Brezhnev, Leonid

views updated May 18 2018

Leonid Brezhnev

Born December 19, 1906
Kamenskoye, Ukraine
Died November 10, 1982
Moscow, Russia

General secretary of the
Soviet Communist Party

W hen chosen to succeed Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) as the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev was fifty-eight years old. Says author John L. Keep, in A History of the Soviet Union, 1945–1991: Last of the Empires, Brezhnev was "sturdily built, beetle-browed … a cheerful and sociable man who treated others courteously and had considerable charm. There was also a darker, more devious side to his character."

Apparently Brezhnev showed both his tough side and his charm early in his career in the Communist Party. He moved up through the party ranks swiftly while tackling challenging assignments. He would travel to rural areas to impose Soviet rule on peasants and replace local leaders with the Communist Party system. Unfortunately, little is known of this early period of Brezhnev's life. When he was later chosen to succeed Khrushchev, Brezhnev was probably considered by most as a short-term, safe choice. However, Brezhnev proved to be a long-term stabilizing force in the Communist Party. The party bureaucracy would flourish under his eighteen years of steady leadership (1964–82) during the Cold War.

The Cold War was a prolonged conflict between the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union, the world's two superpowers; the battle lasted from 1945 to 1991. The weapons of this conflict were words—propaganda and threats. Communism is a political and economic system in which the Communist Party controls nearly all aspects of citizens' lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property is banned. This system is not compatible with American political and economic values, in which a capitalist system allows property to be privately owned. Production, distribution, and prices of goods are determined by competition in an open market that operates with relatively little government intervention. A variety of political parties and public elections give citizens a voice in their government.

Coming of age in a communist state

In December 1906, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born to Russian working-class parents in the mining town of Kamenskoye, Ukraine, later renamed Dniprodzerzhyns'k, Ukraine. Little is known of his childhood until 1921. Then, at age fifteen, he began working in the same steel mill as his father, Ilya Brezhnev. Leonid was only eleven years old when the communists gained control of Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In 1922, the Soviet Union was created, and Brezhnev joined the Young Communist League, known as Komsomol. This membership allowed him to enter a technical school. His studies qualified him as a land surveyor, and beginning in 1927 he held several rural public administrative jobs in the Kursk and Ural regions of the Soviet Union. By 1931, he returned home and began studies at the Dniprodzerzhyns'k Metallurgical Institute. That same year, he joined the Communist Party and married Viktoria Petrovna, a nurse. After graduating in 1935, Brezhnev became an engineer and worked in the Dniprodzerzhyns'k steel mill for two years.

Under the communist regime of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry), Brezhnev's career in the Communist Party flourished. Brezhnev's role in Stalin's Great Terror, which lasted from 1936 to 1938, is not known, but during that period Stalin purged many party leaders. Millions of citizens and leaders were executed or imprisoned. Stalin allowed young communists like Brezhnev to replace those who were purged. Brezhnev held several local positions and brought Soviet rule to various rural regions; in 1937, he was elected deputy mayor of Dniprodzerzhyns'k.

In 1938, Nikita Khrushchev, the future leader of the Soviet Union, became first secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, and Brezhnev became one of his close associates. Brezhnev built friendships and political alliances quite easily. By 1939, he was secretary (leader) of the regional Communist Party organization in Dniprodzerzhyns'k. After Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 during World War II (1939–45), Brezhnev served in the Soviet military. He was a political officer in charge of recruiting soldiers into the Communist Party and maintaining morale among troops. Toward the end of the war, Brezhnev played a role in the Sovietization of Czechoslovakia and Romania. Sovietization was the practice of bringing a region under Soviet control by taking over ownership of factories and farmlands and establishing a ruling Communist Party structure. In 1946, Brezhnev left the military with the rank of major general.

Establishing his party standing

When Brezhnev returned to the Ukraine from the military, Khrushchev made him first secretary of a regional Communist Party committee. In this important position, Brezhnev oversaw reconstruction of industry in a region devastated by the war. Brezhnev's success in this job brought him personal acclaim. By November 1947, he became first secretary of a larger district, his home district of Dniprodzerzhyns'k. He also gained membership to the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The Central Committee was an important administrative body overseeing day-to-day party activities.

In 1950, Brezhnev moved with Khrushchev to Moscow to work on the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Soon, Khrushchev appointed him first secretary of the Central Committee in the Soviet republic of Moldavia. Brezhnev was to complete the Sovietization of that country by changing private farmland into community-owned farmland and strengthening the Communist Party. Party membership in the region greatly increased because of Brezhnev's efforts. While he was in Moldavia, Brezhnev formed a strong working relationship with another future Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985).

In 1952, because of his connection to Khrushchev and his own success in promoting the communist cause, Brezhnev was elected to membership in the Soviet Central Committee and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. The Presidium was the executive body and center of power in the Soviet Communist Party; it sets party policies. When Stalin died in 1953, however, Brezhnev, a longtime Stalin supporter, temporarily lost his lofty seats. He was demoted to a position in the ministry of defense and was in charge of the political aspects of the Soviet navy.

Rise in prominence

Brezhnev's fortunes would shift again when Khrushchev became first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. He appointed Brezhnev second secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party; Kazakhstan was the second largest republic in the Soviet Union. In Kazakhstan, Khrushchev placed Brezhnev in charge of the ambitious Virgin Land program, an effort to convert a vast amount of unused land, some 90 million acres, into grain production. Brezhnev would become first secretary of the Kazakhstan Central Committee in August 1954 after purging the previous first secretary and his supporters.

