BREZHNEV AND THE BREZHNEV-ERA STAGNATION IN THE SOVIET UNION

BREZHNEV

Leonid Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union for 18 years from 1964 to 1982. He took over after Khrushchev's was ousted in October 1964, and served initially as first secretary of the party with Aleksei Kosygin as premier. In June 1977, Brezhnev also took the office of president. Brezhnev began his political career in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He made a name for himself by making the Virgin Land campaign look better on paper than it really was.

Following the ouster of Khrushchev, another period of rule by collective leadership ensued, lasting until Leonid I. Brezhnev established himself in the early 1970s as the preeminent figure in Soviet political life. Brezhnev presided over a period of détente with the West while at the same time building up Soviet military strength; the arms buildup contributed to the demise of détente in the late 1970s. Major agreements brought some relief of Cold War tensions, but an 11-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) minimized their effect. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Brezhnev presided over 18 years of stagnation. His regime took a much more conservative approach to most problems. Stalinism did not return, but there was less latitude for individual expression. The Soviet economy continued to falter, reaping no apparent benefit from the end of Khrushchev's economic experimentation. Michael Rywkin assessed the Brezhnev era as “the culmination of what Soviet nationality policy and the socialist economy were capable of delivering”. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Brezhnev's Early Life

Brezhnev was born to a Russian worker's family in 1906. According to notablebiographies.com: “Leonid Ilich Brezhnev was born 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 (1914–18) 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. [Source: notablebiographies.com <>]

“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 (1879–1953), 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.” Early in his career Brezhnev became a Khrushchev protégé and through his patron's influence rose to membership in the Presidium.<>

Brezhnev's Character and Interests

The custom of manly kissing seemed especially visible in the Brezhnev era. The Soviet leader kissed Khrushchev shortly after kicking him out of office, he planted a light smooch on the cheek of U.S. President Jimmy Carter after signing the SALT I treaty, and kissed every member of the Politburo after commemorating the decision to send troops to Afghanistan and assassinate the Afghan president.

Brezhnev owned at least 40 premium cars including Ferraris, Jaguars and Rolls-Royces. He enjoyed boar hunting. Russians knew virtually nothing about Brezhnev's wife Viktoia. Before he became leader Brezhnev sometimes was the driver the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

Brezhnev drank a lot especially in his early years as leader. When one politician said that something had to be done about the high consumption rate of vodka in Russia, he replied, “there’s no way the Russian people can live without it.”

Collective Leadership and the Rise of Brezhnev

After removing Khrushchev from power, the leaders of the Politburo (as the Presidium was renamed in 1966 by the Twenty-Third Party Congress) and Secretariat again established a collective leadership. As was the case following Stalin's death, several individuals, including Aleksey Kosygin, Nikolay Podgornyy, and Leonid I. Brezhnev, contended for power behind a facade of unity. Kosygin accepted the position of prime minister, which he held until his retirement in 1980. Brezhnev, who took the post of first secretary, may have been viewed originally by his colleagues as an interim appointee.[Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

As his own power grew, Brezhnev built up a coterie of followers whom he, as first secretary, gradually maneuvered into powerful positions. At the same time, Brezhnev slowly demoted or isolated possible contenders for his office. For instance, in December 1965 he succeeded in elevating Podgornyy to the ceremonial position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative organization in the government, thus eliminating him as a rival. But Brezhnev's rise was very gradual; only in 1971, when he succeeded in appointing four close associates to the Politburo, did it become clear that his was the most influential voice in the collective leadership. After several more personnel changes, Brezhnev assumed the chairmanship of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1977, confirming his primacy in both party and state. *

The years after Khrushchev were notable for the stability of the cadres, groups of activists in responsible and influential positions in the party and state apparatus. By introducing the slogan "Trust in Cadres" in 1965, Brezhnev won the support of many bureaucrats wary of the constant reorganizations of the Khrushchev era and eager for security in established hierarchies. Indicative of the stability of the period is the fact that nearly half of the Central Committee members in 1981 were holdovers from fifteen years earlier. The corollary to this stability was the aging of Soviet leaders; the average age of Politburo members rose from fifty-five in 1966 to sixty-eight in 1982. The Soviet leadership (or the "gerontocracy," as it was referred to in the West) became increasingly conservative and ossified. *

Brezhnev’s Domestic Policy

Brezhnev was very conservative. He rolled back Khrushchev's reforms and resurrected Stalin as hero and role model. Brezhnev expanded the powers of the KGB. Yuri Andropov was appointed KGB chairman and he launched a campaign to crush dissent within the Soviet Union.

Conservative policies characterized the regime's agenda in the years after Khrushchev. Upon assuming power, the collective leadership not only reversed such Khrushchev policies as the bifurcation of the party, it also halted de-Stalinization. Indeed, favorable references to the dead dictator began to appear. The Soviet constitution of 1977, although differing in certain respects from the 1936 Stalin document, retained the general thrust of the latter. In contrast to the relative cultural freedom permitted during the early Khrushchev years, Brezhnev and his colleagues continued the more restrictive line of the later Khrushchev era.

