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Brezhnev and After


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 now faces is, in its essential structure, the one which it has faced since October 1964 and may continue to face after Brezhnev has gone.

Leonid Brezhnev was born on December 19, 1906, in the Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhinsk, the son of a metal worker.3 The Dneprodzerzhinsk region forms part of the Ukraine’s “black earth” belt, and Brezhnev’s first job was as a specialist in land reclamation. However, in 1930, aged twenty-four, he abandoned this agricultural career, and for most of the 1930s he worked as a metallurgical engineer in one of the Dneprodzerzhinsk steel mills, or as a teacher of the subject in the local technical high school. His political career began in 1931 when he joined the Party, and thereafter he was an active member of its youth organization, Komsomol.

Brezhnev was rescued from this worthy obscurity by the man whom, twenty-five years later, he was himself to succeed as general secretary of the Party—Nikita Khrushchev. The Great Purge of 1936-1938 hit the Ukraine with special ferocity, and the liquidation of virtually its entire political elite opened the way for young proletarians such as Brezhnev who had the right technical and political qualifications. Khrushchev was appointed head of the Ukrainian Party in January 1938, and one of his principal tasks was to rebuild its apparatus. Among those chosen to replace the victims of the purge was Leonid Brezhnev. In October 1938 Brezhnev was appointed a senior secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk oblast, or regional Party organization.

Thus began an association that was to take Brezhnev all the way to the Party Politburo in Moscow. Brezhnev became a loyal member of the Khrushchev entourage, and through most of the 1940s and 1950s the rise of Khrushchev was accompanied, at a more modest level, by the rise of Brezhnev. After serving as a “political” general during World War II, Brezhnev was appointed Party boss of Zaporozhe in 1946, of Dnepropetrovsk in 1947. In both places his main task was to rebuild the steel mills ruined during World War II. As boss of the Moldavian republic in 1952 he enforced the collectivization of the hapless peasants of the region. In 1954 he was put in charge of the Virgin Lands project in Kazakhstan. This decade of provincial apprenticeship ended in 1956 when Khrushchev brought Brezhnev to Moscow and installed him in the Party secretariat. It was from this central vantage point that Brezhnev eventually helped to plot Khrushchev’s own fall.

Brezhnev followed a simple formula for success: industry on the job and loyalty to the boss. But during Khrushchev’s last, declining years of power, the formula grew more complex. As Khrushchev lost power, his clients were obliged to put some distance between themselves and their patron without in the process arousing his suspicions. The public record suggests that Brezhnev handled this task with considerable skill. He was able to pass himself off as a Khrushchev loyalist almost to the end. As late as July 1964, for example, Khrushchev was still mentioning him as a possible successor. But Brezhnev also managed to ingratiate himself with the opposition to the point where it was Brezhnev himself, the former Khrushchev client, who was chosen to succeed Khrushchev.

Since Stalin’s death in 1953 the Politburo has, for the outside world, been the most conspicuous institution of Soviet power.4 There are good reasons why this should be so. The Politburo is, in practice if not in theory, the Party’s highest body. Its membership comprises the dozen or so leading officials of both Party and government. Major issues of policy are referred to it for decision, and the fortunes of those contending for supreme power have usually been reflected in the movement of clients and allies into and out of the Politburo. However, along with the Politburo, there have also been two other Party institutions which have briefly been of great importance.

These are the Party Congress and the Central Committee. The Party Congress meets every five years, and its membership of around five thousand is drawn mostly from among the petty notables of the provincial Party organizations. These organizations themselves hold congresses and conferences at which the delegates to the All-Union Congress are selected. It was at the Twentieth Party Congress of February 1956 that Khrushchev made his famous denunciation of Stalin. The Central Committee is a smaller and much more elitist body. Its present membership of 319 includes the leading figures of the central and regional Party organizations, the government, the military, the KGB, and the foreign service. It holds a minimum of two meetings a year.

According to the Party rules, both the Party Congress and the Central Committee outrank the Politburo. The Party Congress embodies the supreme authority of the Party, and the Central Committee, elected by the Congress, exercises this authority during intervals between Congresses. The Politburo is in theory no more than a standing committee of the Central Committee to which it must answer for everything it does. In practice, of course, the order of precedence is reversed, and the two larger bodies usually are the pliant tools of the Politburo. But there have also been brief periods when this strict hierarchy of committees has been eroded, and these have included the key years of political struggle that followed the death of Stalin.