After some success on the Virgin Land project, which produced a record grain harvest of 33 million tons (30 million metric tons) in 1956, Brezhnev returned to the inner power circles of Moscow, where he would remain the rest of his life. He rose to secretary of the Soviet Central Committee in February 1956 and became a member of the Presidium again in July 1957. In 1960, Brezhnev became the head of state as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In this position, he became involved in foreign affairs, though Khrushchev remained in charge as general secretary of the Central Committee. By June 1963, Brezhnev resigned from his Presidium position to be second secretary of the Central Committee. He served as Khrushchev's assistant in the day-to-day operations of the Soviet Communist Party. At this point, many considered him the eventual successor to Khrushchev.

Soviet leadership

By the fall of 1964, Brezhnev's relationship with Khrushchev would dramatically change. On October 14, 1964, Brezhnev helped lead a bloodless coup against Khrushchev, his longtime mentor. (Coup is short for coup d'état. Usually carried out by a small group, a coup is an overthrow of an existing leader or government. Sometimes a coup can turn violent.) Other Communist Party leaders were tired of Khrushchev's increasingly independent behavior and unpredictable shifts in policies. They wanted more stability and predictability. They would find that in Brezhnev, who succeeded his former friend as Soviet leader. Whereas Khrushchev was bold and impulsive, Brezhnev was cautious and patient. A collective leadership structure was put in place so power would be shared among a small group of leaders.

Brezhnev became first secretary of the Central Committee, the most powerful of all the positions. Aleksey Kosygin (1904–1980; see entry) became chairman of the Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers controlled Soviet economic and cultural life. By December 1966, Nikolay Podgorny (1903–1983) was named head of state in charge of foreign affairs. Brezhnev was in charge of Communist Party activities; Kosygin was responsible for economic planning; and Podgorny headed foreign affairs. By March 1966, Brezhnev had gained greater dominance, becoming general secretary of the Communist Party. Under Brezhnev's conservative leadership, the vast Soviet bureaucracy gained strength.

Brezhnev brought changes to the Soviet Union. He stopped public attacks on Stalin and his policies, attacks that Khrushchev had begun in 1956. Brezhnev also sought to boost Soviet agricultural productivity. However, with the Communist Party tightly controlling the agricultural industry, progress was limited. Under Brezhnev, the secret police, or KGB, rose in power again after a decline under Khrushchev. Khrushchev had opposed the Stalin regime of force and terror by the secret police; Khrushchev related to the peasants (having been one himself) and thus supported domestic improvements, such as agricultural reforms, that would help the common person. Brezhnev returned the secret police to power to maintain control, but without Stalin's terror. The Soviets again more forcibly repressed dissidents, individuals who disagree with the ideas of those in power. Many prominent writers and artists were deported, exiled, or sent to labor camps and psychiatric wards. The hard-line communists believed the traditional party bureaucracy was being threatened by Khrushchev's reforms; they also felt that too much freedom of expression was creeping into the communist system under Khrushchev, so they tightened controls on behavior and ended the rather mild reforms.

During his rule, Brezhnev and his family continued living modestly, occupying a five-room apartment. However, he did have an affection for luxury cars and owned one of the few Rolls-Royce automobiles in the Soviet Union. Other world leaders would give him luxury cars as gifts. Another affection of Brezhnev's was tobacco, which would contribute to severe health problems later.

One of Brezhnev's key goals was to reach nuclear parity (equal strength in nuclear arms) with the United States by 1970. Through a massive and expensive missile production program, he accomplished this goal. Brezhnev also built a huge navy and maintained the largest army in the world. In addition, the Soviet space program overtook the United States in reaching space exploration goals.

Expanding world influence

Brezhnev became more directly involved in foreign affairs in 1968, when Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek (1921–1992) proposed giving greater freedoms to Czech citizens, including freedom of the press. Brezhnev approved the use of military force to crush the reform movement and remove Dubcek from office. Brezhnev then unveiled what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, stating that the Soviets would intervene in any country where threats to communist rule could threaten other communist countries as well. The Soviets would use this doctrine to justify military intervention in the internal politics of other communist countries under Soviet influence.

Brezhnev also became involved in dealing with China, West Germany, and the United States. Brezhnev had to deal with growing friction between the Soviets and the Chinese communists who controlled the People's Republic of China (PRC). Military skirmishes occurred near the long border between the two countries. Because the PRC's relations with the United States were improving, Brezhnev worried that those two countries might form an alliance against the Soviets. Recognizing the need for strong neighboring allies, Brezhnev sought to ease tensions on the Soviet Union's western border. He wanted to normalize relations between West Germany and the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was a defense

alliance composed of Eastern European countries under Soviet control. In 1970 and 1971, Brezhnev built a warm relationship with West German chancellor Willy Brandt (1913–1992; see box in Konrad Adenauer entry).

In the early 1970s, efforts at détente (the easing of tensions) with the West brought Brezhnev even more into international relations. Through détente, Brezhnev wanted to curb the arms race and gain access to Western technology that he desperately needed for Soviet industry and agriculture. Once Brezhnev had achieved nuclear parity, he was willing to enter arms control talks. He was eager to cut back military spending to help raise the standard of living in the Soviet Union.

Arms control talks progressed, and in May 1972, Brezhnev hosted U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry) in Moscow for the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT I. This treaty froze production of certain nuclear weapon systems.

