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 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.

Both Stalin and Khrushchev were able to use this system as a weapon of political destruction. They did so by referring policy disputes within the Politburo to the Central Committee or the Party Congress for decision. When the two Party parliaments were called upon to act, the general secretary could rally his constituency of apparatchiks and win. During the key years between 1955 and 1957, for example, Khrushchev’s three chief rivals—Malenkov, Molotov, and Kaganovich—all suffered at the hands of these two bodies.6 Malenkov lost the prime ministership of the USSR after the Central Committee, at Khrushchev’s behest, rejected his “new deal” for the Soviet consumer. Molotov had to undergo the humiliation of public self-criticism after the Central Committee voted to end the Stalinist excommunication of Yugoslavia.

In February 1956 Khrushchev widened this political constituency to include the delegates to the Twentieth Party Congress. His famous denunciation of Stalin at the Congress served not only to accelerate the process of de-Stalinization, but also to indict Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich as Stalin’s chief surviving collaborators. Finally, in June 1957, Khrushchev raised the principle of parliamentary maneuver to new heights. Faced with a Politburo majority demanding his resignation, he turned once more to the Central Committee and had it rid the Politburo of, among others, Molotov, Malenkov, and Kaganovich, labeled collectively the “Anti-Party Group.” Their fall marked the real beginning of the Khrushchev era.

This system of manipulated political competition was one of the first things to be eliminated by those who took over from Khrushchev. Such veteran members of the Politburo as Suslov, A.N. Kosygin, N.V. Podgorny, and A.P. Kirilenko had the sense to bury a system that had been fatal to those who made up the collective leadership. The measures they took did not in themselves exclude all possibility of a Brezhnev dictatorship, but they did ensure that Brezhnev’s bid for power, if launched, would have to be fought out within the confines of the Politburo. The battle could no longer be shifted to the Party Congress or the Central Committee.

The oligarchs concentrated on two prominent features of the system. The first was the exercise of patronage by the general secretary, which, by linking him with the Party machine, had helped to transform the Central Committee and the Party Congress into his personal fiefdoms. These ties were much weakened by the policy known as “stability of cadres.” This allowed more and more Party officials to stay on the job until they retired or died in office. Inaugurated early in 1965, “stability of cadres” sharply reduced the opportunities for patronage. For example, between 1964 and 1976, 78 percent of the regional Party bureaus of the Russian heartland had, under the “stability of cadres” regime, either kept the same first secretary or had had their leadership changed only once.7 Under Khrushchev the equivalent figure was only 33 percent. Moreover, when vacancies within the bureaus did arise, they tended to be filled with officials from the same republic or region and not, as before, by clients of the general secretary brought in from the outside.8

“Stability of cadres” weakened the ties between the general secretary and the Party machine, but it did not break them. The general secretary was still the senior official of the Party, the traditional source of power and influence. As long as the Central Committee or the Party Congress continued to serve some purpose, there was always the danger that the general secretary, armed with the weight and prestige of his office, would appear before them and win them to his side. Indeed, in a sense “stability of cadres” encouraged such a tactic, for fewer apparatchiks were now tied either to the general secretary or to his Politburo colleagues. Once the battle for their loyalty was joined, it was still the general secretary who was best placed to win.

Brezhnev’s colleagues in the Politburo dealt with this danger in a most straightforward way. They relieved the Central Committee and the Party Congress of serious responsibilities and so deprived the general secretary of the public platform from which he might turn the Party organization against its top officials. In their arbitrary treatment of the two Party parliaments the oligarchs were following precedents set by Stalin in 1929 and 1930 and by Khrushchev from 1957 onwards. But between these maneuvers of the past and the present there was one vital difference. Stalin and Khrushchev rid themselves of the two bodies only after the struggle for the succession had been settled. Brezhnev’s colleagues got rid of them before it had even begun.

The intentions of the regime were revealed at the event that marked its birth: the October 1964 meeting of the Central Committee summoned to drive Khrushchev from office.9 This was a stage-managed affair very much in the tradition of the mature Stalin. The Central Committee was told to ratify a decision taken by the Politburo the previous day. The sole speaker was Suslov, the veteran Party ideologue, who for the third time in seven years acted as the Party’s prosecutor. The vote against Khrushchev was unanimous.

