Soviet party leaders tend to get the biographies they deserve. Stephen Kotkin’s unfolding trilogy about Stalin is almost superhuman in scope and ambition. William Taubman’s volumes about Khrushchev and Gorbachev are vivid, buoyant, and dramatic. Susanne Schattenberg’s new biography of Brezhnev is almost as bland as its subject.
According to Schattenberg, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoe, Ukraine, into a family that was neither entirely working class nor petty bourgeois. In school, “he did not join in with the usual harassment of Jewish pupils, but did nothing to defend them either.” During the revolution and the civil war, “not only was he not an enthusiastic Bolshevik, but their victory meant the destruction of his small, relatively cosy world.” In the 1920s he stayed away from both left and right oppositions, liked to sing and dance, graduated from a surveying school, and found a wife. It was then “that Brezhnev first showed traits that would later become characteristic: the pleasure he took in hunting, his enjoyment of the good life, and his weakness for the ladies.”
As a land management official during the push for collective farming, he deported kulaks on schedule but without relish. In the early 1930s, when the industrial foundations of Soviet socialism were being built and class-based college admissions quotas vigorously enforced, he was a factory worker by day and a student of metal engineering at the Kamenskoe Institute of Metallurgy in the evenings. In 1929 he joined the Communist Party, “not only for forging a career, but also in order to avoid being suspected of being on the wrong side.” As party secretary of his institute, he excelled at volleyball and defended his thesis with distinction on his fifth try. After a few months as an engineer and another several months in the army, he was made director of his alma mater (soon after Kamenskoe had been renamed Dneprodzerzhinsk in honor of the founder of the Soviet secret police). The highlights of his tenure included reprimanding several students involved in an indoor snowball fight and mandating that all written work be, as Schattenberg has it, “corrected for orthography and style.”
Neither capable nor ambitious, he would likely have become a low-level administrator had the Great Terror of 1937–1938 not eliminated most party and government officeholders. Former terrorists, theorists, and cavalry commanders were escorted out; newly educated ex-workers were brought in. “Brezhnev was neither one of those who instigated and actively escalated the Terror, nor one of those who lost their liberty or their lives,” Schattenberg writes. “Rather, he was swept into a maelstrom that severely reduced his options if he wanted to stay alive”—and radically expanded his opportunities if he wanted to move up. In May 1937 he became a member of the Dneprodzerzhinsk party committee, in August deputy chairman of the city soviet, and in November a member of the “organizing bureau” (responsible for all personnel matters). In May 1938, at the age of thirty-one, he was elected to the party committee of the provincial capital, Dnepropetrovsk; within a year he became the oblast’s propaganda secretary. Most promotions followed someone’s arrest. Brezhnev stayed true to himself (and Schattenberg remains true to her style): “He was not an agitator or instigator who pushed for colleagues’ ‘exposure’ and arrest, nor was evading the ritual ‘uncovering’ of ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘wreckers’ an option.”
The Great Terror was a mystery—to the executioners and beneficiaries as much as to the victims and historians. Doom seemed random, and so did good fortune. The suddenly orphaned heirs of the revolution would never want to remember the circumstances of their election. The Great Patriotic War, by contrast, was a sacred test that the surviving apparatchiks never tired of looking back on. It ended up overshadowing the revolution and, depending on which historians you believe, either reinforced or weakened the regime’s claim to power. Party officials claimed to play “the leading role,” but they were not the ones who did most of the fighting (as both Stalin and Khrushchev readily acknowledged). “Brezhnev was not involved in any of the deciding battles,” writes Schattenberg. “The wartime escapades we do know about are the romances he is said to have had with female soldiers.”
His time came when the fighting was over:
The terror created vacancies that brought men like Brezhnev into positions they otherwise might not have reached had it not been for the arrests and murders. The devastation wrought by the Germans left a field of activity which gave this generation the opportunity to prove themselves in a comprehensive, existential fashion as rebuilders, renewers, sovietizers and organizers in a way that would not have been possible without the war.