Other meetings followed: Brezhnev traveled to Washington, D.C., in June 1973; Nixon again went to Moscow in July 1974; and President Gerald R. Ford (1913–; served 1974–77) went to the Soviet city of Vladivostok in November 1974.

The Helsinki Accords, signed in August 1975, represented the high point of détente. This agreement recognized the postwar territorial boundaries of the European nations. The Soviets had long sought recognition of the political boundaries of Eastern European communist countries and finally achieved it in Helsinki, and again more formally in the treaty ending World War II in 1991. In 1979, Brezhnev would meet with President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81; see entry) in Vienna, Austria, to sign SALT II, a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty. By the mid-1970s, Brezhnev's prestige had substantially risen, and so had the Soviet Union's. In 1976, Brezhnev became marshal of the Soviet Union, the only party leader aside from Stalin to achieve that military rank. In May 1977, Brezhnev became the first Soviet party leader to also be head of state, replacing Podgorny as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

During the 1970s, Brezhnev also pressed for more Soviet support of national liberation movements and greater support of left-wing governments in Third World countries. Left-wing groups are politically radical elements often seeking change from traditional forms of rule. Third World refers to poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of these countries were seeking independence from the political control of Western European nations. Brezhnev believed such radical movements, as opposed to the traditional oppressive military dictatorships, opened the door for adopting alternative forms of government such as communism. The Soviets' support included that of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1954–75). Brezhnev also used his influence to help Nixon negotiate a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese to end the war. He believed this would lead to U.S. public opinion support for signing the SALT I arms agreement. In the Middle East, the Soviets supported Egypt and Syria in a 1973 war with Israel, leading to a direct confrontation with the United States. (The United States, through its strong pro-Israel lobby within the United States itself, provided substantial economic support to Israel.) The Soviets would continue supporting Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Middle East. Brezhnev also supported communist rebels in 1974 in Angola. He provided equipment, Soviet military advisors, and twenty thousand Cuban troops. The rebel forces successfully overthrew the government. In 1977, Brezhnev provided similar support to the Ethiopian government so it could repel attacks by neighboring Somalia, a U.S. ally.

Growing problems in later years

By the end of the 1970s, problems were building for Brezhnev. In 1979, he approved the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets were seeking to support an unpopular communist government against an Islamic movement trying to seize power. The war would drag on for ten years and cost thousands of Soviet lives. The Soviet invasion angered President Carter, and U.S.-Soviet relations cooled. The arrival of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry) in the White House in January 1981 would lead to even cooler relations. Reagan greatly boosted the U.S. military budget, accelerating the arms race and forcing Brezhnev to increase his military spending in order to keep up. In December 1981, Brezhnev made another move unpopular with the West when he supported the Polish government's suppression of the Solidarity workers union. (The government had officially banned Solidarity as martial law was imposed on Polish citizens.) The union, which represented a strong challenge to communist control, was protesting the rise in food prices and challenging communist authority in Poland.

On the home front, the dramatic arms buildup through the 1960s and 1970s and Soviet military adventures in Third World countries had taken money away from other sectors of the Soviet economy. As a result, agriculture, industrial production of nonwar consumer goods, and health care services declined sharply. Shortages of goods became worse, and the Soviet standard of living declined. Soviet morale sank as lines of people seeking basic necessities grew longer outside Soviet stores. The decline in morale would cause worker production to drop further, in a vicious downward spiral. Widespread rumors of corruption in Brezhnev's government lowered morale even further. Meanwhile, Brezhnev kept tight control of the growing number of Soviet dissidents criticizing communist rule.

By 1982, Brezhnev's health was visibly failing. He had suffered a heart attack in 1974 and was suffering from leukemia (a blood disease) and emphysema (a respiratory disease) by the early 1980s. His public appearances dwindled. Despite increasing feebleness, he stayed in power until his death in November 1982. Brezhnev had led the Soviet Communist Party longer than anyone else would—eighteen years.

For More Information


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

Brezhnev, Leonid I. Memoirs. New York: Pergamon Press, 1982.

Dornberg, John. Brezhnev: Masks of Power. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Edmonds, Robin. Soviet Foreign Policy: The Brezhnev Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Gelman, Harry. The Brezhnev Politburo and the Decline of Detente. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Keep, John L. H. Last of the Empires: A History of the Soviet Union, 1945–1991. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

McNeal, Robert H. The Bolshevik Tradition: Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Volkogonov, Dimitri A. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Web Sites

The Cold War Museum. (accessed on August 21, 2003).

Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. (accessed on August 21, 2003).

An Aging Soviet Leadership

Toward the end of Leonid Brezhnev's long term as the leader of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Communist Party leadership was aging and losing touch with a changing world. Like Brezhnev, many Soviet leaders were in their early youth at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when communists first gained control of the Russian government. They were educated in the new communist education system and joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. After Joseph Stalin's purge of many party leaders during the Great Terror (1936–38), the most promising of this younger generation of communists rose up through the ranks to lead the Communist Party.

Not long after World War II, Brezhnev met Konstantin Chernenko while they were both serving the Communist Party in Moldavia. Chernenko was born to a Russian peasant farming family. Like Brezhnev, he joined the Communist Party in 1931, serving in various propaganda positions, including the one in Moldavia, which began in 1948. (Propaganda is information and ideas that are spread to support a cause.) In 1956, Brezhnev brought Chernenko to Moscow to work for the party's Central Committee. When Brezhnev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1964, he made Chernenko his chief of staff. Chernenko traveled extensively with Brezhnev and was considered by many to be Brezhnev's eventual successor.

