Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev, the son of a steelworker, was born in Kamenskoye, in the Soviet Union in 1906. He joined the Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization) in 1923 and trained as an agricultural surveyor.

In 1931 Brezhnev joined the Communist Party (CPSU). In 1938 he was appointed party political chief at Dnepropetrovsk where he worked under Nikita Khrushchev. During the Second World War Brezhnev served as political commissar to the Southern Army.

After the war Brezhnev became party boss in Moldavia. He successfully brought the new republic under the control of the Communist Party. This impressed Joseph Stalin and in 1952 he was invited to join the Politburo. The following year Stalin died and without his support Nikita Khrushchev was able to send Brezhnev to Kazakhstan.

In 1964 Khrushchev was ousted and Brezhnev was able to return to the Politburo. By the early 1970s Brezhnev had emerged as the most important political figure in the Soviet Union. As well as being First Party Secretary of the Communist Party he was also President of the Supreme Soviet.

During his period in power the Soviet Union economy stagnated and the much needed reforms had to wait until after Leonid Brezhnev's death in 1982.

Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (1995)

Brezhnev had come to power in October 1964, as a result of a compromise between the groups which ousted Khrushchev. He was then regarded as a rather insignificant figure who could be easily manipulated. This was a miscalculation. By the use of simple tactics he succeeded in strengthening his position until he became practically invulnerable.

His forte consisted in his ability to split rivals, fanning mutual suspicion and subsequently acting as chief arbiter and peacemaker. In time I discerned another of Brezhnev's characteristics: vindictiveness. He never forgot the slightest disloyalty towards himself, but he was shrewd enough to wait for an appropriate moment to replace the offender. He never resorted to direct confrontation, proceeding cautiously, step by step, until he gained the upper hand.

In a political sense, Brezhnevism was nothing but a conservative reaction against Khrushchev's attempt at reforming the authoritarian model of his time.

(2) Alexander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last (1992)

Like everyone else, I often reflect on the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. How could this giant power crumble so quickly and so completely? There are many learned theories about it, but I think that underlying all of them is one elementary explanation: the system inhibited change. It fed on dead doctrine and prevented a natural replacement of leaders. When they finally tried to do something about it, it was too late for remedies.

In 1968 we ran into this dinosaur of a system still in working condition. The Politburo held together the external empire that Stalin had grabbed and saw to it that opposition arose nowhere. I had seen it in Dresden in March, and then in Moscow in May. What we were trying to do was beyond their comprehension.

The challenge was to maneuver around them long enough to make them accept us on civilized terms. I thought, optimistically, that we could prevail because their bullying would not exceed certain limits. The 1956 crushing of Hungary was way behind us: this was a different era. I think most of the world agreed with me.

Beyond the Soviets' empty phrases about "counterrevolution," the core of the dispute was not our social system but our political reforms. We believed that socialism - in our country at least - could not exist without democracy. But the Soviets wanted us to reinstitute their model of one-party dictatorship. Still, I did not believe that they would launch a war against us just because of this disagreement. After all, we were bound by a valid alliance treaty, and Czechoslovakia was avoiding anything that might throw doubt on her loyalty. Moreover, the Soviets had for years preached the principle of peaceful coexistence and noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries. Was it rational to expect that they would contradict all this by attacking us militarily? I did not think so, and I do not think I was a dreamer. I did not expect that they would commit an act that was bound to carry catastrophic consequences for their own cause (which it did as no one today would deny). And I simply did not expect the perfidy they were soon to display.

(3) Discussion that took place in Moscow between Alexander Dubcek and Leonid Brezhnev in August 1992.

