Kosygin learned by experience. He was born into a working-class family in St. Petersburg on February 21, 1904. His father was a lathe operator, and he grew up in the cultured and cosmopolitan capital of tsarist Russia surrounded by increasingly militant and radical workers, absorbing much from both social cultures. (Throughout his life, he dressed impeccably, with shoes always brightly polished; but he could always communicate with ordinary factory hands and knew his way around the shop floor.) At the age of 15 he volunteered for the Red Army, distinguishing himself in several Civil War campaigns. As with others of his generation, the Communist Party rewarded his loyalty and commitment by supporting his education after he was demobilized. In 1924 he graduated from the Leningrad Cooperative Technical Institute and began a career in Soviet industry.
Kosygin first worked in Irkutsk as an administrator in the important Siberian regional consumers’ cooperative. He also became active politically, joining the Communist Party in 1927. In 1930 he returned to Leningrad for further training at the Textile Institute and, after graduating in 1935, took a series of important positions in Leningrad textile plants. In 1937, at the young age of 33, he became director of the important October Spinning Mill, a position which put him in close daily contact with city economic officials.
Kosygin’s talents were soon in demand. Stalin’s massive purges opened up unusual opportunities for many of Kosygin’s generation, because of their youth “untainted” by association with those then being arrested and killed. In 1938 Kosygin took the vacated chair of the Leningrad City Soviet Executive Committee, becoming, in effect, mayor of Soviet Russia’s second most important city. His career advanced rapidly. In 1939 he became minister of the textile industry and in 1940 vice chairman of the all-important U.S.S.R. Supreme Economic Council (Sovnarkom). From 1948 until 1953 he also served as Stalin’s minister of finance and, simultaneously, as minister of light industry. He also served as vice chairman of the Council of Ministers.
Kosygin was no mere apparatchik. From January to July 1942 he directed economic activities in blockaded Leningrad, earning widespread appreciation for his efforts. His role in managing Soviet Russia’s post-war economy was also an extremely difficult one, beset by Stalin’s irrational policies and often whimsical directives. Like Khrushchev, Malenkov, and others, he was consequently determined after Stalin’s death to help lead the U.S.S.R. in a different direction, ending Stalinist abuses and infusing as much rationality as possible into the Soviet planned economy within the limits of that country’s particular communist system. As Khrushchev consolidated his power, Kosygin took an increasingly important role in support of rapid industrial growth, the satisfaction of consumer demands, and greater East-West trade. He served in the late 1950s as chairman of Gosplan, the state planning commission, and as vice-chairman, again, of the Council of Ministers.
In this capacity, however, Kosygin also became disen-chanted with many of Khrushchev’s economic directives, particularly those which promised the Soviet people more than the party could deliver. He thus became a willing participant in Khrushchev’s ouster, and in late October 1964 moved into the office of his former boss as chairman of the Council of Ministers. In this new capacity Kosygin was soon identified with new economic ideas, particularly the possibility of using some measure of economic profit to gauge the efficiency of capital investments. These innovations soon fell by the wayside, however, as Brezhnev and Kosygin both opted for more conservative policies, preferring predictability to risk.
Kosygin travelled widely as Soviet premier, visiting the United States on a trip which included the celebrated meeting with President Lyndon Johnson at Glassboro State College in New Jersey at the height of the Vietnam War and a visit to the hydro-electric complex at Niagara Falls. He also visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, France, England, Turkey, Iraq, China, Yugoslavia, and other countries in the 1970s, becoming highly visible as a world leader and comfortable in his role despite Brezhnev’s preeminence. Knowledgable, tough-minded, and a skillful if conservative administrator, Aleksei Nikolaevich Kosygin reflected in his career and personality the qualities, values, and limitations of Brezhnev’s Russia. His death from a heart ailment in December 1980 was met by many in the Soviet Union with regret. Although regarded as a dour pragmatist, devoid of a sense of humor, he was moved to both anger and compassion on occasion.