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Leonid Brezhnev

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Leonid BrezhnevEnlarge

Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (Russian: Леонид Ильич Брежнев) (December 19, 1906 - November 10, 1982) was effective ruler of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, though at first in partnership with others. He was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, and was twice Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (head of state), from 1960 to 1964 and from 1977 to 1982.

Rise to power

Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye (now Dneprodzerzhinsk) in Ukraine, the son of a steel worker. Despite his birthplace he was an ethnic Russian, but retained specific Ukrainian pronounciation and manners for his whole life. Like many working class youth in the years after the Russian Revolution, he received a technical education, at first in land management and then in metallurgy. He graduated from the Dneprodzerzhinsk Metallurgical Institute and became an engineer in the iron and steel industries of eastern Ukraine. He joined the Communist Party youth organisation, the Komsomol in 1923 and the Party itself in 1931.

In 1935-36 Brezhnev was drafted for obligatory army service, and after taking courses at a tank school he served as a political commissar in a tank company. Later in 1936 he became director of the Dneprodzerzhinsk Metallurgical Technical College. In 1936 he was transferred to the regional centre of Dnepropetrovsk and in 1939 he became Party Secretary in Dnepropetrovsk, in charge of the city's important defence industries.

Brezhnev belonged to the first generation of Soviet Communists who had no adult memories of Russia before the revolution, and who were too young to have participated in the leadership struggles in the Communist Party which followed Lenin's death in 1924. By the time Brezhnev joined the Party, Joseph Stalin was its undisputed leader, and Brezhnev and many young Communists like him grew up as unquestioning Stalinists. Those who survived Stalin's Great Purge of 1937-39 gained rapid promotions, since the Purges opened up many positions in the senior and middle ranks of the Party and state.

In June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Brezhnev worked to evacuate Dnepropetrovsk's industries to the east of the Soviet Union before the city fell to the Germans on August 26. Like most middle-ranking Party officials, he was soon drafted into the Red Army, as a political commissar. Under the system of "dual command," all military formations were commanded by a professional officer and a political commissar. This system was inefficient and was greatly resented by Red Army officers. In October Brezhnev was made deputy head of political administration for the Southern Front, with the rank of Brigade-Commissar.

In 1942, with Ukraine completely lost, Brezhnev was sent to the Caucasus as deputy head of political administration of the Transcausasian Front. In April 1943 he became head of the Political Department of the 18th Army. Later in the year the 18th Army became part of the 1st Ukrainian Front, as the Red Army regained the initiative and advanced westwards through Ukraine. The Front's senior political commissar was Nikita Khrushchev, who became an important patron of Brezhnev's career. At the end of the war in Europe Brezhnev was chief political commissar of the 4th Ukrainian Front, which entered Prague after the German surrender.

In August 1946 Brezhnev left the Red Army with the rank of Major-General. He had spent the entire war as a commissar, rather than a military commander. After working on reconstruction projects in Ukraine he again became First Secretary in Dnepropetrovsk. In 1950 he became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union's decorative parliament. Later that year he was appointed Party First Secretary in Soviet Moldavia, which had been annexed from Romania and was being incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1952 he became a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee and as a candidate member of the Praesidium (formerly the Politburo).

Brezhnev and Khrushchev

Brezhnev in the 1950sEnlarge

Brezhnev in the 1950s

Stalin died in March 1953, and in the reorganisation that followed the Praesidium was abolished and a smaller Politburo reconstituted. Although Brezhnev was not made a Politburo member, he was instead appointed head of the Political Directorate of the Army and the Navy, with rank of Lieutenant-General, a very senior position. This was probably due to the new power of his patron Khrushchev, who had succeeded Stalin as Party General Secretary. In 1955 he was made Party First Secretary of Kazakhstan, also an important post.

In February 1956 Brezhnev was recalled to Moscow, promoted to candidate member of the Politburo and given control of the defence industry, the space program, heavy industry, and capital construction. He was now a senior member of Khrushchev's entourage, and in June 1957 he backed Khrushchev in his struggle with the Stalinist old guard in the Party leadership, the so-called "anti-Party group" led by Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov and Lazar Kaganovich. Following the defeat of the old guard Brezhnev became a full member of the Politburo.

In 1959 Brezhnev became Second Secretary of the Central Committee and in May 1960 was promoted to the post of President of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet, making him nominal head of state. Although real power resided with Khrushchev as Party Secretary, the presidential post allowed Brezhnev to travel abroad, and he began to develop the taste for expensive western clothes and cars for which he later became notorious.

