially Zhukov, who gave an affirming speech that the military backed Khrushchev. The political careers of Khrushchev's opponents were ended as Khrushchev went on to become Premier; Molotov was sent as ambassador to Mongolia, Malenkov was made director of a hydroelectric plant, and Kaganovich became director of a potassium factory. Later, Khrushchev would be overthrown by conservative elements in 1964 under Leonid Brezhnev.