Brezhnev and After

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev; drawing by David Levine


For the past six years the uncertain health of Leonid I. Brezhnev has been the wild card of world politics. Every time that thick, wooden figure ventures forth beyond the Kremlin walls, the outside world looks carefully for symptoms of decay. With the recent death of Mikhail Suslov, the other pillar of the Soviet regime, this macabre scrutiny can only intensify. The evidence on Brezhnev tends to vary from onè excursion to the next. During his November meeting with Helmut Schmidt, as he tottered from one engagement to the next, it sometimes looked as though he might not last the day. During previous meetings with Lord Carrington and Willy Brandt he looked better, the tensions of the Polish crisis notwithstanding.

Brezhnev’s decline has left the outside world less and less certain about the distribution of power in the Kremlin, and this in turn has been reflected in the way Soviet policy is analyzed and talked about. During the early Seventies, the years of détente, there was a broad consensus that détente was, on the Soviet side, Brezhnev’s own policy. He was thought to have pushed it through in the face of opposition from within the Politburo.1 But during the years of Brezhnev’s decline, when Soviet policy itself grew more contradictory, Soviet actions have tended to be ascribed not to individuals, but to an abstract entity, the “Soviet Union.”

This tendency was very much in evidence during the 1979 SALT II hearings, which at times seemed like a long-running seminar on Soviet conduct and intentions. A succession of witnesses—Mr. Kissinger, General Haig, the Joint Chiefs, Mr. Nitze—all spoke of the 1980s as a decade during which the Soviet Union might undertake some hair-raising ventures.2 They talked, for example, of Soviet nuclear blackmail, of crises deliberately engineered by the Soviet leadership as a means of bringing its strategic assets into play.

But seldom if ever did anyone connect such spectacular acts of brinkmanship to the known qualities of the Soviet leaders themselves. Indeed these predictions were plausible precisely because they did not attempt to make such a connection. For the actors on the Soviet side were not seen as human beings with recognizable aspirations and fears; instead the USSR, under the torrent of alarmist rhetoric, became simply the sum of its tanks, missiles, and bad intentions. Having created this monster, the alarmists could plausibly endow it with outlandish projects and ambitions.

If what we are now witnessing is indeed the steady decomposition of Brezhnev’s regime, then a measure of uncertainty about Soviet power is unavoidable and will persist until Brezhnev finally goes and his successor becomes known. But there is another possibility, which will be considered here. This is that there has never been a Brezhnev regime at all, that the Soviet Union has for the last seventeen years been ruled by a collective leadership, and that the leadership which the West…

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