The Brezhnev Era

The Brezhnev Era

The regime that followed Khrushchev took a much more conservative approach to most problems. Stalinism did not return, but there was less latitude for individual expression. Foreign relations continued to roller-coaster, with the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 constituting a major setback for relations with the West. The Soviet economy continued to falter, reaping no apparent benefit from the end of Khrushchev's economic experimentation.

Collective Leadership and the Rise of 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 Aleksey Kosygin, Nikolay Podgornyy, 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 been viewed originally by his colleagues as an interim appointee.

Born to a Russian worker's family in 1906, Brezhnev became a Khrushchev protégé early in his career and through his patron's influence rose to membership in the Presidium. As his own power grew, Brezhnev built up a coterie of followers whom he, as first secretary, gradually maneuvered into powerful positions. At the same time, Brezhnev slowly demoted or isolated possible contenders for his office. For instance, in December 1965 he succeeded in elevating Podgornyy to the ceremonial position of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative organization in the government, thus eliminating him as a rival. But Brezhnev's rise was very gradual; only in 1971, when he 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 the cadres, groups of activists in responsible and influential positions in the party and state apparatus. 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. Indicative of the stability of the period is the fact that 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 Khrushchev policies as the bifurcation of the party, it also halted de-Stalinization. Indeed, favorable 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 permitted 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 use repressive tactics against political dissidents even after the Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which bound signatory nations to higher standards of human rights observance. 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 precepts of Marxism-Leninism were taught and reinforced as a means to bolster the authority of the regime rather than as a tool for revolutionary action.

Foreign Policy of a Superpower

A major concern of Khrushchev's successors was to reestablish Soviet primacy in the community of communist states by undermining the influence of China. Although the new leaders originally approached China without hostility, Mao's condemnation of Soviet foreign policy as "revisionist" and his competition for influence in the Third World soon led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. The Sino-Soviet relationship reached a low point in 1969 when clashes broke out along the disputed Ussuri River boundary in the Far East. Later, the Chinese, intimidated by Soviet military strength, agreed not to patrol the border area claimed by the Soviet Union; but strained relations between the two countries continued into the early 1980s.

Under the collective leadership, the Soviet Union again used force in Eastern Europe, this time in Czechoslovakia. In 1968 reform-minded elements of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia rapidly began to liberalize their rule, loosen censorship, and strengthen Western ties. In response, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia and installed a new regime. Out of these events arose the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine (see Glossary), which warned that the Soviet Union would act to maintain its hegemony in Eastern Europe (see Central Europe, ch. 8). Soviet suppression of the reform movement reduced blatant gestures of defiance on the part of Romania and served as a threatening example to the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. But it also helped disillusion communist parties in Western Europe to the extent that by 1977 most of the leading parties embraced Eurocommunism, a pragmatic approach to ideology that freed them to pursue political programs independent of Soviet dictates.

Soviet influence in the developing world expanded somewhat during the 1970s. New communist or left-leaning governments having close relations with the Soviet Union took power in several countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua. In the Middle East, the Soviet Union vied for influence by backing the Arabs in their dispute with Israel. After the June 1967 War in the Middle East, the Soviet Union rebuilt the defeated Syrian and Egyptian armies, but it suffered a setback when Egypt expelled Soviet advisers from the country in 1972 and subsequently entered into a closer relationship with the United States. The Soviet Union retained ties with Syria and supported Palestinians' claims to an independent state. But Soviet prestige among moderate Muslim states suffered in the 1980s as a result of Soviet military activities in Afghanistan (see The Middle East, ch. 8). Attempting to shore up a communist government in that country, Brezhnev sent in Soviet armed forces in December 1979, but a large part of the Afghan population resisted both the occupiers and the Marxist Afghan regime. The resulting war in Afghanistan continued to be an unresolved problem for the Soviet Union at the time of Brezhnev's death in 1982.

Soviet relations with the West first improved, then deteriorated in the years after Khrushchev. The gradual winding down of United States involvement in the war in Vietnam after 1968 opened the way for negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the subject of nuclear arms. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--NPT; see Glossary) went into effect in 1970, and the two countries began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) the following year. At the Moscow summit meeting of May 1972, Brezhnev and President Richard M. Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty--see Glossary) and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. Both agreements essentially froze the two countries' existing stockpiles of strategic defensive and offensive weapons. A period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974. The crowning achievement of the era of détente was the signing in 1975 of the Helsinki Accords, which ratified the postwar status quo in Europe and bound the signatories to respect basic principles of human rights. In the years that followed, the Soviet Union was found to be in substantial violation of the accords' human rights provisions.