During the last seventeen years the example of the “October Plenum” has served as a model for almost every meeting of the Central Committee. The Politburo’s proposals are discussed in a token debate seldom lasting more than two days. During sessions on technical economic questions some sympathetic criticism from the floor might be permitted, but no more. When criticism goes beyond narrow limits, the critic suffers. In June 1967, for example, N.G. Yagorichev, Party boss of Moscow City, attacked the regime’s handling of the Middle East crisis. In July Yagorichev lost his job.10 This same repressive spirit has pervaded the four Party Congresses of the Brezhnev era, those of March-April 1966, March-April 1971, February-March 1976, and March 1981.

Who was the chief architect of the new system? Khrushchev’s successors have guarded their political secrets with great tenacity, but there is good reason to believe that the cardinal figure was (and indeed until January remained) Suslov.11 During the decisive years between 1964 and 1966, Suslov’s political assets were considerable. He had served in the Party secretariat continuously since 1947, when, as an ideological hatchet man, he had helped revive the sinister and paranoid atmosphere of the 1930s. He had upheld the interests of the Party bureaucracy longer and more consistently than anyone else. From 1957 onward he had been a leading critic of Khrushchev’s ideological and administrative reforms. Indeed the Party’s “counterreformation” of 1964-1966 largely embodied Suslov’s criticisms and proposals of the preceding seven years. Suslov’s political personality, moreover, was well suited to the spirit of the times. A figure of secrecy and intrigue, he was better at frustrating the ambitions of others than at promoting those of his own.

With this downgrading of the Central Committee and the Party Congress, the Politburo has been the focal point of political activity. But for all its power the Politburo remains among the more obscure of the Party’s leading organs.12 Although contacts between Soviet and Western leaders have increased during the last twelve years, these have revealed relatively little about the workings of the Politburo or about the beliefs of some of its leading members. Brezhnev and Gromyko may have become familiar figures; Ustinov, Kirilenko, and Andropov, less so. Much about the Politburo is revealed, however, by examining the ties of patronage and dependency among its members. When, for example, Konstantin Chernenko, a Brezhnev client of nearly thirty years’ standing, was brought into the Politburo in 1978, Brezhnev’s influence was likely to increase. Similarly, when the clientele of a single leader makes up a majority of the Politburo membership, then the days of collective leadership are probably numbered. This was essentially Khrushchev’s position from 1957 through about 1962.

How has Brezhnev exploited the politics of patronage?13 Although he became general secretary of the Party in October 1964, it was not until March 1971, with the convening of the Twenty-fourth Party Congress, that he actually began to shape the membership of the Politburo in his own political image. During those first six Brezhnev years the Politburo membership remained virtually frozen, as if the leadership were reacting to Khrushchev’s past abuse of patronage by banning the practice altogether. The Politburo remained the preserve of holdovers from the Stalin and Khrushchev regimes, none of whom was a protégé of Brezhnev’s. By past Soviet standards Brezhnev’s performance here was unimpressive. Khrushchev during his first six years of power had managed to get rid of Malenkov, Kaganovich, Molotov, and Zhukov. Brezhnev, on the other hand, was for six years unable to shift the membership in his favor.

During the eleven years since the Twenty-fourth Congress, however, Brezhnev’s position within the Politburo has grown stronger. The bad health of recent years notwithstanding, he has put together, or has been allowed to put together, a faction of his own. During these eleven years twelve men have been promoted to the Politburo, of whom two, Marshal Grechko and F.D. Kulakov, have since died. Of the ten who survive, seven belong to, or are closely identified with, the Party apparatus.14 It is from among these seven that the first true Brezhnev clients can be found. Konstantin Chernenko,15 promoted to the Politburo in 1978, is, as we have seen, a Brezhnev client of nearly thirty years’ standing. Their association began in the early Fifties when Brezhnev was Party boss of Moldavia and Chernenko a local apparatchik in charge of propaganda. Every succeeding step in Chernenko’s career has been achieved with Brezhnev’s assistance.

D.A. Kunaev, Party boss of Kazakhstan, became head of the Kazakh government when Brezhnev held the position of Party first secretary there during the mid-Fifties. He has been a strong and sometimes sycophantic supporter of Brezhnev ever since. V.V. Shcherbitsky, Party boss of the Ukraine, began his career in the Ukrainian city of Dneprodzerzhinsk, at a time when Brezhnev was the local Party chieftain. Each step in his advancement has since then closely corresponded with Brezhnev’s own. N.A. Tikhonov, Kosygin’s successor as prime minister of the USSR, is another Brezhnev associate from the Ukraine.

