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1964-1982 - Leonid I. 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 Aleksei N. Kosygin, Nikolai V. Podgornyi, 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 originally been viewed as an interim appointment by his fellows.

Born to a Russian worker's family in 1906, Brezhnev became a protege of Khrushchev early in his career and through his influence rose to membership in the Presidium. Brezhnev, a wartime political officer in the armed forces in the Ukraine, also figured prominently in public functions. It was believed that one of his responsibilities was for party work in the armed forces and paramilitary organizations.

Brezhnev wanted Marshal G.K.Zhukov to mention him in his biography. But the trouble was that during all the war years they had not met once on any of the fronts. So the editors wrote that while present in the 18th Army of Gen N.K. Leselidze, Marshal Zhukov had supposedly gone to "consult" with the chief of the army political section, L.I.Brezhnev, but, unfortunately, Brezhnev had not been there - "He was precisely at Malaya Zemlya, where the heaviest fighting was underway."

Like many Russians, Brezhnev was a mixture of crudeness and warmth. Yet, self-conscious about his background and his past, he eschewed Khrushchevian excursions into profanity. He had the Slavic love of physical contact -- back slapping, bear hugs, and kisses. His anecdotes and imagery to which he resorts frequently, avoid the language of the barnyard. His humor is heavy, sometimes cynical, frequently earthy.

As with other Russians, the War remained an earth shaking experience for him. He took to having his role inflated in publicity. He was proud of his service, of having been a general, of being a veteran. He knew something of the human disaster of war -- one should credit him with genuine abhorrence of it, though, of course, he used fear of war in others to obtain political ends.

He had some of the characteristics of the nouveau-riche. Yet he was proud, as Khrushchev was, of his proletarian background and of his successful march up the ladder of power.

Brezhnev, like Khrushchev before him, was bound to show a healthy respect for the political threat which his senior secretariat colleagues, particularly his "second in-command" could pose. At the time of Khrushchev's ouster, the Secretariat included three full-members of the Politburo in addition to Brezhnev: Podgornyy ("second in command" by virtue of his responsibility for party organization), Suslov, and Kirilenko.

Podgornyy must have figured in Brezhnev's thinking as the one to watch. A favored member of Krushchev's leadership, Podgornyy had an opportunity to build a strong power base within the party, and his past political views were somewhat at odds with Brezhnev's. Thus, the potential for rivalry between the two leaders was already high. Suslov, despite continuous membership on the Secretariat since 1947 and consequent prestige and influence among party functionaries, had specialized in foreign Communist policy -- his views being quite close to Brezhnev's, judging by the public record -- and seemed to lack the ambition to bid for the top party post. Kirilenko, the industrial watchdog with whom Brezhnev had worked closely throughout most of their careers, appeared to present the least immediate cause for concern, since much of his political base was also Brezhnev's. The balance within the Secretariat was, therefore, inherently unstable, and maneuvering for political power in that body would occur in its most concentrated form.

As his own power grew, Brezhnev built up a coterie of followers whom he, as first secretary (the title reverted to general secretary after April 1966), gradually maneuvered into powerful positions. At the same time, Brezhnev slowly demoted or isolated possible contenders for his office. He succeeded in elevating Podgornyi to the ceremonial position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative organization in the government, in December 1965, thus eliminating him as a rival.

But Brezhnev's rise was very gradual; only in 1971, when Brezhnev 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 cadres" in the party and state apparatus. In this context, cadre were party members who held responsible positions (usually administrative) in either the party or the government apparatus. In a more restricted sense, a person who has been fully indoctrinated in party ideology and methods and uses this training in his or her work. 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. As an example of the new stability, 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.

Conservative policies characterized the regime's agenda in the years after Khrushchev. Upon assuming power, the collective leadership not only reversed such policies of Khrushchev's as the bifurcation of the party but also halted de-Stalinization, and positive 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 tolerated during the early Khrushchev years, Brezhnev and his colleagues continued the more restrictive line of the later Khrushchev era. The leadership was unwilling or unable to employ Stalinist means to control Soviet society; instead, it opted to exert repressive tactics against political dissidents even after the Soviet Union acceded to the Helsinki Accords (see Glossary) in 1975. 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 study of Marxism-Leninism served as a means to bolster the authority of the regime rather than as a tool for revolutionary action.

Progress in developing the education system was mixed during the Brezhnev years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of working-age people with secondary and higher education steadily increased. Yet at the same time, access to higher education grew more difficult. By 1980 the percentage of secondary school graduates admitted to universities had dropped to only two-thirds of the 1960 figure. Students accepted into the universities increasingly came from professional families rather than from 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 was also, in many cases, a result of their power to influence the admissions procedures.

Progress in science also enjoyed varied success under Brezhnev. In the most visible test of its ability--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. True, 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 Iurii 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 Vysotskii, 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.

Brezhnev pointedly emphasized the capacity of the Party chief to act on the most important matters on behalf of the nation. Brezhnev was accorded the full measure of head-of-state honors during visits to the capitals of major Western states, including the US.

The increase in Brezhnev' a personal authority and prestige in the 1970s was assisted by and reflected in his control of Soviet foreign policy. The promotion to full Politburo membership in April 1973 of Foreign Minister Gromyko, KGB chief Andropov, and Grechko placed the heads of important ministries - already key actors in foreign policy-making and participants in Defense Council deliberations - more closely and clearly under Brezhnev' a direct influence as chairman of the Politburo and further undercut Kosygin's authority in foreign affairs and within his own cabinet.

