Brezhnev in 1972
General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
October 14, 1964 – November 10, 1982
Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet
June 16, 1977 – November 10, 1982
|Vasily Kuznetsov (acting)
May 7, 1960 – July 15, 1964
Second Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
June 21, 1963 – October 1, 1964
First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan
May 8, 1955 – March 6, 1956
First Secretary of the Communist Party of Moldova
November 3, 1950 – April 16, 1952
|December 19 1906
Kamenskoye, Russian Empire
|November 10 1982 (aged 75)
Zarechye, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
|Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1929–1982)
|Viktoria Denisova (m. 1928)
|Zarechye, near Moscow
|Metallurgical engineer, civil servant
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev Леонид Брежнев; (January 1, 1907 – November 10, 1982) was the 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. He led the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War at a time when the two super-powers seemed to be almost equally matched militarily. Brezhnev's policies enabled the consolidation of the Soviet Union's hold on East Europe.
However, the USSR may have over-reached itself during his watch. While he used detente to engineer advantages for his "empire," his successors needed detente to ensure that the West would be an ally in the process of liberalization and democratization following the collapse of communism. Brezhnev's military build-up led to a de-emphasis on economic development and growth. As the growth of the military and Soviet expansion into Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the developing world advanced, the communist state sowed the seeds for its implosion within a decade of Brezhnev's death. Brezhnev's reach into Afghanistan, southern Africa, and Central America would result in the Soviet Union overextending itself economically and this laid the foundations for the demise of the communist state in 1991. Brezhnev may be one of the enduring faces of the Cold War: Western, democratically elected leaders came and went but Brezhnev ruled for two decades.
Rise to power
Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye (now Dniprodzerzhyns'k) in Ukraine, the son of a steel worker. As a result, he retained specific Ukrainian pronunciation and mannerisms his whole life, and listed his ethnicity as Ukrainian until 1952 (afterwards, evidently, considering himself a Russian). Like many working class youths in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, 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 organization, 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 defense 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, Josef 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 could gain rapid promotions. The Purges opened up many positions in the senior and middle ranks of the Party and state.
In June 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and, like most middle-ranking Party officials, Brezhnev was immediately drafted (his orders are dated June 22). He worked to evacuate Dnepropetrovsk's industries to the east of the Soviet Union before the city fell to the Germans on August 26, and then was assigned as a political commissar (Russian politruk). In October, Brezhnev was made deputy head of political administration for the Southern Front, with the rank of Brigade-Commissar.
In 1942, when Ukraine was occupied by Germans, Brezhnev was sent to the Caucasus as deputy head of political administration of the Transcaucasian Front. In April 1943, he became head of the Political Department of the 18th Army. Later that 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 highest legislative body. 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 was introduced as a candidate member into the Presidium (formerly the Politburo).
Brezhnev and Khrushchev
Brezhnev met Nikita Khrushchev in 1931, shortly after joining the party. Before long, he became Khrushchev's protégé as he continued his rise through the ranks.
Stalin died in March 1953, and in the reorganization that followed the Presidium was abolished and a smaller Politburo reconstituted. Although Brezhnev was not made a Politburo member, he was 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 assigned control of the defense 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 Presidium 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. However, 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 protégé, 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.)
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 liberalization of Soviet intellectual and cultural policy. But as soon as he became leader, Brezhnev began to reverse this process, and developed an increasingly conservative and regressive attitude. 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—the first such trials since Stalin's day—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 1940s.
The first crisis of Brezhnev's regime came in 1968, with the attempt by the Communist leadership in Czechoslovakia, under Alexander Dubček, to liberalize the Communist system (known as the Prague Spring). In July, Brezhnev publicly criticized the Czech leadership as "revisionist" and "anti-Soviet," and, in August, he orchestrated the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the removal of the Dubček leadership. The invasion led to public protests by dissidents in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev's assertion that the Soviet Union and other socialist states had the right and responsibility to interfere in the internal affairs of its satellites to "safeguard socialism" became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Although Khrushchev had taken similar measures in Hungary in 1956, the Brezhnev doctrine elevated invasion of revisionist socialist states to standing policy that would only be undone in 1988 by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Under Brezhnev, relations with China continued to deteriorate, following the Sino-Soviet split which had occurred 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. On January 22, 1969, Brezhnev experienced an attack on his life when Soviet Army officer, Viktor Ilyin, tried to assassinate Brezhnev.