The appointment of these four men has provided Brezhnev with the core of his Politburo faction, but their presence within the leadership has been fully balanced by a group whose rise to power has been achieved quite independently of Brezhnev’s patronage. Some of these independents have been around even longer than Brezhnev himself. For example, the seventy-nine-year-old Suslov had been, as we have seen, a secretary of the Party apparatus, and a central figure in Soviet politics, continuously since 1947. He thus achieved high office at a time when Brezhnev was still an obscure official in the Ukraine. First appointed to the Politburo in 1955, he was at the time of his death its longestserving member. The defense minister, D.F. Ustinov, seventy-three, has been a powerful figure even longer than Suslov. He became Stalin’s minister of armaments in 1941 and has held high Party or government office ever since.

A central figure among these senior independents is Brezhnev’s contemporary, A.P. Kirilenko, who is now seventy-five.16 First appointed to the Politburo in 1962, Kirilenko has since 1966 been the principal Party secretary for “cadres” (i.e., personnel), a position of much potential power in Soviet political life, since the man who holds it assigns officials to leading positions within the central and regional Party apparatus. Kirilenko’s past career reveals some ties with Brezhnev, and he is often classified as a Brezhnev protégé. 17 But the detailed evidence of their careers does not support this view. Kirilenko, like Brezhnev, belongs to the political group recruited to the Party in the early 1930s, the generation whose luckiest members replaced the victims of the Great Purge. They also began their careers in the same industrial region of the Ukraine, and for two years (1946-1947) they even worked together in the same regional Party apparatus.

However, they have always been too close in age and seniority for the one to have acted as patron of the other. Brezhnev, for example, got his first job as regional first secretary in 1946, Kirilenko in 1947. Brezhnev became Party boss of Dnepropetrovsk in 1947, Kirilenko followed him there in 1950. Brezhnev became a candidate member of the Politburo in 1956, Kirilenko in 1957. What their careers suggest is not the dependence of Kirilenko upon the patronage of Brezhnev, but the dependence of both Kirilenko and Brezhnev upon the patronage of Khrushchev. By October 1964 Kirilenko was a powerful figure in his own right, and he has remained so.

Independents are also to be found among those promoted to the Politburo since Khrushchev’s fall. Some are independent of Brezhnev in the sense that they are linked with a Politburo member other than Brezhnev himself. Here Suslov was Brezhnev’s chief rival. For example, Iurii Andropov,18 sixty-seven, head of the KGB, was a long-time subordinate of Suslov’s in the Party’s international department. Suslov was also linked with the old Bolshevik Arvid Pelshe, head of the Party control commission, who joined the Politburo in 1966. They worked together in imposing Stalinist rule on the Baltic states at the end of World War II and, according to State Department sources, Pelshe was Suslov’s brother-in-law.19 Mikhail Gorbachev, the agricultural specialist promoted to the Politburo in 1980, also has the look of a Suslov protégé. His parent Party organization, in Stavropol, was long a Suslov stronghold.

Some appear to have reached the higher Party leadership without the intercession of Brezhnev or any other patron. Among these “pure” independents are Viktor Grishin and Grigorii Romanov,20 Party secretaries of, respectively, Moscow and Leningrad. Grishin is someone whose qualifications for Politburo membership are not readily apparent. But like the other gray figure, the eighty-two-year-old Pelshe, he has never been an associate of Brezhnev’s, and that may be his principal asset. Romanov is one of the few members of the Politburo whose advance to the top has taken place entirely since the fall of Khrushchev. He has spent virtually his entire career in Leningrad, and his steady rise within this single Party organization suggests that he has benefited from “stability of cadres,” with its emphasis upon orderly promotions within the oblast organizations.

From the evidence of these careers it is clear that Brezhnev has not been able to pack the Politburo with his clients. Indeed those who have risen from the Party ranks without his help make up a substantial majority of the membership. A count would show the Brezhnevites to be outnumbered eight to five. These numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, for while all Politburo members are, according to the Party rules, equal, some are in reality more equal than others. A minister of defense or a chairman of the KGB is a more important figure than a Party secretary from Kazakhstan.

Weighing the members according to their power and authority, the independents have looked even more formidable. Along with Brezhnev himself, Suslov was at the time of his death the preeminent figure of the regime. Kirilenko, Ustinov, and Andropov preside over bureaucracies of great importance. With the exception of Prime Minister Tikhonov, Brezhnev’s associates are, on the other hand, second-echelon figures. Kunaev and Shcherbitsky, as provincial Party secretaries, are removed from the political mainstream. Chernenko heads an important department of the apparatus, but his overwhelming dependence upon Brezhnev patronage probably detracts from his authority.

