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Brezhnev and After

In response to:

Brezhnev and After from the March 4, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

It may be of interest to your readers that the middle unidentified figure in the picture of the opening session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, on page 36 of your issue of March 4, 1982, is the composer Dimitrii Kabalevsky, who has been a deputy to that ceremonial body since Stalin’s day, and has become such an active musical ideologue and missionary that he has almost stopped composing. The pose in which he is shown, reading a speech at a public meeting, is in fact a far more typical one of him today than sitting at the piano or over staved paper.

Richard Taruskin

Columbia University

New York, New York

Simon Head replies:

In posing his test question “Can anyone on the Politburo act independently of Brezhnev even in a minor matter of policy?” Professor Ryavec has I think loaded the odds in his favor. For his question has built into it the assumption that Brezhnev’s has indeed been the decisive voice in Soviet policy making. Once this assumption is made, it certainly follows that those who have contested the Politburo’s policy decisions and have lost out must also in some sense have been victims of Brezhnev’s personal power. But it is precisely this assumption of Brezhnev’s predominance which, in the second part of the essay, I have tried to refute.

I divided the main policy decisions of the Brezhnev era into three categories: those initiated by a Politburo member other than Brezhnev himself—for example the industrial reforms of 1965, initiated by Kosygin; those which were the product of a broad consensus within the Politburo—for example the priority given to military spending, or the sustained repression of dissent; and those policies whose execution has largely been entrusted to Brezhnev but whose formulation was nonetheless still a product of collective decision making—notably agriculture and foreign affairs. If there have been Soviet leaders who have fallen from power because they found themselves on the losing side of a policy dispute—Podgorny and Polyansky are possible examples—then I would argue that they should be seen as victims, not of Brezhnev, but of the collective leadership as a whole.

I would agree with Professor Weeks that the Soviet armed forces have in recent years played a “diminished role…in the making and execution of policy”—diminished when compared with, say, the years of Zhukov or even Malinovsky. In accounting for the Party’s domination of the armed forces Professor Weeks mentions the role of Defense Minister Ustinov, a civilian in general’s clothing, and of the late M.A. Suslov, a “keen-eyed observer” of the Party’s cadre policy. Of equal importance here has been the role of the “Main Political Directorate,” that branch of the Party apparatus which penetrates the military at all levels and which strives constantly to prevent the emergence of another Zhukov. The head of the Directorate, General Aleksei Yepishev, is, like Ustinov, a civilian general and, also like Ustinov, someone who has been around for a very long time. He has managed to remain in this crucial and highly sensitive position for twenty years, a remarkable achievement and one which suggests that the Party leaders have approved of the way he has done his job.

It is difficult to reconcile Professor Week’s analysis of present Party-military relations with his suggestion that the Soviet military in some way conceived the idea of a Polish “National Salvation regime,” led by military men. For the Soviet military to have trespassed upon such political terrain would in itself imply a major breakdown in the mechanisms of Party control—but Professor Weeks provides no evidence of such a breakdown and, indeed, no such evidence exists. Similarly, I am unconvinced by Professor Week’s suggestion that the departure of Suslov may be an occasion for the military “once again to thrust forward.” Suslov was not the only top leader to have taken an interest in the internal affairs of the military. Brezhnev and Kirilenko are others who come to mind, and Yepishev is still very much alive.

Professor Weeks also foresees a grand role for the military in the succession crisis, but here too I am doubtful. Marshal Zhukov certainly played an important role in the 1957 crisis, but he was the greatest Russian general of the twentieth century and his successors, the Kulikovs and the Ogarkovs, are, in comparison, nonentities. If the struggle for the succession runs wildly out of control, then the military might have their chance. But among Brezhnev’s successors it is precisely a fear of such resurgent “Bonapartism” which will, in all likelihood, impose a certain moderation on their factional struggles.

I am grateful to Professor Ryavec for drawing attention to Mr. Murphy’s Brezhnev: Soviet Politician.

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