Detente The thawing of Sino-American relations beginning in 1971 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 "détente" era. The Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 officially ended the United States' involvement in 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 recognized the postwar frontiers in eastern and central Europe and, in effect, legitimized 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 honored, 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 liberalization 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.
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 (some would argue that the Soviets achieved military superiority over the U.S. at this time). The Helsinki Treaty legitimized 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.
In the 1970s, 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. It was also during this time when his health showed signs of decline.
Stagnation of the regime
Both Soviet power internationally and Brezhnev's power domestically, however, rested on a Soviet economy which was becoming stagnant, slowing down around 1970. There were two fundamental causes for this. First, the Soviet economy, despite Stalin's industrialization, was still heavily dependent on agriculture. Stalin's collectivization 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. Additionally, Soviet industrial production and the production of consumer goods stagnated and failed to keep pace with the demands placed upon it.
These factors combined and reinforced each other through the second half of the 1970s. The enormous expenditure on the armed forces and on prestige projects such as the space program, aggravated by the need to import food grains at high market prices, reduced the scope for investment in industrial modernization or improving standards of living. Public housing and the state health and education systems stagnated, 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 corruption on an increased scale by Soviet standards. Brezhnev set the tone in this with his conspicuous tastes in foreign cars and clothes. This was also one of the reasons why he was disliked by some people of the Soviet Union under his rule.
The last years of Brezhnev's rule were marked by a growing personality cult, reaching a peak at his 70th birthday in December 1976. He was well known for his love affair with medals. The final count stands at 114. In 1976, for his birthday he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union (the highest order of the Soviet Union, notably given to heroes who sacrificed their lives during World War II, which came with the order of Lenin and the Gold Star). Brezhnev received the award three more times, once again in celebration of his birthdays. Brezhnev also received the Order of Victory, the highest Soviet military award in 1978, becoming the only recipient receiving the order after the end of the World War II. His Order of Victory was revoked in 1989.
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, resulting in a lack of reception and apathy. How much of this Brezhnev was aware of is unclear, since he often occupied himself with international summitry (such as the SALT II treaty, signed with Jimmy Carter in June 1979), and at times overlooked important 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. His declining health was rarely—if ever—mentioned in the Soviet newspapers, but it was practically evident with the deteriorating political and economic situation.
Brezhnev decided in December 1979 to intervene in Afghanistan, where a rogue communist regime was struggling with the U.S.-sponsored Mujahideen and other forces 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.
By 1980, Breznev lacked effectiveness but remained a figurehead for the country. In March 1982, Brezhnev suffered a stroke. He died of a heart attack on November 10, 1982, and was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Brezhnev was married to Viktoria (Petrovna) and lived in 26 Kutuzovsky prospect, Moscow.
Brezhnev presided over the Soviet Union longer than any man except Stalin, but the legacy that he left behind is not a favorable one. This holds true both in Russia and among historians. He is blamed for a prolonged era of stagnation called the "Brezhnev Stagnation," in which fundamental economic problems were ignored and the Soviet political system was allowed to decline. Intervention in Afghanistan, which was one of the major decisions of his career, also significantly undermined both international standing and the internal strength of the USSR. His personal vanity is also much criticized, and it became a subject of numerous Russian jokes. In Brezhnev's defense, it may be said that the Soviet Union reached unprecedented and never-repeated levels of power, prestige and internal calm under his rule, and that, unlike his predecessor Khrushchev, he was a skillful negotiator on the diplomatic stage. The flaws and problems of the Soviet economy were arguably inherent in the system he inherited from Stalin. The task of attempting to reform that system would be left to his eventual successor, Gorbachev.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Brezhnev, Luba. The World I Left Behind: Pieces of a Past. Random House, 1995. ISBN 0679439110
- Ouimet, Matthew J. The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy. The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0807854112
- Schattenberg, Susanne. Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman. I.B. Tauris, 2021. ISBN 978-1838606381
All links retrieved October 25, 2022.
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