This division of patronage in the Politburo has held more or less unchanged since the Twenty-fourth Congress. Apparatchiks have come and gone, but at no time during these eleven years has Brezhnev ever had more than four clients in the leadership. The stability of this arrangement suggests that Brezhnev and his colleagues may have struck a deal. Brezhnev would respect the independence of the Politburo majority; his colleagues in turn would allow him to choose a fixed minority of the membership. But whether this division of influence is the product of a deal, or merely the outcome of maneuver and intrigue, its practical consequences are the same. It denies Brezhnev those dictatorial powers wielded by his two predecessors. It obliges him to reach out to the independents and to form with them alliances strong enough to bring his plans to fruition. How successful has he been in doing so?


Brezhnev’s role in Soviet policy-making has differed from that of his predecessors in one important respect. Stalin and Khrushchev intruded into virtually every sphere of policy—ideology, culture, industrial management and planning, agriculture, foreign affairs. Brezhnev, on the other hand, has been more selective in his efforts, and in some important matters his influence has been quite limited. Responsibility for industrial reform was, for example, from the beginning vested in Kosygin rather than Brezhnev. Kosygin introduced the important reforms of September 1965, which granted enterprise managers a measure of autonomy from central control. Kosygin also sponsored lesser and more recent reforms such as the creation of the production associations (ob’yedineniya).21 Again, the central task of enforcing ideological uniformity was the special province of Suslov and his ally B.N. Ponomarev.22 Brezhnev’s activities in this field have been relatively modes.

In some matters the regime’s actions have harmonized with Brezhnev’s known views, but these views have themselves formed part of a consensus. Brezhnev, for example, has consistently been in favor of heavy spending on the military. But there is no evidence that any major leader or faction today challenges this sacred priority. Kosygin was always thought to have done so, but no obvious successor has emerged since his death. Again, Brezhnev has always been harsh toward dissidents and their activities, but such repressive views are, among Soviet leaders today, entirely unexceptional. Moreover, the bureaucracies of repression and control are well represented in the Politburo. For such figures as Andropov and Pelshe, the control of dissent is a major professional concern. In both fields Brezhnev may have won his own particular victories—having a certain dissident locked up, getting a certain missile built—but there is no reason to believe that he has been the preeminent policy-maker.

Brezhnev has made his most important contributions in agriculture and foreign affairs. To Westerners Brezhnev’s concentration on agriculture may seem eccentric. But in the USSR the chronic weaknesses of the sector keep its problems at the center of the political stage, forcing the Soviet leaders to come up with schemes for its improvement. Brezhnev can also claim to be an agricultural expert in his own right. As a young man he was, as we have seen, trained as a specialist in land use (zemleustroitel), and as Party boss of Kazakhstan in the mid-Fifties he presided over the most ambitious agricultural project undertaken in the USSR since collectivization—the development of the Virgin Lands.

Although the years between 1970 and 1980 were among the worst for Soviet agriculture since World War II, this was nonetheless a period during which investment in agriculture took precedence over all other civilian expenditures.23 Only the defense budget grew at a comparable rate. The percentage of investment devoted to agriculture rose from 18.9 percent between 1961 and 1965, to 21.3 percent between 1966 and 1970, and to 24.4 percent between 1976 and 1978.24 While every agricultural activity has benefited from this infusion of funds, the production of livestock has probably benefited more than any other. The Soviet leaders dare not ignore the politics of meat. Vast sums have also been spent on increasing the production of fertilizer and machinery and, true to his professional origins, Brezhnev has given a high priority to land reclamation and improvement.

While Brezhnev can take the credit for this agricultural spending spree, the political obstacles to such spending have been relatively easy to surmount. Increased expenditures on agriculture, intended to lessen the USSR’s dependence upon “foreign food,” can always be justified by their contribution to national security. Brezhnev, moreover, seems to have paid for his agricultural investments by cutting back investments in parts of the economy which traditionally have not carried much political weight. These have included civilian transport, light (consumer) industry, housing, and health.25