However, when Brezhnev died in November 1982, another conservative party leader, Yuri Andropov (1914–1984), was chosen as Soviet leader. Andropov had been an organizer for Komsomol, the Young Communist League, through the 1930s and 1940s until he was brought to Moscow as a promising young leader. Under Brezhnev, Andropov headed the Committee on State Security (KGB) from 1967 to 1982. He replaced Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1983. However, Andropov's health declined sharply, and he died only fifteen months later. Andropov was replaced by Chernenko, who would be leader for only one year before he died. Following Chernenko's death, a much younger and more dynamic party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry) would take over and try to revitalize Soviet society, which had stagnated under the leadership of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko.

Brezhnev, Leonid Ilich

views updated May 08 2018


(19061982), leading political figure since the early 1960s, rising to Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and leader of the ruling Politburo.

Leonid Illich ("Lyonya") Brezhnev's rise in Soviet politics was slow but sure. He was Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1964, and after April 1966 he took the office of General Secretary. His tenure as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet spanned 1961 to 1963 and from 1977 to 1982. Brezhnev led the ruling Politburo from October 1964, after organizing the ouster of Nikita S. Khushchev, until his death. Although Brezhnev's ultimate successor, the reformer Mikhail S. Gorbachev, would accuse him of presiding over an era of stagnation (zastoi, literally a standstill) in the Soviet Union's economic development and political progress, many Russians remember his era as a "golden age" (zolotoi vek ) when living standards steadily improved. This was the result of his policy of borrowing from the West, combined with the twofold doubling of world oil prices and a deliberate decision after 1971 to real-locate production in favor of consumer products and foods. Together with Brezhnev's policy of vainly trying to achieve military superiority over every possible combination of foreign rivals and the growing corruption that he deliberately encouraged, the reallocation from industrial goods to consumption and agriculture did in fact lead to a slowing of the expansion of output that Soviet leaders deemed to constitute economic growth. It was this slowdown that lent credibility to Gorbachev's later charge of stagnation.

early career

Brezhnev was born on December 19, 1906, in the east Ukrainian steel town of Kamenskoe, later renamed Dneprodzerzhinsk. His grandfather and father had migrated there from an agricultural village in Kursk province, hoping to find work in the local steel mill. Unlike some of his later Politburo colleagues, who joined the Red Army at age fourteen, Brezhnev evidently played no role in the civil war. At the time of collectivization, having trained in Kursk as a land surveyor, he was working in the Urals where there were few peasant villages to collectivize. In 1931 he abruptly returned to his home city, where he enrolled in a metallurgical institute, joined the Communist Party, and accepted low-level political assignments. Completing his studies in 1935, he trained as a tank officer for one year in eastern Siberia, only to return again to Dneprodzerzhinsk. Often accounted a member of the generation whose political careers were launched when the purges of 1937 and 1938 vacated so many high posts in the Communist Party, Brezhnev received only minor appointments. By 1939 he was no more than a provincial official, supervising the press and party schooling, and he transferred the next year to oversee conversion of the province's industry to armaments production. The German invasion in June 1941 interrupted that uncompleted task, and within a month Brezhnev had been reassigned to the regular army as a political officer. With the rank of colonel, he was charged with keeping track of party enrollments and organizing the troops. Many years later, well into his tenure as General Secretary, efforts were made to glorify him as a war hero, primarily by praising him for regularly visiting the troops at the front; however, he never actually took much part in combat.

Following the war he was recommended to Nikita S. Khrushchev, whom Josef Stalin had assigned to administer the Ukraine as Communist Party chief. Khrushchev presumably approved Brezhnev's assignments, first as Party administrator of the minor Zaporozhe province and later of the more important Dnepropetrovsk province. Although Brezhnev would later claim that Stalin himself had found fault with his work in Dnepropetrovsk, Khrushchev seems to have regarded Brezhnev as an effective troubleshooter and persuaded Stalin to put Brezhnev in charge of the lagging party organization in neighboring Moldavia in 1950. Brezhnev did well enough that he was chosen for membership in the Central Committee, and then inducted into its Presidium, as the ruling Politburo was renamed when Stalin decided to greatly expand its membership. (This expansion, apparently, was the first move in a plan to purge its senior members). But Stalin's death in March 1953 canceled whatever plans he may have harbored. In that same month, Brezhnev was summarily transferred back to the armed forces, where he spent another year supervising political lectures, this time in the navy. Although his postwar political career was temporarily derailed, he had gained the opportunity to form bonds with a number of officials who would take over ranking posts when he became General Secretary. Moreover, his reassignment to the Ministry of Defense enabled him to make additional connections with top military commanders.

