Alexander Nikolayevich Shelepin (Russian: Алекса́ндр Никола́евич Шеле́пин; 18 August 1918 – 24 October 1994) was a Soviet politician and security and intelligence officer. A long-time member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he served as First Deputy Prime Minister, as a full member of the Politburo and as the Chairman of the KGB from December 1958 to November 1961. He continued to maintain decisive influence in the KGB until 1967; his successor as KGB Chairman, Vladimir Semichastny, was his client and protégé.
Intelligent, ambitious and well-educated, Shelepin was the leader of a hard-line faction within the Communist Party that played a decisive role in overthrowing Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. Opposed to the policy of détente, he was eventually outmaneuvered by Leonid Brezhnev and gradually stripped of his power, thus failing in his ambition to lead the Soviet Union.
Alexander Shelepin was born in Voronezh on 18 August 1918 to a middle-class family, the son of Nikolai Shelepin, a railway official. A talented student, he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Philosophy and then obtained a master's degree from the Moscow Institute of History. He started his political career in the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) while still a student, and already in his teens he had expressed his desire to become a party leader.
World War II and service under Stalin
Shelepin briefly served in the Red Army in 1940, during the last stages of the Winter War against Finland, and after the Nazi invasion in 1941, he helped organize the guerrilla partisan movement in the Moscow region; after the notorious execution by the Nazis of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya (whom Shelepin had personally selected), he caught the eye of Joseph Stalin himself, and his political fortune was made. He became a senior official of the Komsomol, working in the All-Union Secretariat in Moscow, and was then named General Secretary of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, an international youth organization recognized by the United Nations and granted general consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In 1952, in one of Stalin's last personnel reshuffles, Shelepin became First Secretary of the All-Union Komsomol.
Service under Khrushchev
Though closely identified with Stalin (and being somewhat of a favorite of his), Shelepin was not affected by De-Stalinization and the gradual consolidation of power by Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin's death in 1953. Indeed, Khrushchev personally liked Shelepin and, because of his rise through the Communist Youth League, saw him as an ally against the secret police and security agencies that had been all-powerful under Stalin. Shelepin accompanied Khrushchev on the Soviet leader's trip to the People's Republic of China in 1954, and met with Mao Zedong. Following this, he mobilized thousands of young Communists in support of Khrushchev's ‘Virgin Lands’ program.
In early 1958, Khrushchev appointed Shelepin as Central Committee Secretary in charge of the Party Organs Department, and, in December 1958, Shelepin became the Chairman of the Soviet central intelligence and security service, the KGB, replacing Army General Ivan Serov. Khrushchev saw Shelepin as a very good choice for KGB chief, for several reasons; Shelepin's background completely outside state security, his higher education and intellectual approach greatly distinguished him from his predecessors, and his appointment was intended to improve the public image of the KGB.
Shelepin attempted to return state security and intelligence to its position of importance during the Stalinist era. However, the people he favored were completely different than those preferred by his predecessors. With Khrushchev's full backing, Shelepin recruited many young university graduates to the KGB (especially favoring those with a background in law and the social sciences) and he demoted or fired many career state security officers, replacing them with officials from Communist Party organizations, and, especially, from the Communist Youth League. As a result of Shelepin's ambitious policy, the KGB became a substantially different organization from the Stalin-era security services, with a more sophisticated and intellectual approach, that would be further encouraged by future Chairman Yuri Andropov.
Shelepin proposed and carried out the destruction of many documents related to the Katyn massacre of Polish officers to minimize the chance that the truth would be revealed. His 3 March 1959 note to Nikita Khrushchev, with information about the execution of 21,857 Poles and with the proposal to destroy their personal files, became one of the documents that were preserved and eventually made public.
The policy of providing KGB support to left-wing nationalist liberation movements in wars of national liberation in Latin America, Asia and Africa was another important innovation of Shelepin's new approach as KGB Chairman, adopted during the summer of 1961 by Khrushchev and the Central Committee following a detailed proposal by Shelepin. Fidel Castro and Cuba strongly supported an aggressive policy of military assistance to national liberation movements with Che Guevara, in co-operation with Ben Bella of Algeria, also playing a leading role.