Russian socialism reached its peak in the 1960s. The Soviet Union was a proud nation and the quality of life was reasonable good. Shops had plenty of food and people could afford. By the seventies corruption by managers and workers with no incentive continued to work for a system that failed to adapt to the future and shortages began appearing. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Economy under Brezhnev

Despite Khrushchev's tinkering with economic planning, the economic system remained dependent on central plans drawn up with no reference to market mechanisms. Reformers, of whom the economist Yevsey Liberman was most noteworthy, advocated greater freedom for individual enterprises from outside controls and sought to turn the enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit. Prime Minister Kosygin championed Liberman's proposals and succeeded in incorporating them into a general economic reform program approved in September 1965. This reform included scrapping Khrushchev's regional economic councils in favor of resurrecting the central industrial ministries of the Stalin era. Opposition from party conservatives and cautious managers, however, soon stalled the Liberman reforms, forcing the state to abandon them. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

After Kosygin's short-lived attempt to revamp the economic system, planners reverted to drafting comprehensive centralized plans of the type first developed under Stalin. In industry, plans stressed the heavy and defense-related branches, slighting the light consumer-goods branches. As a developed industrial country, the Soviet Union by the 1970s found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high rates of growth in the industrial sector that it had enjoyed in earlier years. Increasingly large investment and labor inputs were required for growth, but these inputs were becoming more difficult to obtain. Although the goals of the five-year plans of the 1970s had been scaled down from previous plans, the targets remained largely unmet. The industrial shortfalls were felt most sharply in the sphere of consumer goods, where the public steadily demanded improved quality and increased quantity. *

Agricultural development continued to lag in the Brezhnev years. Despite steadily higher investments in agriculture, growth under Brezhnev fell below that attained under Khrushchev. Droughts occurring intermittently throughout the 1970s forced the Soviet Union to import large quantities of grain from Western countries, including the United States. In the countryside, Brezhnev continued the trend toward converting collective farms into state farms and raised the incomes of all farmworkers. Despite the wage increases, peasants still devoted much time and effort to their private plots, which provided the Soviet Union with a disproportionate share of its agricultural goods. *

Brezhnev and Stagnation

The Brezhnev period is sometimes referred to as "The Stagnation." Corruption became entrenched fixture of Communist Party and the economy declined even though it was rich in mineral resources and huge deposits of oil and gas were discovered.

Starting in the late 1960s, growth stalled at a level well below that of most Western industrial (and some East European) countries. Although certain appliances and other goods became more accessible during the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in housing and food supply were slight. Shortages of consumer goods encouraged pilferage of government property and the growth of the black market. Vodka, however, remained readily available, and alcoholism was an important factor in both the declining life expectancy and the rising infant mortality rate that the Soviet Union experienced in the later Brezhnev years. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

But, Myron Rush argued in 1985, when Gorbachev came to power, the USSR was not poised for a collapse, nor was it even in acute crisis … The economy was stagnant and falling farther behind the West, but inflation was not a serious problem; agriculture … fed the Soviet people adequately, perhaps better than in the past; and industry provided them with their basic needs. The economy had been in worse shape, arguably, in Khrushchev’s last years, 1963 and 1964. There was no compelling need for the Soviet Union to enter on the dangerous path of systemic reform. The system had enough internal resources to stay afloat for decades, tackling the symptoms, if not the causes, of its numerous maladies. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

The Soviet Union managed to stay afloat on hard currency earned from its mineral imports. There were no incentives to improve efficiency and productivity. The economy was hurt by heavy defense expenditure that sapped the economy and red tape that discouraged competitiveness. Cynicism, malaise and pessimism became the order of the day.

After 1965 leaders of the parties simply accepted rationing and the status instead of trying to improve things. The economy stagnated and when Gorbachev attempted to reform the system in 1980s by relaxing controls the economy simply collapsed. Many old times look back wistfully on the Brezhnev "era of stagnation" as the good old days.

Corruption Under Brezhnev

Many historians trace the origins of Communism's downfall to the 1970s and 80s, when cynicism and corruption ran high among officials in the Soviet government. Party officials funneled billions of dollars in private accounts outside the country and then taped into these fund to start business ventures in the New Russia.

Partly elite known as nomenklatyra ("list of nominees") enjoyed luxuries and perks unavailable to people without party connections. Under Brezhnev, the black market thrived. Ties between Communist manger and black marketeers created the mode for much of today's corruption. Five years after Brezhnev died his son-in-law was imprisoned in a huge bribery scandal.

In the Brezhnev era, Brezhnev's son-in-law was involved in a scam in which corrupt officials over-reported cotton production, sold cotton on the black market and swindled the government out of billions of rubles. After spy satellites discovered that many cotton fields were empty and the scheme came unraveled, some 2,600 officials were arrested and 50,000 were fired. The scandal uncovered a state farm boss who kept concubines, used slave labor and cruelly tortured anyone who opposed him. See Below.

According to a frequently told joke at the time, a farmer is asked by a Communist official how much cotton there is, The official says, "Enough to pile up to Allah's feet." The Communist says, "You idiot, you now know there is no god." The farmer said, "That's okay because their no cotton either."

Billions Lost in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam in the 1970s and 80s

In the 1980s, the regional Soviet leader in the Uzbek Republic pulled off one of the biggest scams of the 20th century by falsifying data on cotton production and earning more than $2 billion for himself and his coconspirators before the fraud was revealed when satellite pictures showed that areas that were supposed to be planted with cotton actually were not. The scam involved the son-in-law of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982, and probably Brezhnev himself.

Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “The Uzbek affair has been described as the Soviet Union's Watergate, a scandal that reached into the top levels of power and exposed a pervasive moral lassitude at the heart of the political system. It revolved around the industry that dominates life in Uzbekistan: growing cotton. National investigators said cotton magnates and politicians had stolen billions of rubles over the years through padding cotton harvest figures. The corruption included protection rackets, bribery and sale of government offices. The press has carried extensive, sometimes lurid accounts of the flamboyant corruption that flourished...including local officials who lived like feudal lords, bribing top officials with diamonds and cognac, and sending hired killers after investigators.” [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

Between 1976 and 1983, Soviet leaders defrauded the Soviet central bank by falsely inflating Uzbek cotton harvest yields. The "cotton scandal" was at iss peak during the tenure of Sharof Rashidov and resulted in discrediting the political elite of Uzbekistan. Rashidov (1917 – 1983) was a Communist Party leader in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and a Communist Party Central Committee Politburo candidate member between 1961 and 1983. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Under Rashidov, Uzbek government responded to from Moscow to grow increasing quantities of cotton by reporting miraculous growth in land irrigated and harvested, and record improvements in production and efficiency in falsified records. The Uzbek leadership used these exaggerated figures to transfer substantial amounts of wealth from central Soviet funds into Uzbekistan. When the scam was discovered, Rashidov committed suicide. +

After Uzbekistan's independence, Rashidov re-emerged as a national hero. He is seen in Uzbekistan as having been a strong leader who found a way to cleverly defy Moscow and "beat the system” while managing to create a situation where Uzbekistan became quite autonomous of central control. +

Brezhnev Son-Law Involved in Uzbekistan Cotton Scam

Yuri Churbanov, the son-in-law of Leonid Brezhnev, was implicated in the Uzbekistan cotton scandal. Associated Press reported: “A five-year investigation has uncovered bribery and corruption that cost the Uzbekistan Soviet Republic at least $6.5 billion and involved high-ranking officials including the son-in-law of the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, Pravda said. The official Communist Party newspaper said the corruption was institutionalized, and that involved officials and millionaire entrepreneurs in the Central Asian republic hired bodyguards and bought police protection... The story appeared to convey the message that Mikhail S. Gorbachev's leadership will not tolerate the corruption, stagnation and bureaucracy of Brezhnev's era. [Source: Associated Press, January 24, 1988 <^>]

“Pravda said the corruption in Uzbekistan involved the Soviet Union's first deputy interior minister, a post held from 1980-1985 by Yuri M. Churbanov, Brezhnev's son-in-law. Churbanov was married to Brezhnev's daughter, Galina. Pravda did not identify Churbanov by name, but the reference was clear because there had been no other first deputy interior minister during the period. Soviet officials announced” earlier “that Churbanov had been arrested and accused of corruption and accepting bribes, but they did not tie him to the investigation in Uzbekistan. <^>

The paper said officials arrested included the premier and a deputy president of Uzbekistan, and top Communist party officials at the republic and local levels. At least $6.5 billion of state money disappeared from the republic's cotton industry, but authorities have found only a small percentage of it, the report said. "Not one question was decided without bribes. He who gave bribes got everything. The question stood this way: either leave your post or live according to the law of criminals," investigators were quoted as saying. The investigation swept up many minor officials who had little option but to participate in the corruption, Pravda said. In addition, blackmail and extortion groups in Uzbekistan pressured those who made illegal millions, and the underground millionaires responded by hiring gunmen for personal bodyguards, the newspaper said. <^>

“The Pravda article was printed several days after the weekly Literary Gazette revealed that Akhmadzhan Adylov, the head of an agricultural complex in Uzbekistan, had built a fiefdom with a private court system and an underground jail that was built by up to 1,000 workers. The two articles, striking for their detail even in the atmosphere of openness fostered by Gorbachev, apparently were a signal that those found guilty of corruption would be treated harshly. <^>

“At least two officials already have been sentenced to death. Pravda revealed that investigators sent from Moscow to Uzbekistan arrested Abduvakhid Karimov, the head of the Bukhara Communist Party, after an all-night party at his country house.Soviet media reported that Karimov had been sentenced to be shot for corruption. In August, 1986, Vakhbozhan Usmanov, the former cotton minister of the republic, also was sentenced to death.” <^> Brezhnev Son-in-Law Gets 12-Year Term

In December 1988, Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law was sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for accepting bribes, Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “Yuri M. Churbanov, who was the second-ranking Soviet police official from 1980 to 1984, was sentenced for taking bribes equivalent to more than $150,000 to protect widespread fraud in the Central Asian cotton industry. Six co-defendants, former high-ranking police officials from the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, were given sentences ranging from 8 to 10 years. The property of all those convicted will be confiscated as part of the sentence. [Source: Bill Keller, New York Times, December 31, 1988 +/+]

