Leonid Brezhnev probably wouldn’t have said his life was boring. At the helm of the Soviet Union for almost two decades, he’d commanded legions of spies, haggled with Richard Nixon over nuclear warheads and fought a bloody war in Afghanistan. But in death, he has taken on a new role – as history’s dullest Communist.
In most volumes on the USSR, Brezhnev is the dry middle section – the perfect place for publishers to slot in glossy photo pages. Without the blood and steel of Revolutionary Russia or the total existential collapse that unfolded in the late eighties and early nineties, his name has become synonymous with the so-called Era of Stagnation. A time when nothing much changed.
It might seem strange, then, that the Brezhnev period is the one former Soviet citizens are often most nostalgic for, with a series of polls consistently finding that Russians see the bushy-browed backroom dealer as the 20th-Century’s best leader. Though forgotten outside the country, a new campaign is now underway in the Ural city of Ekaterinburg, where locals are joining forces to have a memorial reinstalled in honour of the man, nearly forty years after his death. While premiers like Stalin and Gorbachev are infamous for how eventful their rule was, Brezhnev appears to be popular for the opposite reason.
His appeal at the time was obvious. Climbing the treacherous ladder of the Red Army during the Second World War, Brezhnev was already approaching his 60s when the bombastic and unpredictable Nikita Khrushchev was forced out of the top job in 1964. Popular with Party apparatchiks for his quiet competence, he seemed like the perfect antidote to his increasingly erratic predecessor. A safe pair of hands.
And a safe pair of hands had never been in higher demand. Only two years prior, the prospect of thermonuclear war had gone from vague threat to imminent reality with the Cuban Missile Crisis. For a period of weeks, as Moscow’s decision to station medium-range missiles on the Caribbean island led to rapidly escalating tensions with Washington, millions of American and Soviet citizens were quite literally one political misstep from vaporising, flesh-melting radioactive inferno. Cooler heads were undoubtedly in order.
Over the next two decades, a long stretch in power, especially for an aging autocrat, Brezhnev slammed the brakes on a system that was otherwise in danger of spinning out of control. The internal fire that had driven his predecessors into dramatic, rash, sometimes brilliant gambles was all but extinguished. The spectre of nuclear war, while forever present, faded into the background. At home as well, the cycles of revolution and counter-revolution, purges and denunciations became a thing of the past.
Brezhnev’s steady hand on the tiller came from his natural conservatism – respect for institutions and an affection for the status quo. For a committed Marxist who believed in defending the gains of the revolution, he often came off more like an old English Tory, with his fundamental belief that not all change was for the better. Even where he harbored reservations about his predecessor’s departures from Stalin’s prescribed path, like with the liberalisation of the arts, he avoided the temptation to repeal and replace, favouring either tinkering around the edges or leaving issues alone altogether.
While modern-day leftist discourse centers around how working class its activists can present themselves to be, despite private school educations and holidays in the Dordogne, Brezhnev was unashamedly fond of life’s finer things. The son of a metalworker from Kursk, now in present-day Ukraine, he became an unexpected champion for the traditions of the Imperial-era aristocracy. From the dusty cookbooks of long-purged aristocrats came lobster soup, quickly installed as one of his favorites on the menu in the Kremlin. In his most iconic portraits, he cuts a sharp line with his beloved yellow-gold Rolex Datejust wristwatch.
His love of shooting was also well known. The world’s most powerful Marxist, sitting atop the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, would invite Politburo members to join him on a hunt every Thursday, wrapping up cabinet sessions early to get outside. “Sometimes the meetings would last only forty minutes,” KGB Major General Mikhail Dokuchaev recalled in an interview with the Komsomolskaya newspaper. “Each hunter was given a small case with a quarter-litre bottle of brandy and sandwiches.” A successful outing was celebrated with roasted wild boar and shots of Zubrovka vodka. In short, he was hardly the type to storm any Winter Palaces.
Brezhnev’s jovial pursuits were distinctly different from his more zealous contemporaries. For Stalin, by contrast, even an evening off meant lecturing his colleagues over dinner while plying them with liquor to see who would spill their deepest, most disloyal thoughts first. Brezhnev, by all accounts, was just drinking to have a good time. Khrushchev, another fanatical hard worker, had few hobbies and crusaded against alcohol, which he saw as a drain on productivity.
