Nikolai Bulganin (1885-1975) was chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers from 1955 until 1958 and for a brief period of time he was one of the world's most prominent political figures.
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin was born June 11, 1885, in Gorky, formerly called Nizhni Novgorod, a trade and industrial center on the Volga river. His father worked as an accountant, but little has been revealed about Bulganin's youth, perhaps because he came from a fairly well-to-do family and was given an excellent private school education. In 1917, the midst of the revolution, he joined the Bolshevik (Communist) Party. For several months he worked as a party organizer in the region's textile factories, and in early 1918, when civil war broke out, he joined other young Communist enthusiasts in the newly formed Cheka, forerunner of the secret police.
As a Chekist in Gorky, Turkestan, and Moscow, Nikolai Aleksandrovich became closely associated with a number of future party leaders, including Lazar Kaganovich, Viacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Ezhov, and Anastas Mikoian. These relationships undoubtedly helped further his career, but so did his own intelligence and administrative competence. In 1922 Bulganin became a member of the important National Economic Council charged with planning and directing the Soviet economy. He was soon given other important posts, including control in 1927 over the Soviet Union's "General Electric," the Moscow electrical components factory "Electrozavod." Here Bulganin distinguished himself during Stalin's industrialization drive, gaining national attention by completing his assigned Five Year Plan in less than three years.
Bulganin's success as a practical administrator and his personal friendships led in 1931 to his becoming chairman of the Moscow city soviet, the capital's mayor. Here he again worked closely with Lazar Kaganovich, at the time secretary of the all-important Moscow party committee. In 1934, the year Kaganovich was followed in the Moscow party apparatus by Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev, Bulganin was elected a candidate member of the Central Committee.
Shortly thereafter, as Bulganin and Khrushchev plunged energetically into the task of Moscow's rapid growth (including the construction of the city's famous subway system), Stalin's massive purges began; and in 1936 Bulganin's old colleague Ezhov became head of the dreaded police. Patronage was not always protection in these years, but in Bulganin's case it clearly helped consolidate his position as a bright young Stalinist at a time when "Old Bolsheviks" were arrested and killed by the tens of thousands. Advancement came rapidly. In July 1937, at the height of the purges, he became premier of the Russian republic, the largest and most important of the country's 16 constituent units. One year later he was appointed deputy premier of the U.S.S.R. and simultaneously head of the State Bank.
With the German invasion in 1941 Bulganin's experience and ability led to his assuming a number of important posts, first as the principal party administrator for the Western front, and later, in 1944, as a member of the all-important State Defense Committee. Immediately after the war, while such other prominent figures as Marshal Zhukov were being removed from positions of power, Bulganin was appointed first deputy minister of defense and himself became a marshal. In 1949 he was promoted to vice-premier of the U.S.S.R., a position he held when Stalin died in 1953.
Bulganin apparently played a key role in the weeks following Stalin's death in helping Khrushchev become first secretary, using his influence in the military to assure the removal and execution of their mutual rival Lavrenti Beria, Ezhov's successor. As vice-premier, Bulganin was also able to stand somewhat on the sidelines as Khrushchev jockeyed for power with another old friend, Malenkov; and in February 1955 Bulganin himself replaced Malenkov as Soviet premier. Given now to welltailored clothes (in marked contrast to Khrushchev) and able to handle himself with ease on the Western embassy cocktail circuit, Bulganin soon became widely known in the west as a man of quick wit and intelligence. Late in 1955 he also became, with Khrushchev, the Soviet Union's leading exponent of peaceful coexistence and better relations with the West.
Bulganin and Khrushchev "teamed up" in these months to make a number of trips to Western Europe and Asia, including visits to Burma, India, Yugoslavia, England, and Finland. In July 1955 he led the Soviet delegation to the four power conference in Geneva, where he met Eisenhower and toasted the end of war. As head of state, Bulganin also assumed a principal role in the Soviet Union's major peace offensive throughout 1956 and 1957, corresponding frequently with Eisenhower and in one celebrated letter on the eve of the 1956 elections urging an end to nuclear tests. Westerners generally perceived Bulganin as a man of reason and worldly sophistication, although Poles, Hungarians, and his own countrymen also knew his tough-mindedness and understood first-hand his willingness to clamp down Stalinist fashion when he thought such measures were required.
June 1957 proved an important turning point in Bulganin's career. Khrushchev's de-stalinization campaign and his effort to stimulate rapid industrial growth by introducing a number of rapid-fire domestic reforms led to the formation of a solid opposition bloc in the Politburo, the Communist Party's leading council. The opposition was led by Kaganovich, Molotov, and Malenkov and soon secured a majority of seven to four in favor of Khrushchev's ouster. Bulganin apparently felt bound to side with the majority, although he remained supportive of Khrushchev's policies. In any event, the decision to replace Khrushchev was made in his office.
Khrushchev, however, refused to accept the Politburo's decision. According to reports (perhaps leaked self-servingly by Khrushchev himself), it was Bulganin who insisted that a seven to four vote left Khrushchev no choice, drawing the famous retort that "politics is not arithmetic." When Khrushchev boldly assembled the Central Committee and assured his power, Bulganin's days were numbered. In March 1958 he was ousted as premier (a position now assumed by Khrushchev himself) and demoted to head the State Bank. Despite abject public and private apologies for his "incorrect" behavior, further humiliation followed quickly. In August 1958 he was transferred to a minor economic post at Stavropol in the northern Caucasus, where his authority was limited and he was constantly exposed to ridicule. His subsequent plea in February 1960 to be allowed to retire was granted, perhaps as a favor by his former friend Khrushchev. In increasingly ill health, he lived the rest of his years as a pensioner in a small dacha outside Moscow, only once, in 1964, appearing again at an official party gathering.
Although Bulganin held a number of important party positions and received every major award and honor, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia allots him less than half the space devoted to S. N. Bulgakov, a "bourgeois" philosopher who disagreed sharply with Lenin and became a leading anti-communist writer, and only two lines more than Andrei Boulainvilliers, an obscure 18th century French historian. At one time tens of millions of Soviet schoolchildren saw Bulganin's picture every day of their young lives. Millions more of their elders paid close attention to his speeches. And during the American election campaign of 1956, Bulganin's correspondence with President Eisenhower was front page news in every major American newspaper. Nevertheless, when he died on February 24, 1975, there was not even a formal obituary in the Soviet newspapers Pravda or Izvestiia.
Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin has no Western biographer. Material relating to his rise to power can be found in a number of general texts, including Leonard Schapiro, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1960); Carl A. Linden, Khrushchev and the Soviet Leadership, 1957-1964 (1966); Edward Crankshaw, Khrushchev: A Career (1966); and Wolfgang Leonard, The Kremlin Since Stalin (1962). An interesting analysis of the 1957 crisis appears in Roger Pethybridge, A Key to Soviet Politics: The Crisis of the "Anti-Party" Group (London, 1962). See also the collection of essays edited by Stephen Cohen, Alexander Rabinowitch, and Robaert Sharlet, The Soviet Union Since Stalin (1980), especially Roy Medvedev's "The Stalin Question." The best source for Bulganin's many public speeches during his years as premier is the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, issued weekly since 1949, with quarterly and cumulative indices. □