“Under Soviet law, Mr. Churbanov could have been sentenced to death because of the magnitude of the theft, but the prosecution had indicated that it would not seek the maximum penalty because he had cooperated with investigators. Mr. Churbanov, who is 52 years old, is the highest-ranking official charged in the cotton corruption scandal. But the press has reported that other powerful figures profited grandly from the network of patronage and payoffs, including Brezhnev himself, and Sharaf R. Rashidov, who led the Uzbek Communist Party for 25 years until his death in 1983. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov's lawyer, Andrei Makarov, asserted before the four-month trial that his defendant was being made a scapegoat for the discredited former party leader, and that the torrent of melodramatic press coverage surrounding the so-called Uzbek affair had made a fair trial impossible. The six co-defendants convicted of corruption with Mr. Churbanov were Pyotr Begelman, a former Uzbek deputy interior minister, and Nuin Nurov, a former regional police chief of Tashkent, each sentenced to 9 years; Azhamal Dzhamalov, Yakub Makhamadzhanov and Salim Sabirov, Uzbek regional police chiefs, each given 8 years, and Khushvakt Norbutayev, another regional chief, 10 years. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov, who was arrested in January 1987, has been portrayed as a man of little talent and vast ambition who married his way to power. He was a junior official in the Interior Ministry until he was assigned as a personal security guard to Galina L. Brezhnev, the daughter of Mr. Brezhnev. After he divorced his wife and married the party leader's daughter in 1971, Mr. Churbanov rose quickly through the ranks of the ministry and became a nonvoting member of the party's ruling Central Committee. +/+

“Mr. Churbanov was originally charged with taking bribes worth 650,000 rubles, the equivalent of about $1.1 million, from June 1976 to October 1982. But after a trial that heard nearly 200 witnesses, the military tribunal threw out some of the charges. Mr. Churbanov had pleaded guilty to abuse of his office, but said he was innocent of bribe-taking. He was also convicted of taking more than 10,000 rubles, or $16,500, of Interior Ministry funds to build a cellar in his summer home and of approving the gift of an antigue gold watch to his boss, Interior Minister Nikolai A. Shchelokov. +/+

“Mr. Shchelokov is said to have committed suicide during the investigation of the case. Two Uzbek officials who had been scheduled to stand trial with Mr. Churbanov committed suicide in prison. Several other Uzbek officials have been arrested in connection with the cotton scandal, and additional trials are expected.” +/+

Culture and the Arts in the 1960s and 1970s

Progress in developing the education system was mixed during the Brezhnev years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of working-age people with at least a secondary education steadily increased. Yet at the same time, access to higher education grew more limited. By 1980 the percentage of secondary-school graduates admitted to universities had dropped to only two-thirds of the 1960 figure. Students accepted into universities increasingly came from professional families rather than worker or peasant households. This trend toward the perpetuation of the educated elite was not only a function of the superior cultural background of elite families but also, in many cases, a result of their power to influence admissions procedures . [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Progress in science also was variable under Brezhnev. In the most visible test of its advancement--the race with the United States to put a man on the moon--the Soviet Union failed, but through persistence the Soviet space program continued to make headway in other areas. In general, despite leads in such fields as metallurgy and thermonuclear fusion, Soviet science lagged behind that of the West, hampered in part by the slow development of computer technology. *

In literature and the arts, a greater variety of creative works became accessible to the public than had previously been available. As in earlier decades, the state continued to determine what could be legally published or performed, punishing persistent offenders with exile or prison. Nonetheless, greater experimentation in art forms became permissible in the 1970s, with the result that more sophisticated and subtly critical work began to be produced. The regime loosened the strictures of socialist realism; thus, for instance, many protagonists of the novels of author Yuriy Trifonov concerned themselves with problems of daily life rather than with building socialism. In music, although the state continued to frown on such Western phenomena as jazz and rock, it began to permit Western musical ensembles specializing in these genres to make limited appearances. But the native balladeer Vladimir Vysotskiy, widely popular in the Soviet Union, was denied official recognition because of his iconoclastic lyrics. *

In the religious life of the Soviet Union, a resurgence in popular devotion to the major faiths became apparent in the late 1970s despite continued de facto disapproval on the part of the authorities. This revival may have been connected with the generally growing interest of Soviet citizens in their respective national traditions. *

Soviet Foreign Policy Under Brezhnev

Under Brezhnev, powerful SS-20 missiles with multiple nuclear warheads were deployed and the Soviet Union became embroiled in a war in Afghanistan. There were border clashes with China in 1969, troublemaking in the Middle East and the seizure of territory in Africa by use of proxies.

A major concern of Khrushchev's successors was to reestablish Soviet primacy in the community of communist states by undermining the influence of China. Although the new leaders originally approached China without hostility, Mao's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy as "revisionist" and his competition for influence in the Third World soon led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. The Sino-Soviet relationship reached a low point in 1969 when clashes broke out along the disputed Ussuri River boundary in the Far East. Later, the Chinese, intimidated by Soviet military strength, agreed not to patrol the border area claimed by the Soviet Union; but strained relations between the two countries continued into the early 1980s.[Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union began to modernize its conventional warfare and power projection capabilities. At the same time, it became more involved than ever before in regional conflicts and local wars. The Soviet Union sent arms and military advisers to a variety of Third World allies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Soviet generals planned military operations against rebels in Angola and Ethiopia. However, Soviet troops saw little combat in such assignments until the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. *

