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Of Russian origin: Politburo

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The Politburo was the executive committee and highest body for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, as well as for several other workers’ parties in Eastern Europe, Vietnam and China. The term is a typical Soviet abbreviation of two words (a method commonly used in the “newspeak” implemented after the 1917 Revolution), which stands for “Political Bureau”.

In the USSR, on the eve of each holiday the portraits of Politburo members decorated the streets of cities. Kids used to ask their parents who these people were. It was a real challenge for most adults to answer that question. Some of the statesmen were really prominent, but most kept a low profile all the way through their careers. And even their portraits looked alike – so it was extremely hard for most people to tell who was who – especially if they were painted by mediocre artists. 

The Politburo was set up in 1917 by Vladimir Lenin , the leader of the Bolsheviks, to coordinate the October Revolution in Russia. For more than 70 years – until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – it was the central policymaking and governing body of both the Communist Party and the state. “The club” consisted of top party secretaries and key members of the Soviet government.

According to the regulations, the Politburo was elected from below - by the delegates of the Communist Party Congresses. These were usually held every 4-5 years. The Politburo had both full members and so-called “candidates” – people who were present at all the meetings but had no right to vote on any issue. The actual size of the Politburo changed from one Communist Party Congress to another. At the end of the 1970s it consisted of fourteen full, and eight candidate members.

During the whole of Soviet history it was the First (or later – General) Secretary who always had the crucial vote on key issues in the development of the country. Lenin tried hard to hold his grip on the Politburo until he became seriously ill. Under Joseph Stalin – from 1924 to 1953 - the power of the General Secretary became almost absolute. All that was left to the members of the Politburo was to yield to all the ideas of the “top man”. Any kind of opposition meant an end to their career.

After Stalin's death in 1953, the position of First Secretary became more difficult to hold onto. The top person in the country had to make sure that the people in the Politburo did not start to switch their allegiance to groups that did not totally support him. Nikita Khrushchev , the First Communist Party Secretary at that time, stripped his opponents of key positions in government in 1957 without the consent of other secretaries. But his inability to keep unity in the Politburo cost him the top post in October, 1964 when influential party leaders decided to replace him with Leonid Brezhnev.

Fifteen years later, when Brezhnev’s health began to deteriorate, he also had problems holding onto power at every level of the Politburo. This was a factor in the 1979 decision to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan. The Politburo’s hard-line members wanted to topple the undesirable leader Hafizullah Amin, who had decided not to rely too much on the Soviet leadership. Ironically, he was the Politburo Chief of the Afghan People’s Democratic Party. Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan only 10 years later.

 The heated discussion on Afghanistan, however, was not a typical example of Politburo debate. In order to minimize personal clashes its members designed a special procedure: according to this “Politburo workflow”, strong criticism had to be nipped in the bud before meetings, to avoid conflict between the members. The Communist Party Secretariat was responsible for preparing the agenda that usually contained dozens of issues. Each was presented in the form of a report made by one of the secretaries. Its draft was usually sent in advance to all the full members and candidates. In some cases, the Politburo set up special commissions to thoroughly work through all the complicated problems before the meetings.

The Politburo also had to think about its image as an institution that cares about the country’s citizens. That’s why Nikita Khrushchev made the leaders of key USSR republics part of the “club”.  In the 1970s, top party men from Ukraine and Kazakhstan were full members. The leaders of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan were candidates. The First Communist Party secretaries of the last two republics – Eduard Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliev respectively – became full members in the middle of the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary.  In the 1990s, they became the Presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively.

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At the age of 54, Gorbachev was the youngest member of the Politburo. He became the mastermind of the democratic processes supposed to transform the whole Soviet Union. Gorbachev wanted to make the new Politburo a “discussion ground” that would lead to the transformation of society. He replaced its ageing secretaries with new ones.  The number of members was increased to 25, which made it hard to come to a unanimous decision on many important issues. In 1990, the 28th Party Congress agreed to transfer the powers of the Politburo to the Parliament. This was the first year without the portraits of the top party men on the streets of Russian cities.

After the unsuccessful coup attempt of hardline party members in August 1991, Boris Yeltsin , the first President of the Russian Federation, issued a decree banning the activity of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which marked the end of the 74-year-old Politburo.

The longest-serving member of the Politburo was Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, a hero of the Russian Civil War of 1918-1920, who at various times held the posts of Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He was a Politburo member for 34 years. On the contrary, his fellow Marshal, Georgy Zhukov, one of the greatest commanders of World War II, managed to hold onto membership in “the club” for just 120 days in the mid-1950s.

Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT