Brezhnev, Leonid Ilich (Russia)

Reference work entry


Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader in 1964 following a coup. He ruled until his death in 1982. Brezhnev devoted much of his tenure to military and foreign affairs. Less charismatic than his predecessor, under him the USSR strengthened its position as a superpower though at the expense of living standards for the average citizen.

Early Life

Leonid Brezhnev was born on 19 Dec. 1906 in Kamenskoye (later renamed Dneprodzerzhinsk) in Russified eastern Ukraine. His father was a steelworker and Brezhnev followed him into the industry at the age of 15. He graduated from a land management technical school in Kursk in 1927 and worked as a land surveyor in the region. Having joined the Communist Party in 1931, he rose steadily through the party ranks over the next decade. He was appointed propaganda secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk regional committee in 1939. During World War II, he served as a political commissar attached to the armed forces, becoming a major general in 1944.

After the war Brezhnev worked under Nikita Khrushchev in the Ukraine, later serving as communist party chief in Moldavia (1950–53) and Kazakhstan (1954–56). He was accepted on to the Communist Central Committee and as a candidate member of the Politburo in 1952. He lost these posts following the death of Stalin in 1953 but regained them 3 years later. In Feb. 1956 he was given control over the defence industry, space programme, heavy industry and capital construction. After supporting Kruschev during an unsuccessful attempt to remove him in 1957, Brezhnev won full membership of the Politburo. In 1960 he was elevated to chairman of the presidium.

Though the nominal head of state, Brezhnev resigned the chairmanship in 1964 to work as Khrushchev’s number two on the central committee. In Oct. 1964 he led a coup against Khrushchev and replaced him as first secretary.

Career Peak

Supreme power was theoretically held jointly between Brezhnev and Aleksei Kosygin, chairmen of the council of ministers. However, it was soon apparent that Brezhnev was the dominant partner and he often opposed Kosygin’s economic reforms while protecting conservative, often corrupt bureaucrats.

Alexander Dubček’s reformist regime in Czechoslovakia prompted Brezhnev to formulate a doctrine that was to be named after him. It asserted the right of the Warsaw Pact partners to intervene against ‘anti-socialist degeneration’ within the Soviet bloc. He ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring in 1968, provoking international outrage, and his tenure also saw border clashes with China.

His foreign policy extended to assisting left-wing movements in Vietnam, the Middle East and the Third World. Throughout the 1970s he attempted to improve relations with West Germany and followed a policy of détente with the US. US–Soviet relations peaked in 1972 when Brezhnev and his opposite number Richard Nixon signed the SALT treaty that curbed the development of certain nuclear projects.

However, both sides remained deeply suspicious of the other. In 1979 the US congress failed to ratify SALT II and Brezhnev (by now titular head of state as well as party) ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to support its ailing leftist government. Relations between the two further soured when Brezhnev encouraged the suppression of the Polish Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s.

Brezhnev oversaw a rapid expansion of the Soviet military and industrial bases during the 1970s and agreed massive spending to ensure the USSR led the space race. The domestic price was great, with the agricultural and consumer-goods sectors failing badly and the standard of living declining. In addition, political oppression and persecution of dissidents was rife under his regime.

His last years in power were spent in senility. He suffered a mild stroke in March 1982 and died of a heart attack on 10 Nov.

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