Soviet influence in the developing world expanded somewhat during the 1970s. New communist or left-leaning governments having close relations with the Soviet Union took power in several countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. In the Middle East, the Soviet Union vied for influence by backing the Arabs in their dispute with Israel. After the June 1967 War in the Middle East, the Soviet Union rebuilt the defeated Syrian and Egyptian armies, but it suffered a setback when Egypt expelled Soviet advisers from the country in 1972 and subsequently entered into a closer relationship with the United States. The Soviet Union retained ties with Syria and supported Palestinians' claims to an independent state. *

But Soviet prestige among moderate Muslim states suffered in the 1980s as a result of Soviet military activities in Afghanistan . Attempting to shore up a communist government in that country, Brezhnev sent in Soviet armed forces in December 1979, but a large part of the Afghan population resisted both the occupiers and the Marxist Afghan regime. The resulting war in Afghanistan continued to be an unresolved problem for the Soviet Union at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982. *

Soviet Foreign Policy in Eastern Europe Under Brezhnev

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union threatened to brutality crack down on the Solidarity trade union in Poland and Prague Spring occurred in Czechoslovakia, when Brezhnev reportedly burst into tears accusing "his dear friend" Dubcheck of betraying him. There were tensions over emplacement of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and the corresponding positioning of intermediate-range American Pershing missiles and cruise missiles in West Germany.

Under the collective leadership, the Soviet Union again used force in Eastern Europe, this time in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 reform-minded elements of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rapidly began to liberalize their rule, loosen censorship, and strengthen Western ties. In response, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia and installed a new regime. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Brezhnev responded to Prague Springin Czechoslovakia and the events in East Europe by launching the "Brezhnev Doctrine" which warned that the Soviet Union would act to maintain its hegemony in Eastern Europe. According to the doctrine, the Soviet Union had the right to defend its interests among countries that came within its sphere of influence (the “socialist commonwealth”) and that armed intervention was justifiable to put down defections.

Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union's declared right to intervene in the internal affairs of another socialist state if the leading role of that state's communist party was threatened. Formulated as justification for the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Mikhail S. Gorbachev implicitly abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1989.

Soviet suppression of the reform movement reduced blatant gestures of defiance on the part of Romania and served as a threatening example to the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. But it also helped disillusion communist parties in Western Europe to the extent that by 1977 most of the leading parties embraced Eurocommunism, a pragmatic approach to ideology that freed them to pursue political programs independent of Soviet dictates. *

Detente and Improved Relations with the West Under Brezhnev

Soviet relations with the West first improved, then deteriorated in the years after Khrushchev. The gradual winding down of United States involvement in the war in Vietnam after 1968 opened the way for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear arms. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--NPT) went into effect in 1970, and the two countries began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) the following year. At the Moscow summit meeting of May 1972, Brezhnev and President Richard M. Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both agreements essentially froze the two countries' existing stockpiles of strategic defensive and offensive weapons. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

The first Nixon-Brezhnev meeting was described one diplomat who was there as a catastrophe. Even so, a period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974. The crowning achievement of the era of détente was the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and bound the signatories to respect basic principles of human rights. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union was found to be in substantial violation of the accords' human rights provisions.

Deterioration of Detente

The 1980s was marked by a deterioration of detente process. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and imposition of martial law in Poland led to the boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow by the U.S. and other western countries in 1980 and the imposition of trade sanctions on the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded by boycotting of Summer Olympics in Los Angeles by the Soviet bloc in 1984.

Even during the period of détente, the Soviet Union increased weapons deployments, with the result that by the end of the 1970s it achieved nuclear parity with--or even superiority to--the United States. The Soviet Union also intensified its condemnation of the NATO alliance in an attempt to weaken Western unity. Although a second SALT agreement was signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Carter administration withdrew the agreement from consideration by the United States Senate, and détente effectively came to an end.

There were also tensions over emplacement of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and the corresponding positioning of intermediate-range American Pershing missiles and cruise missiles in West Germany. Detente also deteriorated in the late 1970s after Kissinger charged the Soviets with using the Cubans as surrogates to muscle into weak counties in Africa such as Angola, but in reality it seems that the Cubans acted on their own. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued up to Brezhnev's death.

Afghanistan War

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. There, the Soviet military fought a counterinsurgency campaign against Afghan rebels for nearly eight and one-half years. An estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed and 35,000 wounded in the conflict by the time Soviet forces began to withdraw. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Soviet Union fought in Afghanistan from late 1979 to early 1989 against the mujahidin a lose confederation of Afghan guerrillas and fierce tribes that often fought against one another but were able to unify against the Soviets as a common enemy. The conflict became the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam” and although they often feuded among themselves the seven main mujahidin factions proved to just as fierce and tenacious as the Viet Cong.

The Afghanistan War was largely covered up by Soviet propaganda. In the Soviet Union, it was known as the hidden war because no one took much notice. But as the conflict wore on Russians began to take notice as weary soldiers returned home and the impact of war-related sanctions and snubs like the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow took their toll. In Afghanistan, the war helped unite feuding factions in way that was not thought possible. Brought to together by Islam and a loathing for the Soviets and Communist atheism, they proclaimed jihad, holy war, against the Soviets. Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden first made names for themselves in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union began to withdraw from Afghanistan in May 1988. By early 1989, all of the roughly 110,000 Soviet troops who had been deployed had left Afghanistan. Officially 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed even though many people who were there estimate the true figure was at least twice that. More than 50,000 were wounded according to some estimates . More than a million Afghans died. Ninety percent of them were civilians.