Brezhnev had other advantages too: he had Nikita Khrushchev as his patron, and he fit the mold of the postwar party functionary. The tough, loud, never-in-one-place captain of crash industrialization had gone the way of the leather-clad commissar. Their successor was, as Gogol put it on another occasion, “not too handsome, yet not ugly; not too fat, nor too thin; it could not be said that he is old, but then neither is he too young.” At the height of the terror Stalin had condemned such officials as “indefinite people,” “neither-fish-nor-fowl kind of people,” “people about whom you can’t say if they’re good or bad, courageous or cowardly, for the people to the end or for the enemies of the people.” During the postwar “restoration period,” when stolidity was in greater demand than ruthlessness or daring, they were lined up and told to lead by example. They symbolized survival and embodied a new bureaucratic standard. They wore suits, knew how to listen, and sat behind long desks. They would offer you a soft handshake, invite you to sit down, ask about your children, nod thoughtfully as you spoke, make a good-natured joke, and promise to look into the matter further. In their free time, they liked steam baths and hunting.
After the war Brezhnev served as first secretary of the Zaporozh’e and Dnepropetrovsk oblast party committees, moved up to become the first secretary of the newly formed Republic of Moldavia (where he adopted a moderate approach to violent collectivization), and survived as the first secretary of Kazakhstan during Khrushchev’s drive to make the steppe bloom. According to one associate, Brezhnev “listened patiently, asked questions, understood how to put his interlocutor at ease, gave advice and expressed wishes.” According to another, “even in unofficial situations he did not permit himself any coarseness or impoliteness. And he had a sense of humour, he loved to tell jokes. He always dressed immaculately.” What distinguished Brezhnev, in Schattenberg’s account, was his “ability to win people over.” A discreetly reliable deputy and “a pleasant, amiable boss who liked to join his subordinates on the landing for a smoke,” he had the rare gift of being memorably inconspicuous.
In 1956 Khrushchev delivered his Secret Speech denouncing Stalin and made Brezhnev a Central Committee secretary and candidate member of the Central Committee Presidium. In June 1957 several members of the Stalinist old guard attempted a coup. Having learned of the plot, Brezhnev left a presidium meeting in order to make some calls to Khrushchev supporters. When he returned, Stalin’s former second-in-command, Lazar Kaganovich, “demanded to know where he had been; Brezhnev lied to him, saying he had gone to the toilet feeling unwell,” at which point he “genuinely felt ill and dashed to the toilet.” Returning for the second time, he attempted to speak in defense of Khrushchev but was interrupted by Kaganovich, who threatened to send him back to the army. He fainted, was carried out unconscious, and missed the rest of the day’s proceedings.
Khrushchev called him “a cowardly man without principles,” but the next day (when the outcome was no longer in doubt) Brezhnev sent him a note apologizing for his absence and pledging full support. At the Central Committee plenum that sealed the defeat of the “anti-Party group,” he attacked Kaganovich for his role in the purge of the Ukrainian Party apparatus. Khrushchev seemed convinced. He kept Brezhnev on the Central Committee and in 1958 put him in charge of rocket science. Great minds needed a steady hand. Once, Andrei Sakharov and some of his colleagues came to see Brezhnev about a draft directive they opposed:
He listened to us attentively, made a note of something and then said, “I have understood you entirely. I will consult with my comrades. You will be informed of our decision.” He stood up and pleasantly accompanied us to the door, where he shook hands with everyone. The directive was not passed.
In 1960 Khrushchev had Brezhnev elected chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. “Particularly in retrospect,” writes Schattenberg,
it seems this was the best position for Brezhnev, given his abilities and predilections. He clearly loved handing out decorations and accepting certificates of accreditation. He was in his element representing the state, dressing well for the occasion, conducting small talk, joking with his interlocutors, visiting foreign countries, shaking hands with people and telling them about the wonderful Soviet Union.
By the time Khrushchev tired of having a “dimwit” represent the Soviet state, most top officials had had enough of the first secretary’s tantrums and organizational reshufflings. In the summer of 1964 Brezhnev overcame his “panicked, deadly fear” of his patron (as the Ukrainian Party chief Petro Shelest put it), joined a conspiracy against him, and at one point asked the KGB chief, Vladimir Semichastnyi, if it might not be possible to “physically liquidate” him. Semichastnyi demurred, and the plotters unseated Khrushchev in accordance with party statutes, first at a presidium meeting and then at a Central Committee plenum. Brezhnev’s job was to call Khrushchev, who was on vacation, and talk him into attending the meeting. According to Semichastnyi, “we literally had to drag the trembling Brezhnev to the telephone.”