But despite the efforts of the men who came before him, Brezhnev inherited a country, the largest on Earth, that was still very much a revolutionary state. Almost one in ten of the world’s population lived in a system where it was never really clear what could get you in trouble. Although his predecessor had reined in the worst excesses of the Stalin-era purges and freed millions of political prisoners from the gulags, the reality of repression was still fresh and people were understandably unsure about just how far they could go before they fell foul of the authorities.
That uncertainty was, arguably, a better tool for creating terror than the violence itself, leading to self-censorship and risk aversion as a cultural phenomenon. If you don’t know where the boundaries are, you can’t gradually push at them. But Brezhnev drew that line very clearly. Despite his belief in many of Stalin’s methods, he didn’t oversee a return to the days when a poorly-judged criticism of the Man of Steel would have earned you a knock at the door in the middle of the night. Instead, for the first time since the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil war, ordinary people could be fairly certain that if they kept their heads down and didn’t rock the boat too much, they’d be able to live their lives in peace.
They could still save up for the refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and lipstick promised by Khrushchev’s market reforms, dig vegetable patches at their dachas and send their kids off to university. The shelves were stocked, and, while the economy was sluggish, it ticked along without any acute crises. In short, life became as normal as it ever got in the Soviet Union. But it was the Soviet Union still – its values and principles hadn’t been sacrificed in exchange for improvements to everyday life. Instead, they settled into a state of coexistence. Much as Brezhnev could be both a working-class Communist and an aristocratic huntsman, the USSR could balance both its communism and its consumerism without a resulting identity crisis.
So, for two decades, and to a lesser extent under Brezhnev’s loyal successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, history stopped being made. At least, that is the impression often given by those who focus on its most dramatic episodes. In reality, though, colossal geopolitical strides were made, like the signing of the SALT-II nuclear treaty that limited the size of atomic arsenals. Yet they were so gradual and often the result of years of careful consideration and false starts, that they feel less like defining historical moments and more like long-term processes.
Even his flagship Brezhnev Doctrine, pledging military support to socialist allies, was about keeping things the same – defending and consolidating the gains made by other people’s regimes. So often absent was the man at the top of the ladder that the notion caught on that he wasn’t even really there at all. Instead, the lasting image of him was as a corpse, propped up by his advisors. In the case of the invasion of Afghanistan, a notoriously ill-fated misadventure that left tens of thousands dead and the idea of Soviet supremacy forever damaged, his inflexible adherence to doctrine might be a valid diagnosis.
However, it is hard to deny that, if forced to choose, you’d be better off picking a quiet life under Brezhnev over his more exciting fellow leaders. The sheer terror of revolution, the deportations, the hungry years of the wartime effort under Stalin fail to appeal. Likewise, the bread lines, savings wiped out overnight and mounting debts of life in the final days of the USSR would be far from ideal. While Gorbachev is seen as the Soviet Union’s great reformer, his dramatic policy shifts made life materially worse for many, erased their identity and brought about an age of oligarch-driven crony capitalism that robbed the country of its wealth and left it with deep seated inequalities to this day.
That said, if you measure success, as electoral politics so often does, by the column inches it produces, the reforms it makes, the change it brings about – Stalin and Gorbachev leave the more reticent old Russian in the dust. Outside of an authoritarian state, a politician like Brezhnev would struggle to survive at the top. His leisurely country pursuits, his risk aversion, his deep-seated conservatism would make him an easy target for opponents promising change, youth and vigor. Revolutionaries undoubtedly make better retail politicians. Yet if the experience of the past few years has any wisdom to offer, it’s that eventful times don’t always make for good lives.
Today, it’s hard to even find a decent history of the man who led the USSR for 17 years. While bookshelves heave with volumes on Lenin, Hitler, Kennedy, Trump, and Boris (both Johnson and Yeltsin), the monobrowed man who dictated the lives of so many remains an unattractive topic. But, as those who lived through his reign can attest, Leonid Brezhnev was a living example of why doing nothing is sometimes better than doing something. And of why our best politicians should aspire to be too boring for a biography.