Khrushchev's success in the power struggle unleashed by Stalin's death enabled the First Secretary to recall Brezhnev from military duty in 1954. Brezhnev was sent to Kazakhstan to take charge of selecting the Communist Party officials who would execute Khrushchev's plan to turn the so-called Virgin Lands into a massive producer of grain crops. Within eighteen months Brezhnev took the place of his initial superior and successfully led the transformation of the Virgin Lands. This record, combined perhaps with Brezhnev's previous experience, moved Khrushchev to return Brezhnev to Moscow in June 1957 as the Communist Party's overseer of the new strategic missile program and other defense activities. While Brezhnev could claim some credit for the successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957, he had supervised only the last stages of that program. He did not manage to prevent the failure of the initial intercontinental ballistic missile program, on which Khrushchev had placed such high hopes. By 1960 Brezhnev had been shoved aside from overseer of defense matters to the ceremonial position of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, where for the first time he came into extensive contact with officials of foreign governments, particularly in what was then becoming known as the Third World. A stroke suffered by his rival, Frol R. Kozlov, enabled Brezhnev to return to the more powerful post of Secretary of the Central Committee, where Khrushchev regarded him as his informal number two man.

leader of the politburo, 19641982

It was Brezhnev who organized the insider coup against his longtime patron, Khrushchev, spending some six months calling party officials from his country seat at Zavidovo and delicately sounding them out on their attitudes toward the removal of the First Secretary. Khrushchev quickly learned about the brewing conspiracy; but the failures of his strategic rocketry, agricultural, and ambitious housing programs, as well as dissatisfaction with his reorganizations of Party and government, had undermined Khrushchev's authority among Soviet officials. The Leningrad official, Kozlov, on whom Khrushchev had relied as a counterweight to Brezhnev, did not recover from his illness. Khrushchev was thus unable to mount any effective resistance when Brezhnev decided to convene the Central Committee in October 1964 to endorse Khrushchev's removal. Brezhnev did not overplay his own hand, taking only the post of First Secretary for himself and gaining rival Alexei N. Kosygin's consent to Khrushchev's ouster by allowing him to assume Khrushchev's post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers (head of the economy).

The contest between Brezhnev and Kosygin for ascendancy dominated Soviet politics over the next period. As a dictatorship, the Soviet regime could not engender the loyalty of the general populace by allowing citizens to reject candidates for the exercise of power; in other words, it could not let them vote meaningfully. Thus, how to sustain popular allegiance was a recurrent topic of discussion among Soviet leaders, both in public and in private. In the public discussion, Brezhnev took the conventional Soviet stance that the Communist Party could count on the allegiance of workers if it continued its record of heroic accomplishment manifested in the past by the overthrow of tsarism, the industrialization of a backward country, and victory over Germany. He proposed two new heroic accomplishments that the leadership under his guidance should pursue: the transformation of Soviet agriculture through investment in modern technology, and the building of a military power second to none. Kosygin, by contrast, argued that workers would respond to individual incentives in the form of rewards for hard work. These incentives were to be made available by an increase in the production of consumer goods, to be achieved by economic reforms that would decentralize the decision-making process from Moscow ministries to local enterprises, and, not coincidentally, freeing those enterprises from the control of local party secretaries assigned to supervise industrial activity, as Brezhnev had done in his early career.

The contest between these competing visions took almost four years to resolve. Although Kosygin blundered early by interpreting the outcome of the 1964 U.S. presidential election as a sign of American restraint in the Vietnam conflict, Brezhnev equally blundered by underestimating the difficulty, or more likely impossibility, of resolving the Sino-Soviet split. Kosygin sought to protect economic reforms similar to the one he proposed for the Soviet Union, then in progress in the five East European states controlled by the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, economic reforms suddenly brought about political changes at the top of the Communist Party, impelling its new leader, Alexander Dubcek, to begin retreating from the party's monopoly of power. Brezhnev took advantage of this emergency to align himself with military commanders pressing for the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the restoration of an orthodox communist dictatorship. Introduction of a large Soviet army enabled Czechoslovak communists, working under Brezhnev's personal direction, to remove reformers from power, and the replacement of leaders in Poland and East Germany ended economic reforms there as well. By 1971 proponents of economic reform in Moscow became discouraged by the evident signs of Kosygin's inability to protect adherents of their views, and Brezhnev emerged for the first time as the clear victor in the Soviet power struggle.

According to George Breslauer (1982), Brezhnev used his victory not only to assert his own policy priorities but to incorporate selected variants of Kosygin's proposals into his own programs, both at home and abroad. At home he emerged as a champion of improving standards of living not only by increasing food supplies but also by expanding the assortment and availability of consumer goods. Abroad he now emerged as the architect of U.S.-Soviet cooperation under the name of relaxation of international tensions, known in the West as the policy of détente. Yet Brezhnev represented each of these new initiatives as compatible with sustaining his earlier commitments to a vast expansion of agricultural output and military might, as well as to continuing support for Third World governments hostile to the United States. His rejection of Kosygin's decentralization proposals did nothing to address the growing complexity of managing an expanding economy from a single central office.

Although the policy of détente and the doubling of world oil prices in 1973 and again by the end of the decade made it financially possible for Brezhnev to juggle the competing demands of agriculture, defense, and the consumer sector, there was not enough left over to sustain industrial expansion, which slowed markedly in the last years of his leadership. As the crucial criterion by which communist officials had become accustomed to judging their own success, the slowdown in industrial expansion undermined the self-confidence of the Soviet elite. Brezhnev's policy of cadre stabilitygaining support from Communist Party officials by securing them in their positionsdeveloped a gerontocracy that blocked the upward career mobility by which the loyalty of officials had been purchased since Stalin instituted this arrangement in the 1930s. Brezhnev therefore made opportunities available for corruption, bribe-taking, and misuse of official position at all levels of the government, appointing his son-in-law as chief of the national criminal police to assure that these activities would not be investigated. His encouragement of corruption rewarded officials during his lifetime, but it also further sapped their collective morale, and made some of them responsive to the proposals for change by his ultimate successor, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In foreign policy his initially successful policy of détente foundered as his military buildup lent persuasiveness to objections from American conservatives. Soviet backing for the 1973 attack on Israel and for armed takeovers in Africa discredited the U.S. public's faith in the sincerity of the Soviet Union's peaceful intentions. By 1979 the effort to occupy Afghanistan, in a reprise of the Czechoslovak action, landed the Soviet army in a war it proved incapable of winning while compelling President Jimmy Carter to abandon arms control negotiations and to withdraw from the Moscow Olympics. In the summer of 1980 Polish strikers formed the movement known as Solidarity, demonstrating to Soviet officials that Brezhnev had bet wrongly on the combination of military expansion, improved food supplies, and increases in the availability of consumer goods to secure the allegiance of workers in communist-ruled states.