Impact of the Afghanistan War

Red army soldiers that were lucky to survive Afghanistan were welcomed home without much fanfare as their American counterparts were after the Vietnam War. Many Russian veterans felt a trust had been violated and they had been betrayed. Not long after many arrived home, the Soviet Union fell apart and the pay checks and pensions that had been promised them didn't materialize.

Many soldiers suffered from postwar trauma, nightmares, alcohol and drug problems and proclivity towards violence. The war was also blamed for inspiring an anti-Russian, Islamic movement in Russia.

After incurring the heavy blow of failure in the Afghanistan campaign, the Soviet armed forces faced an even larger, albeit nonviolent setback as the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe began to crumble in 1989. It disappeared entirely by 1991, when the Warsaw Pact alliance dissolved. As a result, by 1994 all Soviet/Russian troops had been withdrawn from territory west of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as from the three Baltic states, which achieved independence in 1991. Together with the end of the Soviet Union as a state, the events of that period set the military on a bewildering search for a new identity and a new doctrine. *

Dissidents in the Brezhnev Era

The Soviet leadership under Brezhnev, was unwilling or unable to employ Stalinist means to control Soviet society; instead, it opted to use repressive tactics against political dissidents even after the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which bound signatory nations to higher standards of human rights observance. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Dissidents persecuted during this time included writers and activists in outlawed religious, nationalist, and human rights movements. In the latter part of the Brezhnev era, the regime tolerated popular expressions of anti-Semitism. Under conditions of "developed socialism" (the historical stage that the Soviet Union attained in 1977, according to the CPSU), the precepts of Marxism-Leninism were taught and reinforced as a means to bolster the authority of the regime rather than as a tool for revolutionary action.

Dissidents were often courageous intellectuals. There were very few of them and they generally lived in the cities. They spoke out against injustices and suffered from repression. They held small meetings, gathered secret petitions, met with foreign visitors, and copied and printed banned books in their kitchens.

The dissident movement grew under Brezhnev. Brezhnev responded by sending dissidents to labor camps and psychiatric institutions or forcing them into exile. When they weren't in jail they were harassed and watched by the KGB. The threat of arrest constantly hung over their head. The well known ones were given some security by world opinion. Refuseniks existed in “a kind of jobless state-sanctioned purgatory.”

The KGB head and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov once remarked that dissidents were the result of “political or ideological aberration, religious fanaticism, nationalist quirks, personal failure, and resentment..and in may cases individual psychological instability.”

Well-known dissident intellectuals included Moscow mayor Gavril Popov, Vladimir Bukosky and Yuri Orlov.Natan Sharansky was a dissident who was exiled by the K.G.B. He left the Soviet Union as part of spy-for-dissident swap and later returned to Russia as Israel's trade minister.

See Separate Article on Solzenhytsen Under Literature

Andrei Sakharov

Nuclear physicist Andrei Dmitroevich Sakharov (1921-1989) ,the father of the Russian hydrogen bomb, was Russia's most well known dissident after Solzhenitsyn, who once wrote, "A miracle occurred when Andrei Sakharov emerged in the Soviet state, among the swarms of corrupt, venal, unprincipled intelligencia." The space in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. was named Sakharov Plaza.

Sakharov is credited with spreading ideas of democracy and human right to the Communist world. He inspired Chinese dissidents like Fang Lizhi, who wrote in Time magazine: "His moral challenge to tyranny, his faith in the individual and the power of reason, his courage in the face of denunciation and, finally, house arrest—made him a hero to ordinary citizens everywhere. He embodied the role that intellectuals are called upon to play in the creation of civil society."

Boris Yeltsin wrote in Time that he should have been named "Person of the Century." "Moved by his conscience and his ethical convictions," Yeltsin wrote, "Sakharov dared to publicly challenge the all powerful machine if the totalitarian state. In the hardest years of the Soviet system, he was not afraid to raise his voice in defense of the oppressed and persecuted. He helped many of us take a new look at our country and the way we live...Sakharov was the real spiritual father of democratic change in Russia."

Sakharov: A Biography by Richard Lourie (Brandeis University/ University Press New England, 2002)

Sakharov's Life and the H-Bomb

Sakharov was born on May 21, 1921 in Moscow. The son of physicists, he taught himself to read at the age of four and was entertained with experiments ("miracles I could understand") by his father as a young child. He received a doctorate in physics at Moscow University and was regarded as one of Russia's greatest minds. At the age of 32, Sakharov became the youngest member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Sakharov was one of the leading figures in the development of the hydrogen bomb. Motivated by the belief that nuclear parity between the United States and the Soviet Union would bring peace, along with some prodding from the KGB, Sakharov began work on the H-bomb project in 1948 and labored on nuclear projects for 20 years at the closed city of Arzamas-16. Sakharov is regarded as creator of "pulsed power," a method of creating enough energy with conventional high-explosives to start a sustained nuclear-fusion reaction.

Sakharov's Anti-Nuclear and Human Rights Activities

Influenced by the pacifist writings of Albert Schweitzer and Linus Pauling, Sakharov suddenly was awaken to the potential for mass destruction he had contributed to. He wrote about the dangers of nuclear testing in 1957 and spoke about his reservations on Soviet nuclear policy. In the 1960s, Sakharov began speaking out against nuclear arms production.