He formed a private secretariat to help him conduct summit negotiations and frame policy guidelines, and he took the lead in expanding relations with major Western countries. His chairmanship of the Defense Council contributed considerably to his ability to dominate national security issues, especially SALT, and strengthened Brezhnev's direct influence in this key area. Brezhnev's ability to protect his position within the Politburo was even more convincingly demonstrated over the same period by the removal of four members who either had given him political trouble or had not been closely allied with him. In addition, Brezhnev became predominant in economic policy.

Even more convincing evidence of Brezhnev's ability to affect high-level appointments and improve his position on the Politburo lay in the departures engineered in 1973-1975. Until that time the only full members ousted since 1964 had been old-timers Hikoyan and Shvernik, both in their seven-ties when they left. But in the three years 1973-1975, three Politburo members who had, in one way or another, given Brezhnev trouble, were eased out: Voronov, the main exponent of an alternative approach to agriculture; Shelest, the most outspoken critic. of detente and an incautious promoter of local Ukrainian interests; and Shelepin, who may have raised the issue of succession in the winter of 1974-1975.

The very basis of Brezhnev's strength contained implicit limits on his power. By sticking to his cautious style of consensus-building and keeping a finger on the Politburo pulse, Brezhnev prevented the formation of organized opposition to his preeminent position. But any effort to expand his personal rule to a significant degree or in any unprecedented manner would likely disturb the personal confidence and satisfaction his colleagues have in his leadership.

Within the Party Brezhnev continued to enjoy the respect and support of Central Committee-level officials and a degree of personal popularity in mid-level and regional circles. But his control over Party cadres was not absolute. There was no pattern of his successfully "packing" the Politburo or Secretariat to make them pliant instruments of his will, and the influence of other leaders was still felt along with his own. In Brezhnev's absence other Politburo-level secretaries sometimes acted as Politburo chairman (usually Kirilenko, but also Suslov and Kulakov). Kosy'gin, Podgorny, and Ustinov were members of the Defense Council, and Suslov remained a powerful force in the Secretariat. While a Brezhnev supporter, Kirilenko was positioned as Brezhnev's chief deputy and heir apparent, individuals less obviously allied with Brezhnev have also attained full Politburo membership since 1964, notably Mazurov and Grishin. The length of time sometimes required to settle appointments to certain key posts suggests intra-Politburo tugging and pulling, with no faction able to gain majority support for its choice.

While Brezhnev would keep the center stage in negotiations, and generally demonstrate that he was the master of his brief, he relied heavily for expert support on his growing staff of personal foreign policy advisors, particularly the senior of these, Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov treats the boss with politeness but did not hesitate to break in if he feels his chief is getting confused or had made a serious rnistake. There was in fact an air of informality in Brezhnev's office, and his aides were not reluctant to approach him.

Brezhnev prided himself on being a sportsman. He mentioned ice-skating, skiing, cycling, and parachute jumping as former pursuits. He vowed he will never give up hunting, and he remains an avid soccer fan, attending matches at Moscow stadiums.

Another passion was automobiles; he enjoys getting behind the wheel of one of his collection of foreign luxury cars whenever he had the chance for a fast spin. He likes to be with the "boys" and in the past made it a practice to gather up his Ukrainian colleagues for hunting parties, weekend retreats and vacations. Brezhnev enjoyed a drink but exercised restraint in public. He smoked strong cigarettes at a rate distressing to his doctors. The Soviet party chief cultivated an image of vigorous well being in public, but privately he showed tender concern for his health.

Shortly after his cult of personality began to take root in the mid-1970s, Brezhnev began to experience periods of ill health. Brczhnev's health. in fact, appeared none too good. He had a number of cardio-vascu1ar problems. He suffered from high blood pressure and was reported to have had two heart attacks and possibly a stroke. While he was still vigorous, he tired easily. In addition, he had long been plagued by hoarseness, which caused him difficulties during long speeches, and he had serious dental problems.

Brezhnev was a nervous man, partly because of his personal insecurity, partly for physiological reasons traced to his consumption of alcohol and tobacco, his history of heart disease and the pressures of his job. His hands were perpetually in motion, twirling his gold watch chain, flicking ashes from his ever-present cigarette, or clanging his cigarette holder against an ash tray.

After Brezhnev's first stroke in 1975, Politburo members Mikhail A. Suslov and Andrei P. Kirilenko assumed some of Brezhnev's functions for a time. Then, after another bout of poor health in 1978, Brezhnev delegated more of his responsibilities to Konstantin U. Chernenko, a long-time associate who soon began to be regarded as the heir apparent. His prospects of succeeding Brezhnev, however, were hurt by problems plaguing the general secretary in the early 1980s. Not only had economic failures hurt Brezhnev's prestige, but scandals involving his family and political allies also damaged his stature. Meanwhile, Yuri V. Andropov, chief of the secret police, the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti--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 advance himself as the next CPSU general secretary.

Brezhnev himself, despite ill health following another stroke in March, would not relinquish his office. Soon after reviewing the traditional Bolshevik Revolution parade in November 1982, Brezhnev died.

Ultimately, the Soviet Union paid a high price for the stability that prevailed during the years of the Brezhnev regime. 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 marked the Soviet Union's revolutionary beginnings.




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