Leonid Brezhnev: Lets agree not to bury ourselves in the past, but to discuss calmly, proceeding from the situation that has developed, in order to find a solution that will work to the benefit of the Czechoslovak Communist Party so that it can act, normally and independently along the lines laid down by the Bratislava Declaration Let it be independent. We don't want and we're not thinking of further intervention. And let the leadership work according to the principles of the January and May plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. We have said this in our reports and we're prepared to affirm it again. Of course, we can't say that you re in a good mood. But your moods aren't the point. We must sensibly and soberly direct our talks toward the search for a solution. It can be stated flatly that the failure to carry out fixed obligations impelled five countries to extreme and inevitable measures. The sequence of events that has materialized confirms entirely that behind your back (by no means do we wish to say that you were at the head of it) right-wing powers (we will simply call them antisocialist) prepared both the congress and its actions. Underground stations and arms caches have now come to light. All of this has now come out. We don't want to raise claims against you personally, that you're guilty. You might not even have been aware of it; the right-wing powers are broad enough to have organized it all 'We would like to find the most acceptable solutions that will serve to stabilize the country, normalizing a workers' party without links to the right and normalizing a workers' government free from those links.

We don't need to conceal from each other that if we find the best solution we will still need time for normalization. No one should have the illusion that everything will all of a sudden become rosy. But if we do find the correct solution, then time will pass and every day will bring us successes, material talks and contacts will begin, the odor will dissipate, and propaganda and ideology will start to work normally. The working class will understand that, behind the backs of the Central Committee and the government leadership, right-wingers were preparing to transform Czechoslovakia from a socialist into a bourgeois republic. All that is clear now. Talks on economic and other matters will begin. The departure of troops, et cetera, will begin according to material principles. We have not occupied Czechoslovakia, we do not intend to keep it under "occupation," but we hope for her to be free and to undertake the socialist cooperation that was agreed upon in Bratislava. It is on that basis that we want to talk with you and find a workable solution. If need be, with Comrade Cernik as well. If we stay silent we will not improve the situation and will not spare the Czech, Slovak, and Russian peoples from tension. And with every passing day the right-wingers will fire up chauvinistic emotions against every socialist country, and first of all against the Soviet Union. Under such circumstances it would be impossible to pull out the troops; it's not to our advantage. It is on these grounds, on this basis, that we would like to conduct the talks, to see what you think, what's the best way to act. We're ready to listen. We have no diktat; let's look for another option together.

And we would be very grateful to you if you freely expressed different options, not just to be contrary, but to calmly find the proper option. We consider you an honorable communist and socialist. In Cierna you were unlucky, and there was a breakdown. Let's cast everything that happened aside. If we start asking which one of us was right, it will lead nowhere. But let's talk on the basis of what is, and under these conditions we must find a way out of the situation, what you're thinking and what we must do.

Alexander Dubcek: It's hard for me, given the trip and my bitter mood, to explain immediately my opinion about why we must reach a solution about the real situation that has arisen. Comrades Brezhnev, Kosygin, Podgorny, and Voronov, I don't know what the situation is at home. In the first day of the Soviet Army's arrival, I and the other comrades were isolated and then found ourselves here, not knowing anything. ... I can only conjecture what could have happened. In the first moments, the members of the Presidium who were with me at the Secretariat were taken to the Party Central Committee under the control of Soviet forces. Through the window I saw several hundred people gathered around the building, and you could hear what they were shouting: "We want to see Svoboda!" "We want to see the president!" "We want Dubcek!" I heard a number of slogans. After that there were shots. It was the last thing I saw. From that point on I know nothing, and can't imagine what's happening in the country and in the Party.

As a Communist who bears a great responsibility for recent events, I am sure that - not only in Czechoslovakia but in Europe, in the whole Communist movement - this action will cause us the bitterest consequences in the breakdown of, and bitter dissension within, the ranks of Communist parties in foreign countries, in capitalist countries.

Thus the matters at hand and the situation are, it seems to me very complex, although today was the first time I read the newspapers. I can only say, think of me what you will, I have worked for thirty years in the Party, and my whole family has devoted everything to the affairs of the Party, the affairs of socialism. Let whatever is going to happen to me happen. I'm expecting the worst for myself and I'm resigned to it.