The legacy of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev will be remembered as twofold: During his tenure in power, the longest of any Soviet other than Joseph Stalin, Brezhnev helped to elevate the Soviet Union to unparalleled levels of prestige, power, and peace among the populace, through his superior negotiating skills on the world diplomatic stage.
However, he was much maligned for his personal lifestyle of greed and vanity, flaunting a penchant for foreign cars and clothing. He ruled over an “era of stagnation” and decline of the Soviet economy of the 1970s. In addition, Brezhnev and a small inner group of Politburo advisers called for the fateful invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a struggling, relatively new, and unpopular Communist government.
Brezhnev was born in Ukraine in December 1906 to a steelworking family. Like many of the youth of the era following the Russian Revolution, he was given a technical education, first in land management and then in metallurgy. He entered the iron and steel industries as an engineer in eastern Ukraine and joined the Komsomol, a youth branch of the Communist Party. He joined the main party in 1931.
When Brezhnev was drafted into the army, he was sent to a tank school and later took a position as a political commissar of a tank company. After brief stints at a metallurgical technical college and a regional center in Dnepropetrovsk, he became the party secretary in charge of the vital defense industries.
As a staunch Stalinist, Brezhnev survived the Great Purge of 1937-39 and rose rapidly through the party ranks. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, he became involved with the evacuation of the city’s industries to eastern Russia.
When the Red Army regrouped and began a counterassault, Brezhnev served under the senior political commissar, Nikita Khrushchev. Following the end of World War II, Brezhnev worked on reconstruction projects in Ukraine until he was called into service as a deputy in the Supreme Soviet in 1950.
In 1952, he was inducted into the Central Committee of the Communist Party and eventually into the Presidium, predecessor of the Politburo.
A short time after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Khrushchev rose to power and appointed Brezhnev to senior-level positions, including head of the Political Directorate of the Army and Navy, and Party First Secretary of Kazakhstan.
By 1956, Brezhnev was recalled to Moscow and was entrusted with control of the defense industry, heavy industry, capital construction, and the space program.
When Khrushchev did battle with the “old guard” of pro-Stalinist sympathizers — Georgy Malenkov and Vyacheslav Molotov, to name just two — Brezhnev backed Khrushchev. Following the ouster of the “Anti-Party Group,” Brezhnev was promoted to be a full member of the Presidium.
Brezhnev the diplomat
As Khrushchev’s right-hand man, Brezhnev ascended to the post of President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in May 1960, making him the Head of State. This allowed him to travel abroad as a diplomat. At this time, Brezhnev acquired his taste for expensive western clothes and cars.
Though still outwardly loyal to Khrushchev, it was agreed among senior advisors that their aging leader was losing his effectiveness and needed to retire. Brezhnev became the Secretary of the Central Committee and then, in October 1964 while Khrushchev was away on vacation, he usurped the top position of Party First Secretary.
Joining the new regime were Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin and Head of State Anastas Mikoyan, the man who hatched the original plot to depose Khrushchev. Mikoyan’s stay was short-lived; he retired in 1965 and was replaced by Nikolai Podgorny.
Brezhnev the party leader
Unexpectedly, Brezhnev began to reverse some of Khrushchev’s policies and re-embraced those of the repressionist Stalin. As Brezhnev took the title of General Secretary, he spoke positively of Stalin. Dissident writers Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were jailed for six years of hard labor for “anti-Soviet activities.” The KGB, the Soviet version of a political police force, enjoyed a resumption of power under the direction of Yuri Andropov.
The first international “situation” for Brezhnev occurred in 1968 when Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek tried to liberalize the Communist system in his country. Brezhnev publicly derided Dubcek as “revisionist” and “anti-Soviet,” and invoked provisions of the Warsaw Pact to invade the Soviet satellite. Brezhnev claimed that Russia had a right to “safeguard socialism.” That maneuver became known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” even though Khrushchev had used the tactic 12 years earlier in Hungary.
Cold War tensions continued through meetings with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1965, while Sino-Soviet relations remained icy. In 1969, the two sides exchanged gunfire across their common border along the Ussuri River. That year, Brezhnev avoided an assassination attempt by one of his own army officers, Viktor Ilyin.
As Sino-American relations began to soften in 1971, Brezhnev turned to the U.S. to request a reopening of negotiations concerning the freeze on nuclear weapons. A meeting with President Richard M. Nixon in Moscow in May 1972 led to the signing of the first SALT agreement, which kicked off the era of “Détente.”
Another international agreement, the Helsinki Final Act, signed in 1975, was the highlight of the Brezhnev détente era. It solidified the Soviet’s position in eastern Europe, then drew political opposition in the U.S. The right of Soviet Jews to emigrate was the crux of the issue.
As U.S. prestige faltered from the military defeat in Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal, the Soviets extended their political and diplomatic influence in Africa and the Middle East.
Ultimately, however, what power the Soviets had, both at home and abroad, depended on a homeland economy that had been euphemistically referred to as “stagnant.” Even though Stalin had begun the industrialization of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the country was decidedly agrarian. The “rising standard of living” promised by the regime had failed to materialize.
In addition, staggering expenditures on the military and space programs, coupled with the need to import grain at premium market prices, left little capital to invest in modernization. State-supported health and education programs, and public housing quality, all suffered as a result.
Brezhnev, who had held power longer than any Soviet other than Stalin, had a knack for international diplomacy, culminating in the SALT II treaty signed by U.S. president Jimmy Carter in June 1969. Domestic matters were left to such aides-de-camp as agriculture head Mikhail Gorbachev, who would later become General Secretary of the Communist Party.
If the SALT II treaty was the apex of the Brezhnev reign, then certainly his and his inner circle’s decision to invade Afghanistan in December 1979 was the nadir. It led to the abrupt end of détente, with the U.S. imposing a grain embargo on the Soviet Union, which magnified the problems of its economic sector.
Brezhnev’s health declined for several years. He suffered a stroke in March 1982 and died of a heart attack in November.