In September 1962, he phoned Khrushchev on the eve of two planned open-air nuclear test and told the Soviet leader that the test were pointless and there was a danger that people could die from nuclear fall-out. The tests went off as planned. Sakharov wept. "After that," he said, "I felt myself another man. I broke with my surroundings. I understood there was no point arguing." Despite these feelings, Sakharov's efforts, some say, played a part in the Soviet Union’s signing of nuclear test ban treaty. Khrushchev later called him "a crystal of morality.” Even so, in 1968 he lost his job and was barred from miliary research.

In the 1970s, Sakharov moved from anti-nuclear activities to human rights issues after realizing the truths that motivated him as a scientist were incompatible with the authoritarian policies of the Soviet Union. "That was probably the most terrible lesson of my life,” he wrote. "You can't sit on two chairs at once." Sakharov criticized Soviet foreign policy, detailed human rights abuses and went on several hunger strikes. The KGB had over 500 separate files on him. He wrote Manifesto on Progress, Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom, spoke up for human rights and more freedoms and called for the end to an article in the Soviet constitution that proclaimed the Communist Party as "leading and guiding force of Soviet society."

Sakharov became a Gandhi-like figure in the Soviet Union. In 1970, he founded the Committee for Human Rights and helped form of the human rights section of the 1975 Helsinki Accord. Some of his activities were so uncompromising, he even became estranged from his own children

Sakharov's Nobel Prize and Internal Exile

In 1975, Sakharov became the first Russian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been nominated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and was not allowed by the Communist government to leave Russian to receive it. His wife, Helen Bonner who was already out o the country, received it for him. In her speech, she said, "We should not minimize our sacred endeavors in the world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged." Sakharov didn't leave to accept the Nobel Prize because he was afraid he would never would be let back into the Soviet Union and would loose his ability to pressure the Soviet government from within.

In 1980, Sakharov was banished to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod) for denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. H was joined by his wife Yelena Bonner in 1984. He once went on a hunger strike to protest human rights and was kept alive by force-feeding him through a pipe. Sakharov was stripped of many of his awards and medals but retained his membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

In 1986, Sakharov's exile was ended by Gorbachev who was welcomed to Moscow a hero. After being elected to the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the Soviet Union 's first democratically-elected body and pushing Gorbachev to establish democratic reforms, Sakharov died on December 14, 1989 in Moscow only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thousands came out for his funeral procession

Brezhnev's Last Years

Shortly after his cult of personality began to take root in the mid-1970s, Brezhnev began to experience periods of ill health. After Brezhnev suffered a stroke in 1975, Politburo members Mikhail Suslov and Andrey Kirilenko assumed some of the leader's functions for a time. Then, after another bout of poor health in 1978.

Brezhnev was rarely seen in public after his health declined in 1979. He died on November 10, 1982. A year before Brezhnev died a four week absence was explained as a “routine winter vacation.” At the time of Brezhnev's death the average age of Politburo members was 69. Te men that followed him were old and died off in quick succession.

Brezhnev delegated more of his responsibilities to Konstantin U. Chernenko, a longtime associate who soon began to be regarded as the heir apparent. His prospects of succeeding Brezhnev, however, were hurt by political problems plaguing the general secretary in the early 1980s. Not only were economic failures damaging Brezhnev's prestige, but scandals involving his family and political allies also were undermining his stature. Meanwhile, Yuriy V. Andropov, chief of the KGB, apparently also began a campaign to discredit Brezhnev. Andropov took over Suslov's functions after Suslov died in 1982, and he used his position to promote himself as the next CPSU general secretary. Although he suffered another stroke in March 1982, Brezhnev refused to relinquish his office. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

The Soviet Union paid a high price for the stability of the Brezhnev years. By avoiding necessary political and economic change, the Brezhnev leadership ensured the economic and political decline that the country experienced during the 1980s. This deterioration of power and prestige stood in sharp contrast to the dynamism that had marked the Soviet Union's revolutionary beginnings.

Brezhnev’s grandson Andreil Brezhnev ran for parliament in 1999 and won only 2 percent of the vote. He tried to run for governor of the Urals region of Sverdlovsk but was thrown off the ballot. He made it onto the ballot a bid to become governor of Tula, a region south of Moscow but took only 1 percent of the vote. Fo a while he ran a British-style pub near the Moscow Zoo.

Soviet Union After Brezhnev

By 1982 the decrepitude of the Soviet regime was obvious to the outside world, but the system was not yet ready for drastic change. The transition period that separated the Brezhnev and Gorbachev regimes resembled the former much more than the latter, although hints of reform emerged as early as 1983. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Two days passed between Brezhnev's death and the announcement of the election of Andropov as the new general secretary, suggesting to many outsiders that a power struggle had occurred in the Kremlin. Once in power, however, Andropov wasted no time in promoting his supporters. In June 1983, he assumed the post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, thus becoming the ceremonial head of state. Brezhnev had needed thirteen years to acquire this post. *

During his short rule, Andropov replaced more than one-fifth of the Soviet ministers and regional party first secretaries and more than one-third of the department heads within the Central Committee apparatus. But Andropov's ability to reshape the top leadership was constrained by his poor health and the influence of his rival Chernenko, who had previously supervised personnel matters in the Central Committee. *

