Stalin’s power was absolute, he had for just under three decades made his position effectively unquestionable, especially after having won WWII, considering how backwards Russia was in the previous world war, was an awe inspiring feat. Stalin had allowed no clear successor to emerge as he had become paranoid about his inferiors plotting a takeover of power. These rivals had been dealt with in many brutal purges. When he died in March 1953 a very clear power struggle emerged as it had done after Lenin’s death. Back in 1924, the candidates were seven politburo members, Bukharin, Kamenev, Rykov, Stalin, Tomsky, Trotsky and Zinoviev. As after Lenin’s death, only a few of these became serious options. Post-Stalin, there were four key men running for the acceptance of power, Malenkov, the Chairman of Councils of Ministers, Beria, the Minister of the Interior, which included state security, Molotov, the Foreign Minister and lastly, the least likely person to take over at the time, Khrushchev.
The struggle for power lasted for around 5 years and Khrushchev never managed to achieve the same level of supreme power as Stalin, which arguably he did not particularly desire. Khrushchev seemed to have more of a focus on collective power and did denounce Stalin’s style of leadership in his infamous secret speech of 1956 at the 20th Party Congress.
The image above is particularly interesting because of how important a funeral can be regarding the hierarchical role the candidates took at this event. Similar to Lenin’s funeral, there was a good reason to be a key spokesman at the funeral of a Soviet leader. Stalin for Lenin’s funeral had cleverly worked a way for Trotsky to miss the funeral in order to gain an advantage in the pecking order for Soviet leadership. The three honoured speakers at Stalin’s funeral were Malenkov, Molotov and Beria. Interestingly, Khrushchev, out of the 10 people involved in the Presidium was the bottom of the rankings. Khrushchev, as Stalin had done after Lenin, had to be calculating and emphatic when asserting his way to the top of the cluster. Khrushchev had the right mix of the more influential friends in high places, with the more popular ideas for the USSR’s progression after Stalin, especially in the agricultural reforms. He also tactically, like Stalin, was able to eliminate the competition by pitting some off against each other, especially Beria, who many feared was getting to much power and planning a military coup. Khrushchev’s final piece of the puzzle to rise to leadership involved him getting the military under his control. He had the support of Zhukov, Minister of Defence, at a crucial time when Bulgnanin, Malenkov and Molotov were getting support against Khrushchev. He skilfully ousted Zhukov from power and took the head of Minister of Defence title for himself. He became the Commander in Chief, his position was secure.
Freeze, Gregory L., Russia A History (Oxford University Press: New York 2009)