Brezhnev, Leonid (1906–1982)

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BREZHNEV, LEONID (1906–1982)


Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982.

Born in Kamenskoye (renamed Dneprodzerzhinsk in 1936) in Ukraine, where his father was a metalworker, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev entered the Kursk Agricultural Technical Institute in 1923, graduating in 1927. In that year he married Victoria Petrovna Denisova, and together they moved to the Urals, including a spell in 1931 in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg). Returning to Kamenskoye, he joined the Communist Party on 24 October 1931. As members of the old intelligentsia were replaced by newly trained workers (the vydvizhentsy) and the purges took their toll on staff, Brezhnev began his swift rise. By 1933 he had become director of the Dneprodzerzhinsk Metallurgical Institute and in 1935 was awarded an engineering degree. Following military service in Chita in 1935, he became deputy head of the Dneprodzerzhinsk city soviet with responsibility for city construction. From 1938 until the beginning of World War II he worked in Dnepropetrovsk, becoming ideological secretary in 1939. During the war he saw action as a political officer in the Caucasus, Ukraine, the Carpathians, and Eastern Europe, as well as participating in the liberation of Novorossysk and the associated region, which later became the subject of one of his books, Malaya zemlya (Little land), exaggerating his military achievements.

On 21 November 1947 Brezhnev became first secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk Obkom (regional party committee), and this became his political base for the rest of his career. In the early 1950s he worked briefly in Moldavia as head of the republic before being elected a member of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and a secretary of the CC by the Nineteenth Party Congress in 1952. One of the leaders of Nikita Khrushchev's Virgin Lands Scheme, on 5 February 1954 Brezhnev became second secretary of Kazakhstan, and on 6 August 1955 he was appointed head of the republic as first secretary.

Returning in 1956, Brezhnev was elevated by the Twentieth Congress to candidate membership of the Presidium (as the Politburo was then known) of the CPSU and was once again elected a CC secretary, now assuming responsibility for defense, heavy engineering, and capital construction. He supported Nikita Khrushchev in his struggle with the so-called anti-party group in 1957. He was rewarded by becoming the deputy head of the Russian Soviet Federated Social Republic (RSFSR) bureau of the CC CPSU, and in 1960 he was appointed chair of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (effectively president). By 1963 he had become the second secretary of the CC CPSU. He played an important role in Khrushchev's overthrow, representing a revolt of the party bureaucracy against Khrushchev's "harebrained schemes," and on 14 October 1964 Brezhnev became first secretary of the party.

Brezhnev is usually remembered through the prism of his last years, when he was physically debilitated and the country under his leadership had entered a period of immobility and stagnation. However, commentators like Henry Kissinger in the late 1960s noted Brezhnev's physical magnetism and energy. His rule began with the promise of economic reform, masterminded by Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, but these plans soon ran into the sands. Brezhnev's rule represented the end of destalinization, and was accompanied by the policy of "stability of cadres" that allowed corruption and the abuse of the nomenklatura system of appointments to flourish. In 1968 Brezhnev was complicit in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and he gave his name to the "Brezhnev Doctrine" of limited sovereignty for the Eastern European "fraternal" socialist countries. That year he suffered the first of his health breakdowns associated with sedatives. Brezhnev lacked all intellectual curiosity, and although the head of the world's leading communist state, he was never seen to have read any of the classics of Marxism-Leninism. He preferred magazines with big color photographs or cartoons.

The early 1970s saw the onset of détente with the West. In 1970 Brezhnev signed the Moscow agreements between the USSR and West Germany, stabilizing their relationship in response to the West German chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, his effort to normalize relations with Eastern European countries . Détente brought certain fruits, including the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, both in 1972. The economic benefits of détente allowed Brezhnev to postpone necessary economic reforms. It was during his meeting with U.S. president Gerald Ford in Vladivostok in 1974 that Brezhnev suffered the first collapse of his nervous system. The main triumph of his leadership was the signature of the Helsinki Final Act in August 1975, in which the Soviet regime undertook human rights commitments in exchange for economic and security gains, including the recognition of the postwar borders. Brezhnev had no intention of observing the human rights promises, and instead by the end of the decade the world was plunged into a second Cold War that in some ways was more threatening than the first, bringing the world to the verge of nuclear war. Although the SALT II agreement was signed in Vienna in 1979, in December of that year Brezhnev sanctioned the introduction of Soviet troops into Afghanistan.

Brezhnev's love of awards and honors culminated in his becoming a marshal of the Soviet Union in May 1976. His chest was soon to run out of space on which to pin the various medals and awards that he granted himself, including four "gold star" medals as "Hero of the Soviet Union." From 1977 he combined the posts of first secretary and head of the Supreme Soviet Presidium, thus becoming not only party leader but also head of state (president). The year 1978 saw the publication of his books Malaya zemlya, Vozrozhdenie (Rebirth), and Tselina (Virgin lands), for which he was awarded numerous literary prizes, including, on 31 March 1980, the Lenin Prize for literature.

Brezhnev's long tenure in power saw the Soviet Union achieve strategic parity with the United States, but the country under him became a colossus with feet of clay governed by an introspective, conservative gerontocracy. Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed the later years of his leadership the period of stagnation (zastoi). Brezhnev's refusal to tackle the problems facing the country led to declining economic growth rates, social decay, and external hostility. Although his rule is seen as one of peace and stability, in the end the Brezhnevite system proved unsustainable.

See alsoArms Control; Cold War; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Khrushchev, Nikita; Soviet Union.


Bacon, Edwin, and Mark Sandle, eds. Brezhnev Reconsidered. Basingstoke, U.K., 2002.

Bialer, Seweryn. Stalin's Successors: Leadership, Stability, and Change in the Soviet Union. Cambridge, U.K., 1980.

Breslauer, George W. Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics. London, 1982.

Kelley, Donald R. Soviet Politics in the Brezhnev Era. New York, 1980.

Tompson, William. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev, 1964–1982. Harlow, U.K., 2003.

Richard Sakwa