Andropov's most significant legacy to the Soviet Union was his discovery and promotion of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Beginning in 1978, Gorbachev advanced in two years through the Kremlin hierarchy to full membership in the Politburo. His responsibilities for the appointment of personnel allowed him to make the contacts and distribute the favors necessary for a future bid to become general secretary. At this point, Western experts believed that Andropov was grooming Gorbachev as his successor. However, although Gorbachev acted as a deputy to the general secretary throughout Andropov's illness, Gorbachev's time had not yet arrived when his patron died early in 1984. *

Andropov

Yuri V. Andropov, the former KGB chief and member of the Politburo since 1973, was chosen by the Central Committee as Brezhnev's successor. He was leader of the Soviet Union for only 15 months until his death on February 9th, 1984 and spent the end of his rule making decisions from a hospital bed."

Regarded as "the last of the true believers," Andropov was well educated, lived ascetically and believed strongly in security and discipline. He argued for less violent forms of "political persuasion" such as expulsion from the country rather than executions and labor camps. As head of the KGB, Andropov encouraged repression at home and abroad, and led a cruel campaign against dissidents, nonconformists and others.

As the leader of the Soviet Union, he replaced some aging officials with young technocrats and launched campaigns against alcoholism and corruption. He clamped down on dissidents and defense spending. The economy continued to decline. A month before Andropov died. a four absence from public view was attributed to a “cold.”

Important articles include Amy Knight's "Andropov: Myths and Realities" and Jerry Hough's "Andropov's First Year."

Soviet Union Under Andropov

Andropov's domestic policy leaned heavily toward restoring discipline and order to Soviet society. He eschewed radical political and economic reforms, promoting instead a small degree of candor in politics and mild economic experiments similar to those that had been associated with Kosygin in the mid-1960s. In tandem with such economic experiments, Andropov launched an anticorruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. Andropov also tried to boost labor discipline. Throughout the country, police stopped and questioned people in parks, public baths, and shops during working hours in an effort to reduce the rate of job absenteeism. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev's policy of projecting Soviet power around the world. United States-Soviet relations, already poor since the late 1970s, began deteriorating more rapidly in March 1983, when President Ronald W. Reagan described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire . . . the focus of evil in the modern world," and Soviet spokesmen responded by attacking Reagan's "bellicose, lunatic anticommunism." *

The downing of Korean Air 007, which killed 269 people, took place on September 1, 1983 when Yuriy V. Andropov was leader of the Soviet Union. The Korean Air Boeing 747 was shot down by a Russian fighter near Sakhalin Island. The downing of the airplane resulted in the deaths of many United States citizens and further chilled United States-Soviet relations. United States-Soviet arms control talks on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe were suspended by the Soviet Union in November 1983 in response to the beginning of United States deployments of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. The next month, Soviet officials also walked out of negotiations on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons. *

Whether Andropov could have found a way out of the depths to which United States-Soviet relations had fallen, or whether he could have managed to lead the country out of its stagnation, will never be known. The general secretary's health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he died in February 1984 after disappearing from public view for several months. *

Chernenko

Konstantin Chernenko was Andropov's successor. He too was chosen by the Central Committee. He served about a year from Andoropov's death in February 1984 until his death on March 10, 1985. Not much happened under his watch other than the economy continued to decline and the sense of malaise increased.

Chernenko was gravely ill during much of his rule. He shuffled in to public appearances often holding on to the arm of an aide and practically had to be wheeled into Politburo meetings. He suffered from emphysema. had trouble concentrating for more than an half an hour and frequently made incomprehensible statements. A month before Chernenko died a five week absence was explained as a “winter vacation.”

Soviet Union Under Chernenko

At seventy-two, Konstantin Chernenko was in poor health and unable to play an active role in policy making when he was chosen, after lengthy discussion, to succeed Andropov. But Chernenko's short time in office did bring some significant policy changes. The personnel changes and investigations into corruption undertaken by the Andropov regime came to an end. Chernenko advocated more investment in consumer goods and services and in agriculture. He also called for a reduction in the CPSU's micromanagement of the economy and greater attention to public opinion. However, KGB repression of Soviet dissidents also increased. Stalin was rehabilitated as a diplomat and a military leader, and there was discussion of returning the name Stalingrad to the city whose name had been changed back to Volgograd during the anti-Stalinist wave of the 1950s. The one major personnel change that Chernenko made was the firing of the chief of the General Staff, Nikolay Ogarkov, who had advocated less spending on consumer goods in favor of greater expenditures on weapons research and development. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Although Chernenko had called for renewed détente with the West, little progress was made toward closing the rift in East-West relations during his rule. The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, retaliating for the United States boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the late summer of 1984, the Soviet Union also prevented a visit to West Germany by East German leader Erich Honecker. Fighting in Afghanistan also intensified, but in the late autumn of 1984 the United States and the Soviet Union did agree to resume arms control talks in early 1985. *

The poor state of Chernenko's health made the question of succession an acute one. Chernenko gave Gorbachev high party positions that provided significant influence in the Politburo, and Gorbachev was able to gain the vital support of Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko in the struggle for succession. When Chernenko died in March 1985, Gorbachev was well positioned to assume power. *

Important article: Marc Zlotnik's "Chernenko Succeeds".

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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