President of the Soviet Union from 1960 - 1964, Brezhnev apparently needed constant stroking of his ego as illustrated in the following joke:

Brezhnev woke up in the morning and looked out of his window. The sun smiled down at him and boomed, "Good morning comrade! I hope you slept well. I will try to make it a nice day for you!"

Later that day, Brezhnev stepped out for a walk and looked up at the sun. The sun smiled again and said "Hello Comrade! I hope your day has been going well so far."

Finally, that evening, as Brezhnev was heading home, he looked over to the setting sun. This time, the sun scowled and said, "I hope your day was miserable, you ugly, fat man!"

"What?! Why are you saying this to me after being so nice all day?", cried Brezhnev in alarm.

The sun replied "Aha! Don't you see? Now I am in the West!!"

Brezhnev was the successor to Nikita Khrushchev and presided over the boom and bust periods of the Soviet Union. He was selected as a compromise between the Stalinizers and Stalinists.

At the beginning of his reign, the Russian economy experienced a great boom in the production of consumer goods. However, toward the end of his reign, the Soviet economy went from dynamic growth to steep decline in the 1970s and into crisis in the 1980s. Brezhnev did nothing to alleviate the slide of the Eastern European economies.

His reign was marked with periods of Stalinist-style repression. His sometimes ruthless measures can be marked as “neo-Stalinist.”

His death in 1982 led the Politburo to replace him with two men in quick succession.

"My heart stopped beating for a moment as I looked up
and saw the red flag unfurled against the grey autumnal sky."

-- Leonid Brezhnev recalls the October Revolution

Leonid Brezhnev was first and foremost a worker in his bones, a man of the proletariat born and bred.

His father and grandfather were peasants who migrated in 1900 to the steel mill in the town of Yekaterinoslav on the Dnieper River. Before the October Revolution, they worked twelve-hour days with only one brief break for meals. Naturally, the town had been built to the specifications of capital: The houses of the workers lay downwind from the mill, where they marinated night and day in smoke and soot; the elegant homes of engineers and management lay upwind, where their fine linen would not be stained by the toil of the working class who paid for it.

Needless to say, Leonid Brezhnev grew up with an instinctive revolutionary consciousness and a strict revolutionary conscience, and in later life never forgot his origins among the people.

It is characteristic of the Soviet system that the son and grandson of peasants and steel workers could rise as high as his ability could take him, while in America, generation after generation, we still see the sons of rich and privileged men holding the reins of power for the exclusive benefit of their cronies.

This is primarily intended for those who, like myself, are studying Russian History at A level in Britain. The information should be equally valid for any student or enthusiast.

For those who study history, Leonid Brezhnev provides one of the most challenging subjects for historical analysis. This is for a number of reasons.

  • There is a shockingly small amount written about in proportion to his role in world events. Compared with his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, a man whose leadership was less than half the length of Brezhnev’s, there is very little to be found. Of course, when contrasted to the giants of Russian history for which a wealth of literature exists, Peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, he is a mere footnote.
  • People are not entirely sure what it that he achieved. The main understanding of his accomplishments comes primarily from his interactions with the west, such as the SALT II limitation treaty, negotiated with then US President Jimmy Carter.
  • He is most commonly remembered for his stagnations and conservatism- and these are not the makings of gripping historical document. The Discovery Channel do not constantly re-run features on him (if indeed they have any) and his biographies are not met with the public fanfare of, for example, those of American Presidents.

There is detailed information to be found, particularly in Alex Nove’s excellent book, “Stalinism And After”. However, the chapter to be found there goes far beyond what is required for A level examinations. Now we have established that Brezhnev is not exactly an accessible figure for study, we can establish what it is we need to know about. And the answer, rather surprisingly, is that the A Level student does not need to know a great deal. There has never been a question, at least on the AQA syllabus, based directly on him, and he is primarily used with reference to the economic legacies of both Stalin and Khrushchev. This is what a student, in my experience, needs to know about him.

  • He was born in 1906 in the Ukraine.
  • To all intents and purposes, he ruled the Soviet Union for 18 years, becoming First Secretary in 1964, and then General Secretary in 1966. He led until his death in 1982.
  • His faltering health in the late 1970s and early 1980s seriously reduced his ability to lead.
  • He supported the policy of propping up faltering Soviet satellite states, known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. This was used to justify actions such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
  • He built up one of the most powerful national arms and aerospace programmes in history, although he did very little with it. This put a colossal drain on the economy, which was already in a state of decline.
  • Due to economic problems, living standards actually declined over the course of his leadership.
  • He reached an agreement with Jimmy Carter on bilateral arms limitation, but the US Senate declined to ratify the SALT II treaty.
  • He reversed Khrushchev’s policy of decentralisation. This lead to increasing levels of corruption and waste, which would smother any chance of a Soviet economic revival. It would also be part of the justification for the Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Glasnost and Perestroika” policy.

When evaluating the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, it is hard to be favourable. The kind things we can say about him, SALT II and his strengthening of the Soviet military, were either failures or wasted efforts. Where Russian history is remarkable for its spectacular blunders, the blandness and mediocrity of his mistakes are perhaps the only unique thing about him.

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