But where the political obstacles to change have been more formidable, Brezhnev’s performance has been less impressive. For all his policy of investments in agriculture, Brezhnev has, for example, done very little to curb the powers of the incompetent ministry of agriculture, which continues to intrude into day-to-day issues of farm management, with predictable results.26 In 1969 the regime set up a system of kolkhoz (collective farm) councils, and there were hopes that the councils might come to act as some kind of farm pressure group. All came to nothing when the councils’ all-union chairman turned out to be none other than the minister of agriculture himself. Again, while Brezhnev has been able to increase the production of agricultural machinery, he has not been able to increase the industry’s share of scarce, high-grade resources. Here the defense bureaucracy and its heavy industrial base still have first pick. And agricultural productivity still suffers.27

Similarly with the productivity of agricultural labor. Various attempts have been made to motivate the peasantry. The kolkhozniks have been granted state pension rights, and their wages have been substantially increased. They have also been issued internal passports, a dispensation which for the first time allows them fairly full freedom of movement. But on the central issue of the peasant’s place in the kolkhoz or sovkhoz (collective and state farms) organization, Brezhnev has stood resolutely still. Schemes that might grant a measure of autonomy to groups of peasant farmers have been introduced only as local experiments.28 The regime has also refused to increase the size of the private plots, thus excluding the quickest and least expensive method of improving agricultural productivity.

So as boss of Soviet agriculture Brezhnev seems to have worked within the limits imposed by collective leadership. For ideologues such as Suslov the present organization of the farms was an advanced form of socialism which could not be tampered with. For defense industrialists such as Ustinov the poor quality of agricultural investment is the price that has to be paid for tanks and missiles as good as the West’s. Whenever Brezhnev has come up against such powerful interests, he has deferred to them. He has shown resolve only in the face of the weakest groups. Thus his success in financing agricultural schemes at the expense of light industry, health, etc.

For many Western statesmen and scholars Brezhnev’s control of foreign affairs has provided the decisive evidence of his preeminence within the Soviet leadership. Of his July 1971 meeting with Brezhnev, Willy Brandt, for example, has written: “There were a number of respects in which I sensed that a change had occurred in my opposite number. … First his status as the dominant member of the Soviet leadership could hardly have been more manifest…., second he showed greater assurance when discussing international affairs.”29 Again, in speaking of Brezhnev’s emergence in 1969 from “the dark shadows surrounding the collective leadership,” M. Tatu of Le Monde wrote: “When Brezhnev went alone [to Paris] for his first summit meeting in any Western country he brought home to everyone that he was indeed the boss.”30

The evidence for such views usually derives from the same period: the five years from 1969 through 1973, when the spirit of détente was at its strongest. These did seem to be successful years for Brezhnev. He displaced Kosygin as the regime’s chief foreign policy negotiator, and he presided over negotiations with the West which, with the agreements on SALT I, Berlin, and Central European boundaries, yielded more in the way of concrete results than those of the preceding twenty-five years. Nonetheless, for those such as M. Tatu who have cited the early achievements of détente as evidence of Brezhnev’s expanding power, the evolution of Soviet policy since poses some difficult questions. Such events as the dispatch of the Cuban proxies to Angola and Ethiopia, the participation in the 1978 Afghan coup, the invasion of Afghanistan itself, and the emplacement of the SS-20 missiles in Central Europe—all suggest a greater willingness to rely upon military power as the chief vehicle of global influence.

But if détente was Brezhnev’s special creation, what for him are the implications of these changes? Has Brezhnev himself executed the change of line? Has he at some point suffered a defeat at the hands of the hard-liners? Another possibility is suggested by our analysis here. It may be that neither of the two phases should be attributed to Brezhnev at all, and that both détente and its sequel are as much a product of collective leadership as, say, Soviet agricultural policy.

Looking back at the early transactions of détente from the perspective of 1982, one finds it hard to see why their negotiation should have been a matter of serious controversy on the Soviet side, splitting the leadership into hawks and doves, and requiring as a condition of acceptance the backing of a single powerful patron such as Brezhnev. From each of its negotiations with the West the USSR got essentially what it wanted, and on good terms. Its negotiations with Willy Brandt gave it West German recognition of the Central European boundaries left by World War II, something it had been after for twenty-five years, and helped to increase trade as well. The SALT I treaty ratified its nuclear equality with the United States and so justified its strategic buildup during the 1960s. Its bid for Western capital and technology gave it a method of improving productivity which required no risky tampering with the structure of agriculture and industry. With a list of achievements such as these, could not even such presumed hard-liners as Suslov or Ustinov say: “We are all détentistes now”?