When Brezhnev began his reign as general secretary of the Party in 1964, he was faced with many of the obstacles that beset his two predecessors. Within the Politburo he found himself surrounded by men whose positions had been achieved independently of his past patronage and whose appetite for power was, in some cases, equal to his own. Moreover, Brezhnev had no formal right to remove these colleagues or to replace them with protégés of his own. Nor could he easily assume the role of chief architect of Soviet policies, whether domestic or foreign. In the desire for collective leadership that swept the Soviet leadership after Khrushchev’s forced resignation, the Politburo was expected to reach its decisions by consensus, with each member having his say—and his vote.5

Stalin and Khrushchev had in their time to face similar obstacles, and in varying degrees they managed to surmount them. But the record of their past victories has itself been among the most formidable of the obstacles that Brezhnev, and here Brezhnev alone, has had to reckon with. For Brezhnev’s contemporaries have shown themselves determined to stop Brezhnev from using the tactics of Stalin and Khrushchev. Their method of containment has been to surround Brezhnev with a network of restrictions and controls. Of the three successors to Lenin, Brezhnev has been the first to compete with his colleagues on more or less equal terms.

The political strategy followed by Stalin and Khrushchev involved shifting the political battlefield away from the Politburo, where control by their immediate colleagues was strongest, and toward the Central Committee and the Party Congress, where they could more easily have their way. The Politburo remained important to them in the sense that they and every other contestant for the succession tried to alter its membership in his favor—promoting clients and purging rivals. But such changes, when they occurred, were rarely the outcome of clandestine maneuvers executed within the confines of the Politburo itself. Instead the decisive battles were fought within the two Party “parliaments,” with the balance of power in the Politburo depending upon their outcome.

According to the Party rules, the elections to the Party Congress and the Central Committee were supposed to follow democratic principles. But from the early 1920s onward both bodies in fact formed part of a vast system of patronage from above controlled by one man—the general secretary of the Party. As the original architect of this system Stalin had exercised this control in its purest form. He had appointed the hierarchy of republic and regional secretaries who together carried Moscow’s will to the farthest corners of the Soviet empire. These secretaries in turn dominated the Party’s two representative bodies. In the Party Congress they selected the delegates sent by republic and regional party organizations. In the Central Committee they formed an absolute majority of the membership. Both bodies were in effect extensions of the Party machine.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Robert H. McNeal, The Bolshevik Tradition (Prentice-Hall, 1975), pp. 189-190; Marshall Shulman, “Towards a Philosophy of Coexistence,” Foreign Affairs, October 1973, pp. 38-39; Michel Tatu, “Decision Making in the USSR,” in Soviet Strategy in Europe, edited by Richard Pipes (Crane-Russak, 1976), p. 51; Victor Zorza, “The Kremlin Power Struggle,” Radio Liberty Research Paper, RL 32/74, pp. 6-13.

  2. 2

    For Nitze’s testimony see Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The SALT II Treaty” (1979), Part I, pp., 515-516, 518-519; also Senate Armed Services Committee, “The Military Implications of the SALT II Treaty” (1979), Part III, pp. 78-79, 916-917; for Haig’s testimony see ibid., Part I, pp. 359-370; for Kissinger’s testimony see Foreign Relations Committee, “The SALT II Treaty” (1979), Part III, pp. 160-165.

  3. 3

    John Dornberg, Brezhnev: The Masks of Power (Basic Books, 1974) remains the only unofficial, full-length biography in English. See also Paul Smith, Jr., “Brezhnev: Ascent to Power,” Orbis (Summer 1971); Grey Hodnett, “Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev,” in Soviet Leaders, edited by G.W. Simmonds (Crowell, 1967); McNeal, The Bolshevik Tradition, Part IV, passim; Jerry Hough, “The Brezhnev Era: The Man, the System,” Problems of Communism, March-April 1976; George W. Breslauer, “Political Succession and the Soviet Policy Agenda,” Problems of Communism, May-June 1980. Brezhnev himself has produced three volumes of memoirs, published in English by Novosti Press, Moscow.

  4. 4

    For an account of the formal roles of the Politburo, Central Committee, and Party Congress, see Leonard Schapiro, The Government and Politics of the Soviet Union (Vintage Books, 1978), pp. 62-65.

  5. 5

    For press comment characteristic of the time, see F. Petrenko, “Collegiality and Responsibility,” Pravda, July 20, 1966: “The Secretary of the Party Committee is not the chief, he is not invested with the right to give orders. He is only the senior in the organ of collective leadership, elected by the Communists. A greater responsibility rests upon him. But in solving problems, he has the same rights as the other members of the Committee.”

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