He did call, launched the attack at the meeting, and was confirmed as first (later “general”) secretary. The plan was to break with Khrushchev’s practice of combining top party and government jobs and have someone else serve as chairman of the Council of Ministers. The script called for Brezhnev to nominate Aleksei Kosygin, but he confused “recommendation” with “election” and had to apologize. “I’m so nervous,” he said. “Perhaps in future we will learn to speak without crib sheets.”
He never did. His comrades didn’t, either. They weren’t revolutionaries—they were the revolution’s beneficiaries, promoted for their working-class origins and indefinite opinions. They were nomenklatura who didn’t write their own crib sheets and never learned how to lift their eyes while reading. Brezhnev was ordinarius inter pares: neither first nor last among the neither fish nor fowl. The powerful men who had assigned Stalin and then Khrushchev to the paper-pushing job in the Central Committee had lived to regret their choice (and “bite their elbows,” as the Russian saying goes). The “indefinite people” who chose Brezhnev would die peacefully at their desks, long before anyone noticed.
There would be no more “violations of socialist legality.” The eras of Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev were followed by the period of “collective leadership.” In Schattenberg’s words, Brezhnev “succeeded…in presenting himself as the ‘spokesman’ of the Party.” His speeches were drafted by committee and reviewed by a succession of comrades and departments. His workdays were spent in phone conversations with regional party bosses. Discussions of production plans were preceded by questions about wives’ health and children’s grades. If somebody had to be fired, Brezhnev would call to express his regrets and offer a free apartment or an ambassadorial posting. In the afternoons he hunted wild boars at his official dacha outside Moscow. He was a good shot and didn’t need help from his gamekeepers until fairly late in his career. (“Chernenko–1, Gromyko–3, me–11,” he wrote in his desk calendar after one particularly successful outing.) The evenings were devoted to convivial dinners. Meals were simple, conversation lighthearted, vodka consumption moderate. Brezhnev enjoyed anti-Soviet jokes, rooted for the Red Army hockey team, and liked to play dominoes with his staff. He and his wife lived in an apartment complex with a view of the Moskva River, next door to several other top officials and their families.
It was not communism, but it was a pretty good deal. It was called “developed socialism.” In official rhetoric, Khrushchev’s eager millennialism was replaced with the “feeling of profound satisfaction” at the way things had turned out. According to Schattenberg, Brezhnev’s great achievement was to transpose “his mother’s petty bourgeois wish for him to lead a life of material fulfillment onto society as a whole.” He “brought a little prosperity, guaranteed social welfare and declared the dream of having one’s own prefabricated apartment, a dacha and a car a legitimate goal.” An admiring biographer, Schattenberg attributes the revolution’s routinization to her subject’s “genuine inner need to alleviate the misery and offer the Soviet citizens a dignified life.” Brezhnev’s intermittent involvement in the formulation of social and economic policy suggests that he was more emblem than cause. A society recovering from several decades of turmoil was well represented by a man who “started out as an amateur thespian and engineer, and did not need much more to be satisfied.”
A little prosperity required a fair amount of stability. Brezhnev’s rite of passage as an international statesman was the Prague Spring, which he considered a “question of personnel” (no different, in other words, from any other question). “Under whose leadership were the press, radio and television organs?” he asked the Czechoslovak first secretary Alexander Dubček in late July 1968 during tense negotiations about the fate of “socialism with a human face.” “Couldn’t you find any honest Czech or Slovak Communists to take over this matter?” Dubček did not respond, so Brezhnev kept talking for several days in a row—urgently, informally, appealing to mutual trust (“Sasha, I understand”), complaining about failing health, and at one point showing up in his pajamas. Dubček suspected a case of “diplomatic influenza,” but members of the Soviet delegation did not doubt Brezhnev’s fragility. Shelest noted in his diary: “Brezhnev is extremely nervous, he is jittery, shaking with fever. He complains of severe headache and stabbing pains in his stomach.” Once he overdosed on sedatives and lost consciousness.