Until about 1962 Khrushchev's position as Party leader was secure, but as the leader aged he grew more erratic and his performance undermined the confidence of his fellow leaders. The Soviet Union's mounting economic problems also increased the pressure on Khrushchev's leadership. Outwardly, Brezhnev remained conspicuously loyal to Khrushchev, but in 1963 he became involved in the plot, instigated by Anastas Mikoyan, to remove the leader from power. In that year Brezhnev succeeded Frol Kozlov, Khrushchev's protege, as Secretary of the Central Committee, making him Khrushchev's likely successor. On October 14, 1964, while Khrushchev was on holiday, the conspirators struck and removed him from office. Brezhnev became Party First Secretary, Aleksei Kosygin became Prime Minister and Mikoyan became head of state. (In 1965 Mikoyan retired and was succeeded by Nikolai Podgorny.)

Party leader

Brezhnev and Gerald Ford in Vladivostok, 1974Enlarge

Brezhnev and Gerald Ford in Vladivostok, 1974

During the Khrushchev years Brezhnev had supported the leader's denunciations of Stalin's arbitrary rule, the rehabilitation of many of the victims of Stalin's purges, and the cautious liberalisation of Soviet intellectual and cultural policy. But as soon as he became leader, Brezhnev began to reverse this process. In a May 1965 speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of defeat of Germany, Brezhnev mentioned Stalin positively for the first time. In April 1966 he took the title General Secretary, which had been Stalin's title. The trial of the writers Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1966 marked the reversion to a repressive cultural policy. Under Yuri Andropov the political police (the KGB) regained much of the power it had enjoyed under Stalin, although there was no return to the purges of the 1930s and '40s.

The first crisis of Brezhnev's regime came in 1968, with the attempt by the Communist leadership in Czechoslovakia, under Alexander Dubcek, to liberalize the Communist system (see Prague Spring). In July Brezhnev publicly criticised the Czech leadership as "revisionist" and "anti-Soviet," and in August he orchestrated the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal the Dubcek leadership. The invasion led to public protests by dissidents in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev's assertion that the Soviet Union had the right to interfere in the internal affairs of its satellites to "safeguard socialism" became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, although it was really a restatement of existing Soviet policy, as Khrushchev had shown in Hungary in 1956.

Under Brezhnev relations with China continued to deteriorate, following the Sino-Soviet split which had broken out in the early 1960s. In 1965 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Moscow for discussions, but there was no resolution of the conflict. In 1969 Soviet and Chinese troops fought a series of clashes along their border on the Ussuri River. Brezhnev also continued Soviet support for North Vietnam in the Vietnam War.

The thawing of Sino-American relations beginning in 1971, however, marked a new phase in international relations. To prevent the formation of an anti-Soviet U.S.-China alliance, Brezhnev opened a new round of negotiations with the U.S. In May 1972 President Richard Nixon visited Moscow, and the two leaders signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), marking the beginning of the "detente" era. The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 officially ended the Vietnam War, removing a major obstacle to Soviet-U.S. relations. In May Brezhnev visited West Germany, and in June he made a state visit to the U.S.

The high point of the Brezhnev "detente" era was the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, which recognised the postwar frontiers in eastern and central Europe and in effect legitimised Soviet hegemony over the region. In exchange, the Soviet Union agreed that "participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion." But these undertakings were never honoured, and political opposition to the detente process mounted in the U.S. as optimistic rhetoric about the "relaxation of tensions" was not matched by any internal liberalisation in the Soviet Union or its satellites. The issue of the right to emigrate for Soviet Jews became an increasing irritant in Soviet relations with the U.S. A summit between Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford in Vladivostok in November 1974 failed to resolve these issues. (See Jackson-Vanik amendment)

Brezhnev as Marshal of the Soviet UnionEnlarge

Brezhnev as Marshal of the Soviet Union

In the 1970s the Soviet Union reached the peak of its political and strategic power in relation to the U.S. The SALT I treaty effectively established parity in nuclear weapons between the two superpowers, the Helsinki Treaty legitimised Soviet hegemony over eastern Europe, and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal weakened the prestige of the U.S. Under Admiral Sergei Gorshkov the Soviet Union also became a global naval power for the first time. The Soviet Union extended its diplomatic and political influence in the Middle East and Africa, and through its proxy Cuba successfully intervened militarily in the 1975 civil war in Angola and the 1977-78 Ethiopia-Somalia War.