But even during the period of détente, the Soviet Union increased weapons deployments, with the result that by the end of the 1970s it achieved nuclear parity with--or even superiority to--the United States. The Soviet Union also intensified its condemnation of the NATO alliance in an attempt to weaken Western unity. Although a second SALT agreement was signed by Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in Vienna in 1979, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the Carter administration withdrew the agreement from consideration by the United States Senate, and détente effectively came to an end. Also in reaction to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, the United States imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union and boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued up to Brezhnev's death.

The Economy under Brezhnev

Despite Khrushchev's tinkering with economic planning, the economic system remained dependent on central plans drawn up with no reference to market mechanisms. Reformers, of whom the economist Yevsey Liberman was most noteworthy, advocated greater freedom for individual enterprises from outside controls and sought to turn the enterprises' economic objectives toward making a profit. Prime Minister Kosygin championed Liberman's proposals and succeeded in incorporating them into a general economic reform program approved in September 1965. This reform included scrapping Khrushchev's regional economic councils in favor of resurrecting the central industrial ministries of the Stalin era. Opposition from party conservatives and cautious managers, however, soon stalled the Liberman reforms, forcing the state to abandon them.

After Kosygin's short-lived attempt to revamp the economic system, planners reverted to drafting comprehensive centralized plans of the type first developed under Stalin. In industry, plans stressed the heavy and defense-related branches, slighting the light consumer-goods branches (see The Postwar Growth Period, ch. 6). As a developed industrial country, the Soviet Union by the 1970s found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high rates of growth in the industrial sector that it had enjoyed in earlier years. Increasingly large investment and labor inputs were required for growth, but these inputs were becoming more difficult to obtain. Although the goals of the five-year plans of the 1970s had been scaled down from previous plans, the targets remained largely unmet. The industrial shortfalls were felt most sharply in the sphere of consumer goods, where the public steadily demanded improved quality and increased quantity. Agricultural development continued to lag in the Brezhnev years. Despite steadily higher investments in agriculture, growth under Brezhnev fell below that attained under Khrushchev. Droughts occurring intermittently throughout the 1970s forced the Soviet Union to import large quantities of grain from Western countries, including the United States. In the countryside, Brezhnev continued the trend toward converting collective farms into state farms and raised the incomes of all farmworkers. Despite the wage increases, peasants still devoted much time and effort to their private plots, which provided the Soviet Union with a disproportionate share of its agricultural goods (see Agriculture, ch. 6).

The standard of living in the Soviet Union presented a problem to the Brezhnev leadership after the growth of the late 1960s stalled at a level well below that of most Western industrial (and some East European) countries. Although certain appliances and other goods became more accessible during the 1960s and 1970s, improvements in housing and food supply were slight. Shortages of consumer goods encouraged pilferage of government property and the growth of the black market. Vodka, however, remained readily available, and alcoholism was an important factor in both the declining life expectancy and the rising infant mortality rate that the Soviet Union experienced in the later Brezhnev years (see Health Conditions, ch. 5).

Culture and the Arts in the 1960s and 1970s

Progress in developing the education system was mixed during the Brezhnev years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of working-age people with at least a secondary education steadily increased. Yet at the same time, access to higher education grew more limited. By 1980 the percentage of secondary-school graduates admitted to universities had dropped to only two-thirds of the 1960 figure. Students accepted into universities increasingly came from professional families rather than 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 also, in many cases, a result of their power to influence admissions procedures (see The Soviet Heritage, ch. 5).

Progress in science also was variable under Brezhnev. In the most visible test of its advancement--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. As in earlier decades, 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 Yuriy 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 Vysotskiy, widely popular in the Soviet Union, was denied official recognition because of his iconoclastic lyrics (see Literature and the Arts, ch. 4).

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 (see The Russian Orthodox Church, ch. 4).

The Death of Brezhnev

Shortly after his cult of personality began to take root in the mid-1970s, Brezhnev began to experience periods of ill health. After Brezhnev suffered a stroke in 1975, Politburo members Mikhail Suslov and Andrey Kirilenko assumed some of the leader'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 longtime associate who soon began to be regarded as the heir apparent. His prospects of succeeding Brezhnev, however, were hurt by political problems plaguing the general secretary in the early 1980s. Not only were economic failures damaging Brezhnev's prestige, but scandals involving his family and political allies also were undermining his stature. Meanwhile, Yuriy V. Andropov, chief of the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB; see Glossary), 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 promote himself as the next CPSU general secretary. Although he suffered another stroke in March 1982, Brezhnev refused to relinquish his office. He died that November.

The Soviet Union paid a high price for the stability of the Brezhnev years. 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 had marked the Soviet Union's revolutionary beginnings.

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