The reason he ended up “triumphant”—in his own mind and in Schattenberg’s account—is not that he ordered a military invasion of Czechoslovakia or had Dubček and several other government officials kidnapped (though he did), but that after a series of phone calls, honest Czech and Slovak Communists were found and the personnel problem was resolved. Brezhnev considered this a turning point in his career. “Had it not been for Czechoslovakia,” he told one of his aides, “there would have been neither Brandt in Germany nor Nixon in Moscow nor détente.” Schattenberg agrees: in Czechoslovakia, “he earned the domestic and foreign respect which allowed him relatively free rein.”
Schattenberg agrees with Brezhnev about a lot of things. As she explains in the book’s introduction, she set out to write an indictment but followed her sources to the archives and liked what she found:
Instead of a Cold Warrior, I was faced with a man who passionately fought for peace and ruined his health in the process. Instead of a dogmatic ideologue, a heart-throb who loved fast cars and liked to crack jokes.
She is not immune to his charm, but it is his fight for peace she admires the most. Brezhnev “was so deeply scarred by the war,” she writes, “that he wished to avoid another one at any price.” That amounted to doing what came naturally: forming close relationships with negotiating partners and smothering them in intimate companionship. He was fortunate: his Western peers—the West German chancellor Willy Brandt, the French president Georges Pompidou, and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger—had some stylistic reservations (“he will be polite sometimes to the point of excessive warmth, including physical contact,” Kissinger warned Nixon) but were generally happy to reciprocate. Peace at any price involved long meals, boat rides, leisurely walks, and making fun of aides. Brandt proved a particularly good match: “They were both clearly ‘men of the world,’ chainsmokers who loved company and had a weakness for women.” At Camp David, Brezhnev stayed in “a summer house with a Soviet flight attendant, whom he quite openly introduced to Nixon.” After Kissinger brought his secretary to negotiations in Moscow, Brezhnev “came accompanied by two young women, as if it were a competition.”
Once Brezhnev invited Kissinger to a hunt. Kissinger said he’d never killed an animal, but his host said he could just watch:
After Brezhnev had shot two wild boars he opened his rucksack and produced Zakuskiy—Russian entrées—and a bottle of vodka….
Brezhnev…used his physicality to underline he was not a place holder for a hostile world view; rather, as he stood before Kissinger, flesh and blood, he was a man just like him who sought peace with every fibre of his body.
“Once Brezhnev invited Kissinger to a hunt” sounds like the setup for a late-Soviet joke, and it should have been. The “every fibre of his body” punch line would have been preceded by a sex scene in a steam bath.
One way or another, the “struggle for peace” resulted in the signing of the Helsinki Accords (which legitimized the post–World War II status quo in Europe), several arms control agreements, and a contract with Fiat for the construction of a giant automobile plant (which changed Soviet life almost as much as prefab housing and television). Yet Brezhnev’s view of governance as turning on personnel questions had some obvious limitations. First, it does not constitute an economic strategy. Second, it makes sense only within a single system of appointments. There was nothing Brezhnev could do about the selection of Brandt’s successor or Jimmy Carter’s out-of-the-blue human rights crusade (other than to point out, in private and to no avail, that “the USA had enough human rights issues of their own with segregation and discrimination against women”). Third, Brezhnev, like other leaders not bound by clear succession rules, did not know how to handle his own obsolescence.
By 1972, when Nixon arrived in Moscow, Brezhnev had become addicted to powerful sedatives he had overdosed on during the Prague crisis. By the mid-1970s, his speech had become slurred, his face bloated, his mind clouded. He had trouble keeping appointments, following discussions, and delivering his lines. “The French secret service are alleged to have been so alarmed by Brezhnev’s condition that they bugged his toilet, diagnosing him as at death’s door without establishing the actual reason.” No replacement could be found, because all likely candidates were similarly afflicted:
[Nikolai] Tikhonov fell down the stairs on a visit to Poland, Gromyko fell over during ceremonies, during an all-Union congress a third party leader fell asleep on the toilet, forcing bodyguards to break the door down, and [Andrei] Kirilenko, long considered Brezhnev’s successor, developed acute dementia.