Meanwhile Brezhnev consolidated his domestic position. In June 1977 he forced the retirement of Podgorny and became once again Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, making this position equivalent to that of an executive president. Although Kosygin remained as Prime Minister until shortly before his death in 1980, Brezhnev was clearly dominant in the leadership from 1977 onwards. In May 1976 he made himself a Marshal of the Soviet Union, the first "political Marshal" since the Stalin era. Since Brezhnev had never held a military command, this step aroused resentment among professional officers, but their power and prestige under Brezhnev's regime ensured their continuing support.

Crisis of the regime

Both Soviet power internationally and Brezhnev's power domestically, however, rested on a Soviet economy which was stagnant, and which probably went into decline from about 1970. There were two fundamental causes for this. Firstly, the Soviet economy, despite Stalin's industrialisation, was still heavily dependent on agriculture. Stalin's collectivisation of agriculture had effectively destroyed the independent peasantry of the country, and agricultural productivity remained low despite massive state investment. Soviet agriculture increasingly could not feed the urban population, let alone provide for the rising standard of living which the regime promised as the fruits of "mature socialism," and on which industrial productivity depended.

Brezhnev towards the end of his lifeEnlarge

Brezhnev towards the end of his life

The second problem was that the Soviet industrial economy built by Stalin in the 1930s, and rebuilt after World War II, was incapable of modernisation or technical innovation, since it was governed by the state plan rather than responding to market signals, and had no incentives for innovation or efficiency. The end of the purges, in the absence of any other method of renewing personnel, meant that the Party, state and industrial bureaucracies aged and stagnated and were not replaced. Although the regime promised rising standards of living, it was unable to produce the consumer goods which would provide workers with an incentive to improve productivity and earn higher wages.

These factors combined and reinforced each other through the 1970s. The enormous expenditure on the armed forces and on prestige projects such as the space programme, aggravated by the need to import food grains at high market prices, reduced the scope for investment in industrial modernisation or improving standards of living. Public housing and the state health and education systems deteriorated, further reducing morale and productivity among the urban population. The response was a huge "informal economy" to provide a market for limited consumer goods and services. This fostered official corruption on a huge scale, something which had been unknown in earlier Soviet periods. Brezhnev set the tone in this with his conspicuous tastes in foreign cars and clothes.

The last years of Brezhnev's rule were marked by a growing personality cult, reaching a peak at his 70th birthday in December 1976. Unlike the cult of Stalin, however, the Brezhnev cult was widely seen as hollow and cynical, and in the absence of the purge could command neither respect nor fear. How much of this Brezhnev was aware of is unclear, since he increasingly preoccupied himself with international summitry (such as the SALT II treaty, signed with Jimmy Carter in June 1979), and ignored domestic matters. These were left to his subordinates, some of whom, like his agriculture chief Mikhail Gorbachev, became increasingly convinced that fundamental reform was needed. There was, however, no plotting in the leadership against Brezhnev, and he was allowed to grow increasingly feeble and isolated in power as his health declined.

Brezhnev's final and fatal legacy to his successors was the December 1979 decision to intervene in Afghanistan, where an unpopular Communist regime was struggling to hold power. This decision was not taken by the Politburo, but by Brezhnev's inner circle at an informal meeting. It led to the sudden end of the detente era, with the imposition of a grain embargo by the U.S., gravely exacerbating the Soviet Union's economic problems. Even under Carter, the U.S. embarked on a re-armament programme, and this was greatly accelerated under Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan. The Soviets felt obliged to compete, and it was the massive expense involved in this renewed arms race, together with a steadily deteriorating economic situation, that was to lead to the crisis of the Soviet regime under Brezhnev's successors. In March 1982 Brezhnev suffered a stroke, and thereafter increasingly struggled to retain control. He died of a heart attack on November 1982 and was buried in the Kremlin wall.

Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union longer than any man except Stalin, but his posthumous reputation is very low, both in Russia and among historians. He is blamed for a prolonged "era of stagnation," in which fundamental economic problems were ignored and the Soviet political system was allowed to decline. His personal vanity and greed are also much criticised. In Brezhnev's defence it may be said that the Soviet Union reached unprecedented levels of power and prestige under his rule, that he was a skillful negotiator on the diplomatic stage, and that the problems of the Soviet economy were inherent in the Soviet socialist system he inherited from Stalin. The task of attempting to reform that system would be left to his much younger eventual successor, Gorbachev.

External link

Preceded by:
Nikita Khrushchev
List of leaders of the Soviet Union Succeeded by:
Yuri Andropov