Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Brezhnev, Leonid (1906–1982)

General-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during 1964–1982 and head of state during 1977–1982. Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born in the Ukrainian town of Dneprodzerzhinsk, then called Kamenskoye, on 19 December 1906. The son of a steelworker, he graduated as an engineer in 1935 from the Kamenskoye Metallurgical Institute and worked in the iron and steel industries of the eastern Ukraine. In 1939 he became CPSU secretary in Dnepropetrovsk in charge of the city's important defense industries.

Brezhnev matured as an unquestioning follower of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and gained rapid promotion within the Communist Party hierarchy, especially after the political purges of the late 1930s opened up many positions. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Brezhnev was soon drafted into the Red Army as a political commissar. By the end of the war he was in charge of the Political Administration of the 4th Ukrainian Front.

After the war, Brezhnev's party career gained momentum. During 1946–1955 he served as party first secretary in Zaporozhe, Dnepropetrovsk, and then in the republics of Moldavia and Kazakhstan. In 1952 he was also appointed a member of the CPSU Central Committee. In 1957 he joined the Politburo.

Brezhnev's meteoric rise was due in large measure to the power of his new patron, Nikita Khrushchev. Nevertheless, Brezhnev, together with Alexei Kosygin, unseated Khrushchev during a 1964 CPSU power struggle. In the division of power that followed, on 15 October 1964 Brezhnev became first secretary of the CPSU, while Kosygin became prime minister. In 1966 Brezhnev named himself general secretary of the CPSU and began to dominate the collective leadership. In 1975 he was appointed an army general; in 1976 he became marshal of the Soviet Union (the highest military rank); and in 1977 he replaced Nikolai Podgorny as head of state.

During the Khrushchev years, Brezhnev had supported the leader's denunciations of Stalin's arbitrary rule and the liberalization of Soviet intellectual policies. But as soon as he had ousted Khrushchev, Brezhnev began to reverse this process. The 1966 trials of Soviet writers Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky marked the reversion to a more repressive policy. The Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB, Committee for State Security) regained much of the power it had enjoyed under Stalin, although there was no recurrence of the political purges of the 1930s and 1940s.

In August 1968, Brezhnev brought communist reforms in Eastern Europe to a halt by ordering the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where the Prague Spring had threatened to dissolve that country's political and military solidarity with Moscow and the Warsaw Pact. This military intervention was afterward justified by the Brezhnev Doctrine, which claimed for the Soviet Union the right to interfere in its client states' affairs in order to safeguard socialism and maintain the unity of the Warsaw Pact.

During Brezhnev's tenure, a nonaggression pact with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) was concluded in 1970, marking the beginning of détente with the West. On a global level, Brezhnev carried out negotiations on arms control with the United States and signed the 1968 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaty. On the whole, during the 1970s Brezhnev advocated a relaxation of Cold War tensions, which he also demonstrated by signing the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. This recognized the postwar frontiers of Central and Eastern Europe and in effect legitimized Soviet hegemony over the region. In exchange, the Soviet Union agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Relaxation abroad was not matched by liberalization at home. On the contrary, Brezhnev tried to neutralize the effects of détente by expanding the Soviet security apparatus and government control over society. His regime also became synonymous with corruption and the severe repression of dissidents. Urbanization had given rise to an ever-larger number of Soviet citizens, especially from the young and educated groups, hoping to live a Western lifestyle with access to Western culture and a Western middle-class standard of living.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 signaled an end to détente. The Afghanistan War soon deteriorated into a debacle and contributed to the steady decline of the communist regime. Although the Soviet Union was awash in oil dollars, this money was of little help to the civilian economy because the regime frittered its wealth away on construction projects, corruption, and handouts to brother regimes and pumped it into military industries and the Afghan quagmire.

Parallel to the deterioration of the economic and political system, Brezhnev's physical health and mental awareness steadily declined in the late 1970s. The geriatric Politburo, however, with an average age of seventy, feared change and thus kept him in power well beyond his time. Brezhnev died in Moscow on 10 November 1982 after several years of failing health and was succeeded by KGB head Yuri Andropov.

Beatrice de Graaf


Further Reading
Kozlov, V. A., and Elaine McClarnand Mackinnon. Mass Uprisings in the USSR: Urban Unrest under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, 1953–82. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2002.; Navazelskis, Ina L. Leonid Brezhnev. Langhorne, PA: Chelsea House, 1987.
 

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