Under the strain of personal responsibility for preserving the Soviet order, Brezhnev's health deteriorated rapidly after the middle 1970s. In 1976 he briefly suffered actual clinical death before being resuscitated; as a result, he was constantly accompanied by modern resuscitation technology bought from the West (which had to be used more than once). Ill health made Brezhnev lethargic; it is unclear, however, what even a more energetic leader could have done to solve the Soviet Union's problems. Despite Brezhnev's torpor, his colleagues within the Politburo and his loyalists, whom he had placed in key posts throughout the apex of the Soviet party and state, continued to see their personal fortunes tied to his leadership. He remained in power until a final illness, which is thought to have been brought on by exposure to inclement weather during the 1982 celebration of the October Revolution anniversary.

later reappraisal

For Gorbachev and his adherents, Brezhnev came to personify everything that was wrong with the Soviet regime. The popularity of Gorbachev's program among Western specialists, and the interest generated by the new leader's dynamism after the boring stasis of Brezhnev's later years, precluded a reappraisal of Brezhnev's career until 2002, when a group of younger scholars picked up on Brezhnev's growing popularity among certain members of the Russian population. These people remembered with fondness Brezhnev's alleviation of their or their parents' poverty, a relief made all the more striking by the extreme impoverishment experienced by many in the post-Soviet era. This reassessment may appear unwarranted to those who prize political liberty above marginal increments in material consumption.

See also: brezhnev doctrine; constitution of 1977; dÉtente; khrushchev, nikita sergeyevich; kosygin, alexei nikolayevich; politburo


Anderson, Richard D., Jr. (1993). Public Politics in an Authoritarian State: Making Foreign Policy in the Brezhnev Politburo. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Bacon, Edwin, and Sandle, Mark, eds. (2002). Brezhnev Reconsidered. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Breslauer, George W. (1982). Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders: Building Authority in Soviet Politics. London: George Allen and Unwin, Publishers.

Brezhneva, Luba. (1995). The World I Left Behind, tr. by Geoffrey Polk. New York: Random House.

Dawisha, Karen. (1984). The Kremlin and the Prague Spring. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dornberg, John. (1974). Brezhnev: The Masks of Power. New York: Basic Books.

Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee. (1982). Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev: A Short Biography. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

Richard D. Anderson Jr.

Brezhnev, Leonid

views updated May 21 2018

Brezhnev, Leonid 1906-1982


Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in November 1982, was at the Soviet helm longer than anyone besides Joseph Stalin (1879-1953). Brezhnev grew up in Ukraine in an industrial working-class family (his father worked in a steel plant). Not intellectually inclined, Brezhnev was a hard worker, a good organizer, and a decent student; moreover, he showed early signs of leadership and political ambition, quickly joining the Komsomol (communist youth group) and the Communist Party. Professionally, Brezhnev trained in both industrial and agricultural sectors. He worked in factories, certified as a land surveyor (1927), and received an engineering degree (1935), all while demonstrating leadership within his trade union and party organizations.

In 1936 in Ukraine, Brezhnevs political career began, oddly thanks to Stalins Great Terror, which left high-ranking posts empty, allowing eager beginners like Brezhnev to advance quickly. By 1941 he had achieved the post of regional party secretary for defense industries and, crucially, made a lasting, good impression on Nikita Khrushchev (18941971), Ukrainian first secretary. During World War II (19391945), Brezhnev was assigned to the political administration of the Red Army. Though political administration was physically safer than other wartime assignments, Brezhnev later tended to exaggerate his heroic war performance, heaping an absurd number of medals on himself.

In 1950 Brezhnev began his ascent to the highest echelons of Soviet power when he was named first secretary of Moldova, charged with Sovietizing it. Tw o years later Stalin promoted Brezhnev to candidate member of the Presidium (Politburo), possibly to replace another lieutenant scheduled for removal by purge. Despite Stalins death in 1953, Brezhnev lost little political momentum, thanks to his Ukrainian connections to the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev named him first secretary of Kazakhstan in 1955 in charge of the Virgin Lands scheme, and elevated him to full membership of the Presidium in 1957. By 1963 Brezhnev had become a secretary of the Central Committee, controlling daily party organization. From that powerful position, Brezhnev helped plan and execute Khrushchevs overthrow in 1964, condemning Khrushchevs impulsiveness and excessive power. Brezhnev then became one of three leaders, until he consolidated his paramount position by the mid-1970s. From then on, Brezhnev was clearly the most authoritative figure within a collective leadership.

