Brezhnev Remembered Fondly 100 Years Since Birth
Published: December 19, 2006 (Issue # 1231)
Many remember Leonid Brezhnev as a mumbling dotard with dark bushy eyebrows and a cuirass of medals pinned on his broad chest.
But more Russians today would rather live under Brezhnev, who would have turned 100 on Tuesday, than any other Soviet or post-Soviet leader, with the exception of President Vladimir Putin.
“Brezhnev himself lived well, and he allowed others to live,” said Marina Pukhalskaya, a Moscow pensioner who received free higher education, a relatively prestigious job as a civil engineer and, eventually, a free apartment during an 18-year rule that some quipped would never end.
People who knew Brezhnev or studied his leadership describe him as an apt bureaucrat but poor economist who had little regard for civil liberties or human rights. Acquaintances recalled astonishing displays of fairness and generosity, such as the time Brezhnev stood up for a sleepy conscript who accidentally hit the French president’s plane with a snowplow.
The protagonist of a zillion anecdotes, Dear Leonid Ilyich, as Brezhnev was known, is still remembered for the unprecedented stability that allowed ordinary people to plan out their lives. He also raised the Soviet Union to new levels of power and prestige.
“For 18 years, the country lived in clover,” said Andrei Brezhnev, the grandson of Leonid Brezhnev. He was 21 when the Soviet leader died of a heart attack in 1982.
“Granddad was very intelligent. Otherwise, he would not have been allowed by others to run the country for so long,” he said.
A nationwide survey last year indicated that 31 percent of Russians would prefer to live during the Brezhnev era, while 39 percent picked Putin’s time. Only 1 percent of the 3,200 people polled by the state-run VTsIOM longed for Boris Yeltsin’s 1990s.
Critics of the Brezhnev era — and there are many — focus on the prolonged stagnation of the 1970s, when authorities ignored fundamental economic problems and allowed the political system to decline. But even they agree that Russia is managing to live well by exploiting the biggest legacy of the Brezhnev era — the vast infrastructure that connects the gas-rich bowels of Siberia to the ovens of residents in Munich, Germany.
“Developing those oil and gas fields was the most serious achievement of the Brezhnev era,” former Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar said. “And although it was never discussed openly at that time, the country had set its hopes on oil and gas exports.”
Born in Ukraine on Dec. 19, 1906, Brezhnev was a devout Soviet who grew up among the first generation that had no adult memories of pre-revolutionary days. He joined the Communist Party in 1929 and quickly rose through the ranks. He fought in several battles during World War II, including at Malaya Zemlya, a strategic beachhead near Novorossiisk that the Red Army fiercely defended for 225 days.
Brezhnev later published a book about Malaya Zemlya that won all the Soviet literary awards — thanks to his status as Soviet leader rather than his writing, since the book was penned by several talented ghostwriters.
After the war, Brezhnev led Communist branches in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Incidentally, his second book, which also won a slew of awards, was titled “Tselina,” or “Virgin Lands,” and followed the development of the vast Kazakh steppes.
Brezhnev joined the Party’s Central Committee in 1956, and became chairman of the Supreme Council — the No. 3 spot in the Soviet hierarchy — four years later.
Nikita Khrushchev, Brezhnev’s mentor for about a decade, was deposed by Party and KGB plotters in 1964, and Brezhnev was elected as a transitional compromise leader. But he managed to outlive the real powerbrokers who had handed him the post.
The economy performed the best in Brezhnev’s early years, due to a mild liberalization of the economy that was pushed by Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, Gaidar said.
But the Prague uprising of 1968 that was subsequently squashed by the Soviet Army prompted Brezhnev to steer the country back toward strict state regulation, both in the economy and internal politics.
“Soviet tanks not only crushed Prague back then, but they also crushed all our hopes that Soviet leadership would some day have a humane face,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest Russian human rights organization.
Brezhnev was not a cruel man, but he had no understanding of why people needed civil liberties, she said. “Rights were not an issue in public discourse until the mid-1970s, when Brezhnev began to be pressed about them during trips abroad,” she said.
Only then did the notion of rights begin appearing in the Soviet press, but it was always referred to as “so-called human rights,” she said.
In the meantime, Brezhnev remained attentive and responsive to the needs of ordinary people whenever he could get involved personally, said Yegor Ligachyov, a member of the Soviet Politburo in the 1980s and a regional Communist chief in Siberia in the 1970s.
“Once I showed him photographs of the bunk beds in a dormitory in Tomsk, and he nearly fainted,” Ligachyov said. “That is how Tomsk got nice, seven-story dormitories.”
Vladimir Musaelyan, Brezhnev’s personal photographer for 13 years, recalled how a soldier fell asleep behind the wheel of an airport snowplow and hit the plane of visiting French President Georges Pompidou in 1971.
Brezhnev was furious but ordered his aides to make sure that the soldier, who was injured, received good treatment in the hospital, a two-week leave, and no disciplinary action.
“He said the commanders would want to make a scapegoat of the boy, while it was their fault that they did not give conscripts enough sleep,” Musaelyan said.
Ligachyov noted Brezhnev’s notorious weakness for flattery. Officials enjoyed singing his praises at various meetings, and “Brezhnev never moved to stop these flatterers,” he said.
Brezhnev accumulated 114 medals, including the Hero of the Soviet Union three times — always on his birthday — and the Order of Victory, the highest Soviet military award. No one had been awarded the medal since World War II, and it was revoked in 1989.
As the oil fields of western Siberia were being developed and high oil prices were filling the country’s coffers, the Brezhnev regime began handing out money left and right to Third World countries — much to the displeasure of ordinary people.
“There was an informal guide for leaders of post-colonial countries to get money from the U.S.S.R.: They had to come to Moscow, say the 1917 Russian Revolution was the greatest event of the 20th century, and pledge that their countries would choose a noncapitalistic path,” Gaidar said.
Brezhnev firmly believed in high oil prices and ignored predictions of volatility from Soviet economists, Gaidar said.
Shortly before Brezhnev’s death, Moscow dazzled the world with probably the biggest extravaganza of Soviet times: the 1980 Olympic Games. Brezhnev, already ailing and mumbling, solemnly opened the Games.
When he died two years later, his coffin stood at the Kremlin’s Column Hall for three days as people passed by to pay their respects. On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Communists will lay a wreath at his tomb in the Kremlin wall and hold a conference dedicated to his legacy.
In one of his last photographs, Brezhnev lies on an outdoor couch, limp and with an expression of utter fatigue on his broad face.
“When I looked at this picture before approving it for Tass, I thought: ‘My God, how power wears out a man,’ and told them to withhold the photo,” Musaelyan said.