Secondly, the practice of détente did not require the Soviet Union to abandon policies which were to varying degrees anti-Western, and which were presumably of special concern to the hard-liners. The SALT I treaty did not prevent the USSR from pushing ahead with the modernization of its strategic arsenal. New ICBMs, MIRVs, and bombers—all were permitted by the treaty. The improved atmosphere of East-West relations did not prevent Soviet ideologues from speaking of a Soviet homeland surrounded by implacable foes. The code of restraint embodied in the “Principles of Moscow” (1972) did not interfere with the USSR’s ideological missions in the third world. Between 1969 and 1973, for example, the Russians sent an expeditionary force to Egypt, provisioned Hanoi’s 1972 offensive against the US and South Vietnam, and trained Sadat’s army for its October 1973 attack across the Suez Canal.

Thirdly, even though much analysis of Soviet foreign policy-making has been cast as a conflict between hawks and doves, the important years between 1969 and 1973 show remarkably little evidence of such a conflict. All the theories about struggles and factions come up against the difficult fact that the USSR’s foreign policy team managed to get through those years without a change: Brezhnev, Suslov, and Ponomarev for the Party; Kosygin and Gromyko for the government, Andropov for the KGB, Grechko for the military—this was the USSR’s presiding group throughout the period.31

Moreover, allowing for differences of emphasis, members of this group spoke of détente in very much the same way. Brezhnev would couple his defense of détente with hard-line calls for ideological and military vigilance. Suslov and his hard-line associates would combine their calls for vigilance with justifications for détente achievements.32

The evidence seems to suggest, therefore, that on the Soviet side détente was a product of consensus politics, worked out within the collective leadership, and accepted by all shades of Politburo opinion. Hard-liners in particular could form part of the détente coalition because the policy yielded important advantages, yet did not trespass upon their own special interests. While Brezhnev became the regime’s chief negotiator, there is no reason to believe that the policies negotiated were in any special sense “his,” pushed through in the face of strong Politburo opposition.

But if this was the situation during the formative years of détente, there are questions to be answered about the events of the past seven or eight years, a period during which détente has declined and East-West rivalry, particularly in the third world, has intensified. Do these developments signify, on the Soviet side, a breakup of the détente coalition and the emergence of Brezhnev as a leader of a newly dominant hard-line group? Or has the coalition managed somehow to hold together, with Brezhnev still playing his part as a member of the collective?

Although the early promise of détente has long been overlaid with a thick smog of rivalry and suspicion, it is far from clear that this change has required the Soviet leaders to rethink the guiding principles of their foreign policy. One of its cardinal principles was, as we have seen, that of “separatism.” As propounded by Soviet ideologues from Suslov and Ponomarev on downward,33 this principle gives the Soviet Union the right to seek cooperation with the West in some matters, while challenging it in others. In Europe the USSR can settle outstanding territorial disputes and achieve a high level of economic cooperation, for example its current plan to bring natural gas from Siberia to West Germany. In the Middle East it can work to reduce and eventually eliminate Western influence.

During the early years of détente the Western powers revealed through their actions that they did not find the practice of “separatism” to be an obstacle to the practice of détente. In the Nixon-Kissinger days the United States was, after all, itself a practitioner of “separatism.” It wished to negotiate with the Russians on SALT, trade, and Berlin, while at the same time reserving the right to bomb and mine the USSR’s North Vietnamese ally, arm to the teeth its Iranian neighbor, and “destabilize” the Marxist regime in Chile. It was not therefore well placed to insist upon Soviet disengagement from the third world as a condition of détente. West Germany, as a purely European power, has had the fewest questions about separatism. The French, with their interests in Africa, were potential third world competitors of the Russians, but under Giscard they too did not allow Soviet activism there to disturb their own direct dealings with Moscow.

During the six years which separate the Yom Kippur War of 1973 from the Afghan invasion of 1979, both sides continued to practice détente according to these established rules. “Separatism” was still the guiding principle of Soviet policy. On the détente side of the ledger were the SALT II negotiations, the lesser negotiations on Mutual Balanced Force Reduction and on the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, and the growing economic ties with the West which raised the hard-currency indebtedness of the entire Eastern bloc by tens of billions of dollars. On the competitive side were the interventions in Angola and Ethiopia, the 1978 Afghan coup, and the support for Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia.

