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Leonid Brezhnev

[brezh-nef; Russ. brye-zhnyif]

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev; November 10, 1982) was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and thus political leader of the USSR) from 1964 to 1982, serving in that position longer than anyone other than Joseph Stalin. He was twice Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (head of state), from May 7, 1960 to July 15, 1964 and from June 16, 1977 to his death on November 10, 1982.

Rise to power

Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoe (now Dniprodzerzhyns'k) in Ukraine, to Ilya Yakovlevich Brezhnev (ethnically Russian), a steel worker, and his wife Natalia Denisovna (ethnically Ukrainian). He retained specific Ukrainian pronunciation and mannerisms his whole life, and listed his ethnicity as Ukrainian until 1952 (afterwards, 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 Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum 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 factory. Later in 1936, he became director of the Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum (technical college). In 1936, he was transferred to the regional centre of Dnipropetrovsk and, in 1939, he became Party Secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, 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, 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 could gain 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, like most middle-ranking Party officials, Brezhnev was immediately drafted (his orders are dated June 22). He worked to evacuate Dnipropetrovsk'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. 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 Dnipropetrovsk. 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. He was Party First Secretary of the Moldavian SSR from November 3, 1950 to April 16, 1952.

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 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. On May 7, 1955, he was made Party First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, 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, Lazar Kaganovich as well as Dmitri Shepilov. 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, 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 to remove the leader from power, possibly actually leading the plot by some accounts, like Gennadii Voronov's. Alexey Kosygin, Nikolay Podgorny, Alexander Shelepin and some other high officials were also involved in the plan. 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. Brezhnev and Podgorny appealed to the Central Committee, blaming Khrushchev for economic failures, and accusing him of voluntarism and immodest behavior. Influenced by the Brezhnev allies, Politburo members voted to remove Khrushchev from office. Brezhnev was appointed Party First Secretary; Aleksei Kosygin was appointed Prime Minister, and Mikoyan became head of state (In 1965 Mikoyan retired and was succeeded by Podgorny).

Party leader

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 until 1952. 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 state security service (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 (see 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 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. On January 22, 1969, a Soviet Army officer, Viktor Ilyin, tried to assassinate Brezhnev.

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 "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 "détente" 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 honoured, and political opposition to the détente 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)

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. It was also during this time when his health showed signs of decline.

Stagnation of the economy

Both Soviet power internationally and Brezhnev's power domestically rested on a strong Soviet economy. But 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.

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 or the Baikal Amur Mainline, 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. The response was a huge "informal economy" (see Black Market) to provide a market for limited consumer goods and services. This, along with unsolved problem of corruption among regional officials, decreased Brezhnev's popular support during his reign. Several high regional officials were put under trial on corruption issues as soon as Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev.

Last years

The last years of Brezhnev's rule were marked by a growing personality cult. He was well known for his love of medals (he received a total of 114), so in December 1976, for his 70th birthday, he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union. The award, the highest order of the Soviet Union, is normally given for heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society. Brezhnev received the award, which comes with the order of Lenin and the Gold Star, three more times 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. Brezhnev's award was, however, revoked posthumously in 1989 for not meeting the requirements for the award.

This slew of military awards was justified by his participation in the little-known WWII episode, when a group of Soviet marines beat off a German attempt to land on the Black Sea coast at Malaya Zemlya. Brezhnev's book on the subject was compulsory study in every Soviet school; it is now believed that the book was written by some of his "court writers". At the urging of Brezhnev, the Malaya Zemlya episode was tremendously hyped up: a movie was filmed, featuring a song by Aleksandra Pakhmutova.

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 frequently 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 at his public appearances.

Among Brezhnev's legacy to his successors was the December 1979 decision to intervene in Afghanistan, where a communist regime was struggling with the US-sponsored Muslim radicals 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 détente era, with the imposition of a grain embargo by the U.S. Also in 1980 Brezhnev Officially opened the 1980 Summer Olympics being hosted in Moscow. In March 1982, Brezhnev suffered a stroke, and, thereafter, increasingly struggled to retain control.

Death and legacy

By the mid-1970s "one of his closest companions was a KGB nurse, who fed him a steady stream of pills without consulting his doctors". He had developed narcotic dependence on sleeping pill nembutal and died of a heart attack on November 10, 1982. He was honoured with one of the largest and most impressive funerals in the world. A four-day period of nationwide mourning was announced. His body was placed in an open coffin in House of Trade Unions in Moscow. Inside the hall, mourners shuffled up a marble staircase beneath chandeliers draped in black gauze. On the stage, amid a veritable garden of flowers, a complete symphony orchestra in black tailcoats played classical music. Brezhnev's embalmed body, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black-and-red tie, laid in an open coffin banked with carnations, red roses and tulips, faced the long queue of mourners. At the right side of the hall, in the front row of seats reserved for the dead leader's family, his wife Viktoria, sat along with their two children, Galina and Yuri.

Then, on November 15, the day of the funeral, classes in schools and universities were cancelled and all roads into Moscow were closed. The ceremony was broadcast on every television channel. The coffin was taken by an armoured vehicle to Red Square. As the coffin reached the middle of the Red Square it was taken out of the carriage it was placed on, and with its lid removed, it was placed on a red-draped bier facing the Lenin Mausoleum. At the top of the Lenin Mausoleum lavish eulogies were delivered by General Secretary Andropov, Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov, Academy of Sciences President Anatoli Alexandrov and a factory worker. Then, the politburo members went down from the mausoleum and the most important of them: Andropov, Chernenko and Gromyko on the left and by Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, Defense Minister Dimitry Ustinov and Moscow party boss Grishin on the right, carried the open coffin to another bier behind the mausoleum, in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. At exactly 12:45 p.m Brezhnev's coffin was lowered to the grave as foghorns blared, joining with sirens, wheezing factory whistles and rolling gunfire in a mournful cacophony.

Following Brezhnev's death, the Volga River valley city of Naberezhnye Chelny was renamed "Brezhnev" in his honor. In less than five years, however, the original name was restored. An outlying area of Moscow, the Cherry Tree District (Cheryomushky Rayon), was returned to its former name, as was Red Guards Square..

Brezhnev presided over the Soviet Union for longer than any man except Stalin. He is criticized 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 internal strength of the Soviet Union. 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. A research by VTsIOM showed that most of the Russian people would like to live during Brezhnev's era rather than any other period of Russian history during the 20th century. Furthermore, unlike his predecessor Khrushchev, he was a skillful negotiator on the diplomatic stage. The task of attempting to reform that system following his rule would be left to wait three years later to the reformist Gorbachev.

Brezhnev lived in 26 Kutuzovsky Prospekt, Moscow. He also lived during vacations in his Gosdacha in Zavidovo. He was married to Viktoria Petrovna (1912-1995). Her final four years she lived virtually alone, abandoned by everybody. She had suffered for a long time from diabetes and was nearly blind in her last years. He had a daughter, Galina Brezhneva (officially, a press agent) (1929-1998), and a son, Yuri (born 1933) (a trade official).

References

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