Leonid Ilich Brezhnev

The Soviet political leader Leonid IIich Brezhnev (1906-1982) held a number of important government posts and was a major figure in the post-Stalinera.

Leonid Brezhnev was born on Dec. 12, 1906, in Kamenskoe (now Dneprodzerzhinsk), a metallurgical center in the Ukraine. A member of a working-class family, he was obliged to leave school at the age of 15 and go to work. But he continued to study as a part-time student of surveying at a vocational secondary school, and graduated at the age of 21. In the years immediately following, Brezhnev held a number of minor government posts and at that time also joined the Communist party. Then he enrolled in the Kamenskoe Metallurgical Institute, graduating in 1935 as a metallurgical engineer. The field of engineering engaged him only briefly, however, for he soon became involved in government and party work. By the beginning of World War II, he was an important party leader in his native region.

After the outbreak of the war, Brezhnev served in the branch of the Red Army responsible for political indoctrination. There he held increasingly responsible posts, eventually achieving the rank of major general. When Brezhnev returned to civilian life in 1946, he continued to move steadily ahead as a party official. In 1950, with his election as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Moldavian S.S.R., one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union, he gained national prominence. Two years later he left Moldavia for Moscow to serve under Stalin in the powerful Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist party.

The progress of Brezhnev's career was temporarily interrupted by Stalin's death in 1953. He was removed from the Secretariat and assigned to lesser posts, first in the Ministry of Defense and later in the Central Committee of the Kazakh S.S.R. But because he proved to be such a successful administrator, he was recalled to Moscow in 1956 to serve again in the Secretariat. He worked closely with Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Secretariat and the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.

In 1960, with Khrushchev's support, Brezhnev was chosen chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. This post brought Brezhnev great prestige but not great power. After three years he returned to the Secretariat, where he allied himself with other leaders who were dissatisfied with Khrushchev's record. In 1964 this group succeeded in ousting Khrushchev from power, whereupon Brezhnev immediately took over the most important of Khrushchev's former positions, that of first secretary of the party's Central Committee, and became the major personage in the Soviet Union. In 1966 his title was changed from first secretary to general secretary, the title under which Stalin had served. But Brezhnev was not as powerful as either Stalin or Khrushchev had been. Instead, according to the informal arrangement that had followed Khrushchev's removal, he became the first among equals and shared power with the chairman of the Council of Ministers and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.

During the 1970s, Brezhnev oversaw the Soviet Union through a number of military interventions, beginning with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, now the Czech Republic, and warfare in the People's Republic of China in 1969. In order to maintain clout with the largely Communist Eastern European bloc, the Soviet Union turned to hostile enforcement of their political system. Perhaps the harshest such case was the Soviet attack launched on Afghanistan in 1979, which continued past Breshnev's life.

Although the end of the Brezhnev years saw the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union escalate, the two world powers still managed a high level of rapport. During the office of President Richard Nixon, the two leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union often visited each other, easing tensions enough to allow a cooperative space program in 1975, a massive purchase of American wheat by the Soviets, and other such liasons.

The decline of Brezhnev's health was paralleled by the waning solidarity of Soviet power, as was evidenced by an increasing number of dissenting voices within the country such as Andrei Sakharov. Although countries such as Poland, which nearly broke free of Soviet control in 1981, were still no match for the might of Soviet armies, their mounting unrest foreshadowed the crumbling of the Communist Soviet Union in later years. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet economy had initially flourished, but by the mid-1970s it had reached a point of stagnation. After several years of serious ailment, Brezhnev died in Moscow on November 10, 1982, leaving the Soviet Union without coherent leadership until the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev.


Further Reading on Leonid Ilich Brezhnev

Biographical information on Brezhnev is scanty. The best source in English is Grey Hodnett's article on Brezhnev in George W. Simmonds, ed., Soviet Leaders (1967). His career is also discussed in Robert Conquest, Russia after Khrushchev (1965), and in Myron Rush, Political Succession in the USSR (1965; 2d ed. 1968). For comprehensive discussions of the Brezhnev era, see The Brezhnev Politburo and the Decline of Detente (1984) by Harry Gelman or Soviet Foreign Policy: The Brezhnev Years (1983) by Robin Edmonds.