Soviet Communism: Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (1906-82)

Figure 1.--General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev here visits with Young Pioneers at the Arteke Camp in the Crimea. It was one of the showcase camps in the Young Pioneer System. This photograph was taken August 9, 1979. Notice that there does not ppear to be any reaction between the children and Brezhnev. Notice the African boy and other foreign children. Artek was a show case camp and there were quotas for foreign children.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was a child of the Revolution. He began workig in a steel mill with his father at age 15. As a result of the Revolution he was given a chance for an education and became a surveyor. He had a taste for politics. however, an joined the Communist Party. He rose to national prominance by attaching himself to Khrushchev. He emerged as General Secretary after playing a key role in Khrushchev's ouster. He presided over one of the most massive military builfups in history believing that America posed a threat to the Soviet Union. He failed to address the deep-rooted economic and social problems which would less han 10 years after his death destoy the Soviet Union. His rule is often referred to as the period of stagnation. In fairness to Brezhnev, as Gorbechov was later to learn, the economic problems of the Soviet Union were systemic and not amenable to reform.


Leonid's parents were Russian. His father was a steel worker.


Leonid was born in the Ukrainian mining town of Kamensk during 1906. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood.


Leonid at the age of 15 went to work in the same steel mill where his father worked.


I know nothing about his early education before the Revolution. As when many working-class people, the Revolution changed their prospects and their access to education. Brezhnev entered a technical school. He studied surveying and became a land surveyor.

Early Political Career

Brezhnev as a young man joined the Communist Party (1931). He served in a variety of local party posts. Brezhnev appears to have been an astute young apparatchik. This was during the Great Terror. One needed considerable skill to navigate te very dangerous political waters.

Khrushchev Protoge

Brezhnev moved into important posts by associating himself with Nikita Khrushchev. Brezhnev played a major role in Khrushchev's "Virgin Lands" agricultural campaign in Kazakstan. Brezhnev was the first secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakstan. The Virgin Lands efforts was highly publicized and cotton production was increased, in the long run, however, it was an ecological dissaster. Brezhnev then supported Khrushchev who barely survived an attempt to replace him. aborted attempt to remove him from power. Soon, Brezhnev was named a full member of the Politburo. Brezhnev by the early 1960s because of his close association with Khrushchev was likely seen as the future Soviet leader. Brezhnev was appointed to be the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1960. The Presidium was an important governing body in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev resigned from the chairmanship of the Presidium in 1964. Khrushchev wanted him closer at hand to serve as the second secretary of the Central Committee.

Removing Khrushchev

Brezhnev did not act as Khrushchev had anticipated he would. Rather after only 3 months, Brezhnev orchestrated Khrushchev removal from power. The conservative coalition he led expressed a concern over Khrushchev's eratic behavior. They accused Khrushchev of "adventurism.

National Power

Brezhnev emerged from the Khrushchev era as one of the most powerful Soviet leaders. He became the first secretary of the Communist Party. He shared power with Premier Aleksei Kosygin. Brezhnev gradually emerged as the most important Soviet leader and was named General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Brezhnev Era

Brezhnev was above all a colorless apparatchik. This could not have been more different than the dynamic Khrushchev. This was well accepted by the Soviet bureaucracy which felt threatened by reform that Khrushchev had been promoting. As a result, the Soviet bureaucracy continued to operate unquestioned, but little effort was given to growing economic problems. The KGB was used to suppress the more open discussion that Khrushchev had unleased, but without the Terror that Stalin had unleashed. Brezhnev's primary focus was on the Cold War struggle with the United States and in building Soviet military power

Brezhnev Doctrine

Brezhnev apptroved the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia at the time was undergoing the Prague Spring. The Czech Communist Party was persuing a program of democratic reforms with was unacceptable to the Soviets. Thus the Soviet Union assisted by other Warsaw Pact countries seized control of the country by military force and replaced Communist Party and government officials with individuals more amenable to Soviet control. Brezhnev in public statements following the invasion declared the Soviet Union's right to control the political system of socialist states. This became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. It was in fact a simple statement of the Soviet Empire.

Cold War

Brezhnev's focus during his years in power was the Cold War. He was committed to the world-wide struggle with the United states. Huge resources were devoted to this effort. One wonders why Brezhnev was so committed to this effort. One reason of course that without a democratic system, the average Soviet season had no way of making their desires felt on the political system. Thus Soviet leaders did not have the domestic political contraints imposed on leaders in the United Sttes and other Western countries. Brezhnev was a child of the Revolution. His education and rise was made possible by the Revolution. Thus he believed in Coomunist ideology. The experience of World War II certainlly instilled in Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders the importance of military strength to guarantee security. Brezhnev thus focused the energies of the Soviet state on te Cold war and a vast military buildup. He did not launch any risky adventures like sending missles to Cuba. He did oversee a militaru buildup designed to exceed the military power of the United States. He also support leftists regimes in the Third World. Some of these efforts, especially the effort in Cuba, was quite costly. Much of the assistance was military aid, especially that to Vienam and Middle Eastern regimes.


Brezhnev initiated an era of detente (1972). This was not an effort to address differences between the Soviet Union and United States. It was an effort to address spiraling nuclear arms race. Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the SALT treaty which froze some U.S. and Soviet weapons systems. This first attempt at detante ended, however, when Brezhnev ordered the Soviet military to invade Afghanistan (1979).


Brezhnev's focus was on the Cold war competition with the United States. Little attention was given to the Soviet economy. Many authors point out how the massive military buildup stressed the economy. This was an important factor. A less commonly discussed factor was the lack of competition within the economy. There was such a shortage of consumer goods that the Soviet consumer was lucky to get what ever he could. Producers thus had no need to produce a quality product or to modernize production systems. This also resulted in a poor use of investment capital. Another problem was that there was little reward for individual initiative and risk taking that so bebeifitted Western countries. Thus Soviet manufacturers (out side the arms industry) produced low-cost products, oftn at high cost. They could operate only because Soviet consumers had no access to Western goods. The agricultural system was also flawed and had never really recovered from Stalin's collectivization in the 1930s. The result was that Soviet living standards were low. Although living standards had improved from the dissaster of Wrld war II, by the 1970s, living standards were no longer improving and in many cases actually declining.

Last Years

Here we see Brezhnev in his later years. He looks strangrely detached from the children. A reader writes, "Looking at the photograph I wondered whether in fact it was not a societ doctored one. They have a talent for putting people in pictures that were never there. They also take people out of pictures for one reason or another. Brezhnev does not seem to be with it and there is little expression to show that he is activly taking part in the programme. None of the kids are looking at him. Its as if he isn't there." Certainly cropping out disgraced individuals who were victims of Stalinist purges was a common matter, I think this was not common after the de-Stalinization era. I do agree, however, it does look stange that there seems to be no interaction between Brezhnev and the children. Brezhnev in his last years was virtually incapcitated. He was incapable of active leadership of any kind.


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Created: 5:02 PM 4/25/2005
Last updated: 5:03 PM 4/25/2005