In the West, and particularly in the United States, these Soviet activities advanced the cause of those who had claimed all along that détente was a fraud. But Western governments still tried to keep détente insulated from the affairs of the third world. West German attention remained focused upon Europe. Giscard’s government intervened in Zaïre, Chad, and the Central African Empire, but true to form it did not permit this peripheral activity to disturb its direct bilateral relations with the Russians. In the American case the interventions in Angola and Ethiopia were strongly condemned, but neither the Ford nor the Carter administration was prepared to make the SALT II negotiations, the central activity of détente, a hostage to Soviet good conduct in the third world.

Whatever the wisdom of this Western policy, and a strong case can be made for it, its effect during those six years was to spare the Soviet leaders the need to undertake any “agonizing reappraisal” of their policies. They were not forced to choose between their investment in détente and their interests in the third world. They could still believe that it was possible to pursue both without risking the loss of either. They could go on acting as they had always done. Western tolerance also spared them the political strain and dissension which the necessity for choice might have imposed. As a result the foreign policy coalition put together in the late Sixties did, as far as one can tell, hold together. The foreign policy team lost Marshal Grechko, who died, but otherwise its composition remained as before. Several senior officials left the Politburo during the period—Podgorny. Shelepin, Polyansky; but there is no evidence that issues of foreign policy were the cause of their downfall.

With their invasion of Afghanistan the Soviet leaders at one stroke inaugurated a new and more difficult phase of their foreign policy. It may well be that before making their move against the Afghans they looked at the precedents of the previous ten years and decided that the invasion would be accepted by the West as a venture permitted under the unwritten rules of détente. They were, of course, mistaken. The use of Soviet rather than mercenary troops, the strategic location of Afghanistan, the possibility of de facto Soviet annexation—these elements made the Afghanistan venture more alarming than, say, those in Angola or Ethiopia.

Through its impact upon Western perceptions, the Afghanistan invasion has made the USSR’s future practice of “separatism” very much more risky. Now that the price of adventurism can include the final withering away of détente, the Soviet leaders must think twice before embarking upon some new imperial scheme. Their failure so far to invade Poland suggests that they may already be counting the costs.

Nonetheless, General Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law, despite its early “pacification” of Solidarity, may still unleash forces of disintegration beyond the power of the Polish regime alone to control. A collapse of industrial production through countless individual acts of noncooperation or even sabotage, a spreading of this spirit of noncooperation to the ranks of the regular Polish army, a loss of nerve on the part of the Polish military or civilian leadership—any one of these developments could force the Soviet leaders to reconsider their position. The decision they would then face would not be an easy one. The stakes in Poland are so high, and the pattern of Polish events themselves so ambiguous, that the risk of serious disagreements arising among them would be great. This is the kind of conflict which could break open the foreign policy coalition and split the Soviet leadership into contending factions. But this development, if it comes, will probably arrive too late for Brezhnev to exploit. But not, of course, too late for his successor.


The evidence of the past eighteen years seems to suggest that power in the Kremlin has been vested not in one man but in several, and that the pattern of one-man rule established during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras has, for the moment at least, been broken. By limiting Brezhnev’s powers of patronage, by insisting that major decisions of policy be reached by consensus, the Soviet leaders have kept a collective leadership going for almost two decades. This does not mean, however, that Brezhnev should be seen as a powerless figurehead, some latter-day Kalinin. Had he been, the stability of the post-Khrushchev years probably would not have lasted. A feeble Brezhnev would have been as formidable a threat to stability as a strong one. If during those first years Brezhnev had turned out to be weak or incompetent, his colleagues would very soon have been chipping away at his position, and the uncertainty of Khrushchev’s last years would have returned.

In the impending succession crisis, it is just this kind of instability that may well give the Soviet leaders the most trouble. For during recent years it has become more and more obvious that the ruling group, all in their seventies or older, has been maintaining its hold on power by discriminating against younger men of vigor or talent. Some younger men, such as Shelepin and his associate Yagorichev, have been purged. Others, promising figures such as Petr Demichev, Yakov Riabov, and Konstantin Katushev, have been kept out of the Politburo and shunted off to the government apparatus.34 Still others have reached the Politburo but have been denied the kind of responsibilities that would make them serious candidates for the succession. Romanov and Shcherbitsky have, for example, been kept in provincial exile. Andropov has had to spend the past fourteen years at the KGB, a powerful position but one that, given the precedent of Beria, effectively debars him from the succession.

