(1906–1982) Soviet politician
On October 15, 1964, Leonid Brezhnev became first secretary (later renamed general secretary) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), a position he held until his death on November 10, 1982. For the last five years of his life, as well as from 1960 to 1964, he was also president of the Soviet Union. As a result, during the 18 years that Brezhnev was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union the country went through a period of economic stagnation and, although at his death it remained a superpower, its military power was being sapped by its long occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was also unable to exert as much influence in Eastern Europe as it had 20 years earlier.
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born in 1906 in the village of Kamenskoye in the Ukraine. It was an iron and steel center and both his grandfather and his father had worked in the iron and steel plant. After completing his education at a local school, Brezhnev also went to work in the local factories. When he was 17 he joined the Young Communist League, became interested in farm collectivization, and went to study in Kursk. He then left the Ukraine to work as a land-use specialist in Byelorussia and the Urals.
When he was 25, Brezhnev returned to his hometown and studied metallurgy, graduating from the local institute in 1935. Four years later he was elected secretary of the Communist Party Committee for the Dnepropetrovsk region, at that time one of the largest industrial centers in the Soviet Union. In 1941 at the outbreak of World War II in the USSR, Brezhnev joined the army as a political officer, holding the rank of brigade commissar. In 1944 he was promoted to major general and marched with the 4th Ukrainian Army Group in the June 1945 Red Square Victory Parade.
At the conclusion of the war he was put in charge of the Carpathian military district. He then became leader of the Communist Party in Moldavia, the smallest of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union, and then became a member of the party’s central committee and a candidate member of the presidium, losing all these positions in the shakeup that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1954.
Brezhnev spent the next two years in Kazakhstan, where he became involved in developing new lands for agriculture. According to official Soviet government publications, Brezhnev greatly enjoyed his time there. It was during his time in Kazakhstan that Brezhnev became an ally of Nikita Khruschev and in 1957 succeeded Kliment Voroshilov as chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, and thus the chief of state—or president of the Soviet Union—from May 7, 1960, until he resigned on July 15, 1964, to take a more active part in Communist Party affairs.
On October 14, 1964, Brezhnev took part in the ousting of Khrushchev as first secretary of the CPSU and took his place, with a strong ally in Alexei Kosygin, the chairman of the council of ministers during most of Brezhnev’s time in power. Brezhnev and Kosygin pledged themselves to reinvigorating the economy of the Soviet Union and ensuring that it remained one of the superpowers. In contrast to Khrushchev, who made personal decisions on most issues, Brezhnev operated a more collective form of leadership and gradually tended to concentrate on larger foreign and defense matters.
Nikolai V. Podgorny’s retirement as chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet (in essence head of state) meant that Brezhnev was able to assume that position as well, making it the first time the general secretary of the Communist Party was also head of state; Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev were later to combine both roles. On an organizational level, Brezhnev was keen to reduce membership of the CPSU, which had expanded under Khrushchev. He always felt that the larger the party the more unwieldy it could become.
Like many people at the time, Brezhnev was fascinated by the achievements of Yuri Gagarin, and he poured much government energy and resources into space research. However, he was quickly diverted by political machinations. With the Prague Spring of 1968 threatening Soviet control of the country, Brezhnev reacted quickly. When he could not persuade Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders to change their positions, he ordered Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia. This was later justified by the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” with the Soviet Union stating publicly that it could intervene in countries within its sphere of influence. But Brezhnev was careful to be seen as acting multilaterally and soldiers from other Warsaw Pact countries were also involved. It was a move decried in the West but Brezhnev saw the political storm in western Europe as a price he had to pay for what he genuinely did regard as a threat to Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (right) meets with U.S. president
Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s.
Soon afterward, Brezhnev entered with U.S. president Richard Nixon into a period of détente. Nixon visited the Soviet Union in 1972 and the two signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) on May 26, 1972, at a summit meeting in Moscow. In 1973, Brezhnev traveled to the United States.
In November 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected U.S. president and there was a greater focus on human rights. There was much Western press coverage of dissidents such as Anatoly Sharansky and Andrey Sakharov, as well as the use of Soviet mental asylums for holding critics of the government. However, the presence of more Western tourists in the Soviet Union also tended to lessen tensions and to open up the country considerably. They naturally visited Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and began to travel to Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia, admittedly on tours organized by the Soviet travel bureau Intourist.
After his health declined in late 1979, Brezhnev was seen in public less often, although he did visit Yugoslavia for the death of Marshal Tito in May 1980. Pictures of a seemingly robust Brezhnev meeting with Jimmy Carter reassured many of the Soviet leader’s health. By this time the Soviet Union was embroiled in a major conflict in Afghanistan. The Soviet government clearly did not expect the major storm of protests from the West, although the West’s reactions to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 should have prepared it for this. Brezhnev saw it as the Soviet Union aiding a neighboring government that was about to succumb to Muslim fundamentalists. Brezhnev’s actions in Afghanistan became one of the most criticized aspects of Soviet foreign policy.
The next big test for Brezhnev was over the founding of the independent trade union, Solidarity, which was established in Poland in September 1980. When by the following year Solidarity boasted a membership of 10 million, Brezhnev was keen on the Polish authorities’ acting quickly. On December 13, 1981, the Polish government imposed martial law and declared the Solidarity trade union illegal. Its leader, Lech Wałe˛sa, was arrested and his release only days after Brezhnev’s death clearly indicated Brezhnev’s role in the crackdown.
When Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982, in Moscow, he was buried in Red Square. Apparently the team that had embalmed Lenin and had looked after Lenin’s body for decades expected to be asked to embalm Brezhnev, but this was not the case. For many years Brezhnev had been a familiar figure on the international stage. He had also received more public honors than most Soviet leaders, including the Lenin Peace Prize in 1973, the title of marshal of the Soviet Union in 1976, the Order of Victory (the highest military honor) in 1978, and the Lenin Prize for Literature (for his memoirs) in 1979. In hindsight, however, the Brezhnev era was regarded as one of economic stagnation. Although published economic figures showed that the economy was improving, and that economic growth had accelerated, the truth was that the Soviet infrastructure was wearing out, and its military was unable to keep up with new technology being designed in the United States. The Brezhnev years represented a decline in initiative, and the economy was largely maintained through the country’s massive natural resources.
Brezhnev’s successor as general secretary of the CPSU was Yuri Andropov, who, although he had been head of the feared KGB, was determined to overcome the malaise that had taken place during the 1970s. He had been the man who had actually carried out Brezhnev’s policies of putting dissidents in mental asylums and forced internal exile. In a surprise move, Andropov immediately launched a crackdown on official corruption. Andropov also tried to repair relations with China, but died after only 15 months as general secretary. He was replaced by one of Brezhnev’s staunchest supporters, Konstantin Chernenko. On Chernenko’s death after 13 months as general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the CPSU.