Those eighteen yearsthe Brezhnev erasaw the Soviet Union rise to become one of the two global superpowers dominating the world. Living standards increased, while classes of modern, educated professionals expanded. There were no terrors, cataclysms, or major conflicts; life was stable for two decades. Accordingly, when Russians are asked to assess the best time to have lived in their country in the twentieth century, the Brezhnev era usually comes out on top. Yet, Brezhnevs regime was a one-party dictatorship with no regard for human rights. It ruled through security police and censorship, and kept Eastern European nations in captivity. It brutally crushed the 1968 reform movement in Czechoslovakia, and invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The time of stability was also an era of stagnation and economic and social rot. Brezhnevs collective leadership style led to extreme bureaucratic inertia, a government of enervated gerontocracy. When Brezhnev died, Yuri Andropov (19141984) inherited a superpower in deep decline. Though he made initial stabs at correcting those problems, Andropovs protégé, Mikhail Gorbachev, would go further than anyone ever imagined.

SEE ALSO Cold War; Communism; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Khrushchev, Nikita; One-Party States; Stalin, Joseph; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Warsaw Pact


Bacon, Edwin, and Mark Sandle, eds. 2002. Brezhnev Reconsidered. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Garthoff, Raymond. 1994. Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Julie M. Newton

Brezhnev, Leonid

views updated Jun 08 2018

Leonid Brezhnev

Born: December 12, 1906
Kamenskoe, Ukraine, Russia
Died: November 10, 1982
Moscow, Russia

Russian political leader and general secretary

Leonid Brezhnev held a number of important government posts in the former Soviet Union, and was the best known of a three-man committee that held power there from 1964 until his death in 1982. He played a large role in improving relations between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1970s.

Early life and education

Leonid Ilich Brezhnev was born on December 12, 1906, in Kamenskoye (now Dneprodzerzhinsk), an industrial town in the Ukraine. He was one of three children of Ilya Yakovlevich Brezhnev and Natalya Denisovna. His father worked in a steel mill, as had members of several previous generations of the family. Brezhnev's childhood was far from ideal. During his youth a civil war raged in the Ukraine, the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, and World War I (191418) was fought. Brezhnev was forced to leave school at the age of fifteen to go to work. He continued as a part-time student of land surveying at a trade school and graduated at the age of twenty-one.

In the years after his graduation, Brezhnev held a number of minor government posts. He also joined the Communist Party, whose members believed in a system in which there was no private property, and goods were owned and shared by all people. Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (18791953), peasant farmers were ordered to sell their extra grain to the state rather than keeping it for themselves. Brezhnev was one of many party members who beat and threatened the peasants to get them to cooperate. Eventually Brezhnev enrolled in the Kamenskoe Metallurgical Institute, graduating in 1935 as an engineer. He left the field of engineering after a short time, however, in favor of returning to government and party work.

Moving up in the party

By the beginning of World War II (193945) Brezhnev was an important party leader in his native region. After the outbreak of the war, he served in the branch of the Soviet Red Army responsible for setting up Stalin's "Russification" policy (under which, for example, children were forced to study Russian subjects in school, and newspapers were ordered to be printed in Russian only). He earned many promotions and was given more responsibilities, eventually achieving the rank of major general. When he left the army in 1946, he continued to move steadily ahead as a party official. He gained national prominence in 1950, with his election as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Moldavian S.S.R., one of the republics that made up the Soviet Union. Two years later he left Moldavia for Moscow, Russia, to serve under Stalin in the powerful Secretariat (official organization) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The progress of Brezhnev's career was briefly interrupted by Stalin's death in 1953. Brezhnev was removed from the Secretariat and assigned to lesser posts, first in the Ministry of Defense and later in the Central Committee of the Kazakh republic. But because he proved to be such a successful administrator, he was recalled to Moscow in 1956 to serve again in the Secretariat. He worked closely with Nikita Khrushchev (18941971), the new head of the Secretariat and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. In 1960, with the support of Khrushchev, Brezhnev was chosen chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. This post brought Brezhnev great prestige but not great power.

National leadership

After three years Brezhnev returned to the Secretariat, where he allied himself with other leaders who were unhappy with Khrushchev's record. In 1964 this group succeeded in removing Khrushchev from power, after which Brezhnev took over the most important of Khrushchev's former positions, that of first secretary of the party's Central Committee. Brezhnev became seen as the leader of the Soviet Union. In 1966 his title was changed from first secretary to general secretary, the title under which Stalin had served. But Brezhnev was not as powerful as either Stalin or Khrushchev had been. Instead, according to the arrangement that had followed Khrushchev's removal, he became the first among equals and shared power with two others, the chairman of the Council of Ministers and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

During the 1970s Brezhnev led the Soviet Union in a number of military actions, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1968 and warfare in the People's Republic of China in 1969. In order to remain popular with its Eastern European group of republics, which were the strongest supporters of Communism, the Soviet Union turned to hostile enforcement of its political system. Perhaps the harshest example was the Soviet attack launched on Afghanistan in 1979, which continued after Brezhnev's death. In addition, the Soviet economy (the system of production, distribution, and use of goods and services), which had flourished at first, had stopped growing by the mid-1970s.

Although the end of the Brezhnev years saw an increase in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two world powers still developed respect for each other. During the years President Richard Nixon (19131994) was in office (196974), the two leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union often visited each other. They improved relations enough to allow the creation of a joint United States-Soviet space program in 1975, a large purchase of American wheat by the Soviets, and other cooperative efforts.