This recruitment policy has left the Soviet leadership in poor shape to face the problem of its own succession. This becomes clear the moment one looks at the two officials who, faute de mieux, are now best placed to succeed Brezhnev. These are Konstantin Chernenko and Viktor Grishin.35 Both seem formidably unqualified to occupy the Party’s number one post. Chernenko has had no serious experience in industry, agriculture, foreign affairs, or cadres. After his early years spent churning out propaganda in Moldavia, he has devoted most of his time to running errands for Brezhnev, not the most demanding of tasks. Grishin spent many years in the trade unions, a Soviet backwater, and his record as Party boss of the city of Moscow has not been particularly distinguished. Among many diplomats and dissidents he is seen to epitomize the spirit of bureaucratic mediocrity, Soviet style.

It is possible, then, that a succession built around a figure such as Grishin or Chernenko would not work for long, and that more formidable officials, such as the KGB chief, Andropov, or the Leningrad Party secretary, Romanov, fifty-eight, who is said to be ambitious and energetic, would very soon begin plotting a further succession. This instability at the political summit could, moreover, very easily become fused with another kind of instability—this time one affecting the entire higher leadership. For the ruling senior citizens have discriminated not only against younger Politburo members, but also against the entire younger generation. Of the generation of Soviet officials now in their prime, men aged between fortyfive and sixty, only three have managed to reach the higher Party leadership—Romanov, Gorbachev, and V.I. Dolgikh.

This situation, however, cannot continue for very much longer. As the old leaders die or retire, they will have to be replaced for the most part by men between forty-five and sixty. As this generational succession gathers pace, the tensions between the incoming and outgoing generations could well grow: the senior citizens feeling resentful at their loss of power, the rising and long-frustrated younger officials feeling further frustration at being denied the very highest posts. This conflict could very easily become part of the wider struggle for leadership. An insurgent such as Romanov could put himself at the head of the newcomers and challenge Grishin or Chernenko in the name of youth and renewal.

If the 1980s do turn out to be a decade of political instability, the effects could be felt in both domestic and foreign affairs. Just as the stability of the past seventeen years has encouraged consensus, so future instability could encourage the opposite. The contenders for power would need to mark themselves off from their rivals by taking up bold and distinctive positions. So far as the younger generation is concerned, this could turn out to be a mixed blessing. An anonymous Soviet sociologist, “N,” to whose work Roy Medvedev refers in On Socialist Democracy,36 has, for example, found that “reactionary and dogmatic views are comparatively widespread among party officials between forty-five and fifty.”

Because this generation was too young to have experienced the purges at first hand, “it is therefore,” according to Medvedev’s source, “less opposed to Stalinism than the older generation.” Faced with the evident drift and malaise of contemporary Soviet society, such young Turks might feel that a measure of Stalinist discipline and militancy is the best remedy. But the younger generation’s lack of any direct experience of Stalinism might also have its advantages. For this generation is also too young to have worked in the Stalinist apparat and to have developed that special attachment to the institutions, and particularly the economic institutions, of Stalinism which the generation of Brezhnev and Suslov evidently feels. The leaders between forty-five and sixty are also much better educated than their predecessors, and so they may be the first to have the confidence to tackle the structural problems of the Soviet economy.

While these two themes, the one reactionary, the other reformist, would seem to contradict each other, they could turn out to be complementary. For any serious reform of planning, industry, or agriculture would carry some political risks—the Czech and Polish crises would be cited as disturbing precedents—which is precisely why the Brezhnev regime has preferred to leave things as they are. To prevent things from getting out of hand, therefore, a future Party leadership may wish to combine economic reform with political repression. As professionals the managers would be freer; as citizens they would be watched more closely than ever.

The one sphere where these two themes could not be so easily combined is in foreign affairs. For traditionally in the USSR a policy of domestic repression impels the leadership to treat the outside world with special hostility and suspicion. The myth of capitalist encirclement must be inflated in order to justify what is going on at home. But a serious program of economic reform would also, at least in the short run, increase the USSR’s economic dependence upon the West. For unless the Soviet leaders were ready to live through a period of absolute economic decline, they would have to rely upon Western trade in food and technology to get them through the difficult period of transition. As things stand, the Soviet economy already shows every sign that it will face grave difficulties during the 1980s. For eighteen years the need for economic and social reform in both the USSR and Eastern Europe has been sacrificed to the even greater need for stability within the Politburo. The Brezhnev oligarchy will, as a result, be leaving behind a legacy of declining productivity, low growth, and deteriorating social conditions. The disturbances and upheavals of reform, if they come, would be adding to these already severe troubles.

This Issue

March 4, 1982