At an early 1977 Politburo meeting, Brezhnev “noted with some concern that almost half the members were absent” for health reasons. His own need for sedatives was nothing compared to Andropov’s diabetes or Kosygin’s strokes and heart attacks. He kept traveling, speaking, and decorating his new marshal’s uniform. The award he was particularly proud of was the Lenin Prize for Literature he received in 1980 for the memoirs he would sometimes forget he had not written. The Olympic Games he had looked forward to hosting in Moscow that summer were boycotted by half the invited guests because of the war in Afghanistan he may or may not have remembered authorizing. He made his son and son-in-law deputy ministers, but both drank too much; his daughter drank even more. On the fiftieth anniversary of his party membership he awarded himself a one-of-a-kind medal called “Fifty Years of Party Membership.” Schattenberg seems to think he earned it. In her view,
Brezhnev’s greatest tragedy was surely that he was not up to the pressure and stress to which he was exposed, particularly when it came to foreign policy. His insomnia and restlessness were a legacy of the Stalin era, when resting and inactivity were punished as crimes against the state. This burden added to the strain most statesmen and stateswomen probably have to endure when it comes to questions such as whether to expand or cut off relations, negotiate or invade, choose war or peace…. It must have broken him when his three contemporaries Pompidou, Brandt and Nixon died or resigned in 1974. The trust he had spent five years building up seemed to have been for nothing. He had presented himself as a Western statesman, played the charmer and the anti-ideologist—and ended up all on his own.
He did end up alone on the world stage, blinking confusedly in the limelight. But at home he was among comrades: they held on to one another for balance. If Stalin’s cult of personality was a tragedy and Khrushchev’s a farce, Brezhnev’s was an elaborate work of postmodern art. The most striking feature of the USSR’s dotage was its highly public—indeed, theatrical—nature. Brezhnev and the rest of the indefinite people were performing their decline as part of a nationwide audience-participation spectacle. I remember sitting in a Moscow movie theater in the mid-1970s watching a newsreel in which Brezhnev and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Nikolai Podgorny, were facing each other across a large room. A small group of party officials formed the background. Brezhnev produced a piece of paper and, smacking his lips in an effort to articulate, wished Podgorny a happy birthday. Then he shuffled over to where Podgorny was standing, pinned a medal to his chest, gave him three kisses (the last one long and fervent, with eyes closed), sobbed, and took a step back, looking dazed. Podgorny produced his own piece of paper and, to the applause of the assembled guests, said that he felt humbled and deeply moved. The theater came alive: some people were chuckling, some joking; most were moaning, roaring, or weeping with laughter. No one seemed worried or surprised—it was all part of the act.
Few college parties in those days passed without someone breaking into a slack-jawed, gravelly-voiced Brezhnev imitation. In one of many jokes, he opens the Olympic Games by looking at his script and groaning “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.” His aide leans over and whispers: “Leonid Ilyich, those are the Olympic logo rings, the text is below!” In another, Politburo members are assembled for a memorial service. One of the speakers says, “Our mortal enemy, senile dementia, has pulled from our ranks another outstanding leader of our party, Comrade Mikhail Andreevich Suslov.” Brezhnev looks up and says irritably: “Our mortal enemy is lack of discipline! We’ve been waiting for over an hour, and Suslov is still not here.”
It was a peculiar shadow world. Nothing was the way it seemed, no one meant what they said; irony—both liberating and desiccating—defined every glance and gesture. I had a poster with photographs of Politburo members on the wall of my room, with neat square holes representing the dead ones. Every monument was a winking gargoyle, every speech a failed parody, every slogan (“The Victory of Communism Is Inevitable,” “The Economy Must Be Economical”) a tongue-in-cheek threat. The names of Brezhnev’s bodyguards were Medvedev and Sobachenkov: “Bear” and “Doggy.” The intelligentsia’s cult favorite books were Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, about the devil’s adventures in Moscow, and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, about a drunken round-trip train ride to paradise (or hell). The jesters had taken over the palace.
Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982, three days after reviewing the troops at the Revolution Day parade on Red Square. The eulogy was delivered by Yuri Andropov, who succeeded him as general secretary and died within a year and a half. Andropov was followed by an utterly indefinite and possibly inanimate Konstantin Chernenko, whose death was officially announced a year later. (“Do you have an invitation to the interment?” “No, I have a season ticket.”)
The Bolshevik revolution died of natural causes after a long battle with bewilderment represented by Brezhnev’s “collective leadership.” It was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, the epoch of neither belief nor incredulity, the season of neither darkness nor light. Most of its descendants remember it as a respite from history, a time when “everything was forever, until it was no more.”*