As Brezhnev's health declined, so did Soviet power and unity. This was shown by an increasing amount of criticism from people within the country, such as Andrei Sakharov (19211989), a scientist who was imprisoned for speaking out in favor of human rights and against nuclear weapons. Although countries such as Poland, which nearly broke free of Soviet control in 1981, were still no match for the power of Soviet armies, their growing unhappiness eventually led to the break up of the Communist Soviet Union in later years. After several years of serious health problems, Brezhnev died in Moscow on November 10, 1982, leaving the Soviet Union without strong leadership until the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931) in 1985.

For More Information

Brezhnev, Leonid I. Leonid I. Brezhnev, His Life and Work. New York: Sphinx Press, 1982.

Murphy, Paul J. Brezhnev, Soviet Politician. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1981.

Navazelskis, Ina L. Leonid Brezhnev. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Leonid Ilich Brezhnev

views updated May 21 2018

Leonid Ilich Brezhnev

The Soviet political leader Leonid IIich Brezhnev (1906-1982) held a number of important government posts and was a major figure in the post-Stalinera.

Leonid Brezhnev was born on Dec. 12, 1906, in Kamenskoe (now Dneprodzerzhinsk), a metallurgical center in the Ukraine. A member of a working-class family, he was obliged to leave school at the age of 15 and go to work. But he continued to study as a part-time student of surveying at a vocational secondary school, and graduated at the age of 21. In the years immediately following, Brezhnev held a number of minor government posts and at that time also joined the Communist party. Then he enrolled in the Kamenskoe Metallurgical Institute, graduating in 1935 as a metallurgical engineer. The field of engineering engaged him only briefly, however, for he soon became involved in government and party work. By the beginning of World War II, he was an important party leader in his native region.

After the outbreak of the war, Brezhnev served in the branch of the Red Army responsible for political indoctrination. There he held increasingly responsible posts, eventually achieving the rank of major general. When Brezhnev returned to civilian life in 1946, he continued to move steadily ahead as a party official. In 1950, with his election as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Moldavian S.S.R., one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union, he gained national prominence. Two years later he left Moldavia for Moscow to serve under Stalin in the powerful Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist party.

The progress of Brezhnev's career was temporarily interrupted by Stalin's death in 1953. He was removed from the Secretariat and assigned to lesser posts, first in the Ministry of Defense and later in the Central Committee of the Kazakh S.S.R. But because he proved to be such a successful administrator, he was recalled to Moscow in 1956 to serve again in the Secretariat. He worked closely with Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Secretariat and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.

In 1960, with Khrushchev's support, Brezhnev was chosen chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. This post brought Brezhnev great prestige but not great power. After three years he returned to the Secretariat, where he allied himself with other leaders who were dissatisfied with Khrushchev's record. In 1964 this group succeeded in ousting Khrushchev from power, whereupon Brezhnev immediately took over the most important of Khrushchev's former positions, that of first secretary of the party's Central Committee, and became the major personage in the Soviet Union. In 1966 his title was changed from first secretary to general secretary, the title under which Stalin had served. But Brezhnev was not as powerful as either Stalin or Khrushchev had been. Instead, according to the informal arrangement that had followed Khrushchev's removal, he became the first among equals and shared power with the chairman of the Council of Ministers and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

During the 1970s, Brezhnev oversaw the Soviet Union through a number of military interventions, beginning with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, now the Czech Republic, and warfare in the People's Republic of China in 1969. In order to maintain clout with the largely Communist Eastern European bloc, the Soviet Union turned to hostile enforcement of their political system. Perhaps the harshest such case was the Soviet attack launched on Afghanistan in 1979, which continued past Breshnev's life.

Although the end of the Brezhnev years saw the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union escalate, the two world powers still managed a high level of rapport. During the office of President Richard Nixon, the two leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union often visited each other, easing tensions enough to allow a cooperative space program in 1975, a massive purchase of American wheat by the Soviets, and other such liasons.

The decline of Brezhnev's health was paralleled by the waning solidarity of Soviet power, as was evidenced by an increasing number of dissenting voices within the country such as Andrei Sakharov. Although countries such as Poland, which nearly broke free of Soviet control in 1981, were still no match for the might of Soviet armies, their mounting unrest foreshadowed the crumbling of the Communist Soviet Union in later years. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet economy had initially flourished, but by the mid-1970s it had reached a point of stagnation. After several years of serious ailment, Brezhnev died in Moscow on November 10, 1982, leaving the Soviet Union without coherent leadership until the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Further Reading

Biographical information on Brezhnev is scanty. The best source in English is Grey Hodnett's article on Brezhnev in George W. Simmonds, ed., Soviet Leaders (1967). His career is also discussed in Robert Conquest, Russia after Khrushchev (1965), and in Myron Rush, Political Succession in the USSR (1965; 2d ed. 1968). For comprehensive discussions of the Brezhnev era, see The Brezhnev Politburo and the Decline of Detente (1984) by Harry Gelman or Soviet Foreign Policy: The Brezhnev Years (1983) by Robin Edmonds. □

Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich

views updated May 17 2018

Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (1906–82) Soviet statesman, effective ruler from the mid-1960s until his death. He rose through party ranks to become secretary to the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party (1952) and a member of the Presidium (later Politburo) (1957). In 1964 he helped plan the downfall of Nikita Khrushchev and became party general secretary, at first sharing power with Aleksei Kosygin. In 1977 he became president of the Soviet Union. He pursued a hard line against reforms at home and in Eastern Europe but also sought to reduce tensions with the West. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), he promulgated the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ confirming Soviet domination of satellite states, as seen in the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

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