Coup against Khrushchev
Shelepin left the KGB in November 1961 and became a First Deputy Prime Minister; Khrushchev also made him Chairman of the powerful new Committee of Party and State Control, from where he still exercised control over the KGB, which was taken over by his client and protégé Vladimir Semichastny.
He was a principal player in the coup against Khrushchev in October 1964, obviously influencing the KGB to support the conspirators.
Shelepin probably expected to become First Secretary and de facto leader of the USSR when Khrushchev was overthrown. Shelepin occupied a powerful position, controlling the KGB and leading a large hard-line faction within the Party, as well as holding two high-level posts, one in the Council of Ministers as Deputy Prime Minister and one in the central party apparatus as a member of the Secretariat. However, he lacked influence in the military, and was viewed very suspiciously by most Central Committee and Government officials outside his faction, who were well-aware of his ambitions. Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested that Shelepin had been the choice of the surviving Stalinists, who asked "what had been the point of overthrowing Khrushchev if not to revert to Stalinism?" As far as his own views on the role of Soviet policy went, Shelepin opposed the relaxation of tensions with the United States in foreign affairs, and favored a return to domestic policies that promoted discipline and centralization within the wider Union.
Shelepin's reward was to be made a full member of the most important political body, the Politburo, in November 1964, following the successful overthrow of Khrushchev —by a significant margin its youngest member, at the age of 46. But he still held ambitions of becoming the leader of the Soviet Union.
Fall from power
Shelepin's colleagues on the Politburo watched him carefully, seeking to halt his ambitions. So as to weaken his substantial power base, Shelepin was stripped of the Deputy Premiership at the end of 1965 and from 1965–1970 witnessed the systematic dismissal of his most powerful allies within the Party and Government. In May 1967, he lost all of his influence in the KGB, as Brezhnev replaced Semichastny with Yuri Andropov. Shelepin survived as a full member of the Politburo until 1975, when he rapidly fell from power, being successively demoted to a number of lower positions, until his retirement in 1984.
Brezhnev was able to outmaneuver Shelepin, as his approach was more nuanced and more acceptable to the average Party official. Shelepin wanted centralization, discipline and strict oversight of officials domestically, and confrontation on all fronts with the United States abroad; whereas Brezhnev was happy to offer predictability, stability and job security to the party officials, and pursue a balanced foreign policy, combining détente with proxy wars.
Shelepin died in Moscow on 24 October 1994, at the age of 76, and was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Honours and awards
- ^ a b c d Martin McCauley, Who's Who in Russia since 1900, page 184, Routledge, 1997
- ^ a b c d e Aleksandr Nikolaevich Shelepin, Oxford Dictionary of Political Biography
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- ^ a b Cienciala, Anna M.; Materski, Wojciech (2007). Katyn: a crime without punishment. Yale University Press. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-0-300-10851-4.
- ^ Sanford, George (2005). Katyn and the Soviet massacre of 1940: truth, justice and memory. Psychology Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-415-33873-8.
- ^ RFE/RL Research Institute (1993). RFE/RL research report: weekly analyses from the RFE/RL Research Institute. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Inc.. p. 24. Retrieved 7 May 2011. "One of the documents turned over to the Poles on 14 October was Shelepin's handwritten report from 1959"
- ^ Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (2005). "24 "The Cold War Comes to Africa". The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (hardcover). Basic Books. pp. 432–433. ISBN 9780465003112.
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- ^ Gelman, Harry (1984). The Brezhnev Politburo and the Decline of Detente. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. pp. 73. ISBN 978-0-8014-9280-8.
- ^ Zubok, Vladislav (2009). Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. University of North Carolina Press. p. 1957. ISBN 978-0807859582.
- ^ Gelman, Harry (1984). The Brezhnev Politburo and the Decline of Detente. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. pp. 77–78. ISBN 978-0-8014-9280-8.