The Brezhnev Era (1964-1982)
Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982)
Brezhnev, "a typical regional apparatchik" (Brezhnev's aide quoted in John Keep: A History of the Soviet Union. 1945-1991. p. 193), was second to Stalin (General Secretary from 1922 to 1953) in terms of holding the top party position (First Secretary from 1964 to 1982). Often referred to as a neo-Stalinist, he showed a more cultured way of dealing with the opposition, preferred stability to the point of stagnation over revolutionary bustle, and rooted the Soviet Union more firmly in the texture of international relations.
“When chosen by his comrades to succeed Khrushchev as Party leader, he was 58 years old. … Brezhnev seemed a save choice. Sturdily built, beetle-browed, he was – until his health gave way – a cheerful and sociable man who treated others courteously and had considerable charm. There was also a darker, more devious side to his character. In early life, before becoming an engineer and then entering politics, he had wanted to be an actor, and could still play a part to perfection.” (John Keep: A History of the Soviet Union. p. 193)
“Intellectually he was a mediocrity, but this was not necessarily a disadvantage in the jockeying for power.” (ibid. p. 193)
“Naturally rather indolent, he felt most at ease on hunting expeditions and favoured a self-indulgent life-style that others were quick to copy. Long before his accession to power officials noticed his inordinate fondness for parades and ceremonies – a weakness that later would be taken to ridiculous lengths as his vanity came to the fore. This defect of character, coupled with the temptation of near-absolute power, made him susceptible to flattery. Before many years had passed he would sponsor or tolerate a 'cult' of his own person that had even less justification than the self-adulation fostered by his predecessors Khrushchev and Stalin.” (ibid. p. 194)
“Publicists of the Brezhnev era described the political and social system of their country as 'real, existing socialism. … The implication was that constant experimentation, mass mobilization, and exhortation for new and ambitious campaigns would largely be abandoned. The era was one of complacency and conservatism.” (Peter Kenez: A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. p. 216)
In terms of industrial production, the Soviet Union had surpassed the US in steel, oil, cement, coal, mineral fertilizers, wool, and tractors. New Siberian oil and gas resources were developed. Plans for large-scale joint ventures with Western companies were made or realized like new railroad lines to exploit the rich ore deposits and steel, pipes, and automobile factories. Limits were set by the need for
Progress was also impeded by
high production costs
poor quality of many products
shortages of machinery
Trade agreements with Western states were signed. The lion share of international trade, two-thirds of all foreign trade, was carried on with states of the socialist bloc. For the first time there were plans to standardize and integrate their economies.
The unsatisfactory condition of agriculture is partly due to bad weather and crop failure (in 1972 and 1975) but also to fundamental institutional shortcomings:
Management of the kolkhozes had not improved
Investments in agriculture remained insufficient
Fertilizer was scarce
Incentives for agrarian workers were missing
The “Second Economy”
Corruption had been built into the Bolshevik system from the very beginning. By the time of Brezhnev it became recognized not only as inevitable but even as necessary to satisfy the various interests of a less and less egalitarian society.
“The criminal mafia arose in symbiosis with the political mafia that had run the country for so long. Each fed on the other in an uneasy relationship, fraught with tension and marked by sporadic acts of violence on either side.” (John Keep: A History of the Soviet Union. 1945-1991. p. 217)
“In 1980-81, the amount of socialist property stolen was put at 100 million rubles. In 1981, over 5,000 officials, accused of stealing 3.4 million rubles, were sentenced.” (Martin McCauley: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. p. 387)
“In the early 1970s, special shops were set up for KGB, MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs], government and Party officials. First class produce could be purchased only with vouchers.” (Martin McCauley: The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. p. 363)
The Soviet Union witnessed both an improvement in general living standards and an increasing demand for further progress. Differences in status were now generally accepted with the shift from ideology to technocratic rule. Party officials, managers, sectors of the intelligentsia, athletes, and artists belonged to the privileged nomenklatura and enjoyed adequate housing, had access to consumer goods, and were even allowed to travel abroad.
Between 1968 and 1975, real income per family rose considerably but growing demand was not met with adequate supply.
Culture and Science
Science had already been freed from ideology in the Khrushchev era. The success story of Soviet science continued with the first unmanned rocket sent to Venus in 1969 and by the first supersonic aircraft put into regular service by 1975. In many areas - biology, space, medicine, chemistry, mathematics - outstanding scientific achievements were made.
Perfection of the Soviet atomic arsenal led to parity with the US. American embroilment in Vietnam and Soviet overtures to the West - Ostpolitik in 1972 with West Germany, the strengthening of ties with Canada, France and other western countries - ended the policy of "containment" and brought about the concept of "peaceful coexistence."
Although the Iron Curtain was not at stake, the frontier between the two power blocs became more permeable. In 1975, upon Soviet initiative, the Helsinki Conference confirmed the frontiers of the Soviet Union but established a nexus between territorial and human rights issues. Actual disarmament talks made little progress and the nuclear potential of both superpowers even increased but crisis management and contacts improved.
Relations with Socialist Countries
After the bloody end of the Prague Spring in 1968 by Soviet and allied tanks, for which the Brezhnev Doctrine was formulated which expressed the right of the Soviet Union to intervene in bloc affairs, the Soviets handled relations with the Eastern bloc countries more cautiously. Within limits Romania was left free to pursue its own aims and pressure on independent Yugoslavia was reduced. But the economic integration of the Soviet bloc was accelerated.
Military intervention as during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was ruled out, hence no support for
Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile
the Communists in Portugal who were close to taking over the government
Euro-Communism, strong in Italy and Spain, in response to the military intervention of the Warsaw Pact to suffocate the Prague Spring in 1968
rejected the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat
pushed the demand for
a plurality of parties
independent trade unions
religious freedom (very important in catholic countries!)
Soviet political efforts in Africa and Asia intensified. Consistent support in arms and technical help was given to socialist African independence movements (e.g. in Angola). With communist China gaining international recognition in 1971, the Soviet Union's claim to leadership of the international communist movement was seriously challenged.
Yuri Andropov (1914-1984)
After Brezhnev's death on 10 November 1982 KGB director Andropov became General Secretary on 12 November. Hospitalized from August 1983 because of renal failure, he advised: "Members of the Central Committee know that due to certain reasons, I am unable to come to the plenum. I can neither attend the meetings of the Politburo nor the secretariat. Therefore, I believe Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev should be assigned to preside over the meetings of the Politburo and the secretariat (of the Central Committee)." On 9 February 1984 he died in the hospital.
Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985)
On 13 February 1984 Konstantin Chernenko was elected General Secretary despite concerns in respect to his frail health. On 10 March 1985 he died of heart failure. US President Ronald Reagan is reported to have said: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” Only three hours after Chernenko's death 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary. He was the first Secretary born after the October Revolution.