Subject essay: James von Geldern
Leonid Il’ich Brezhnev — “our father and provider (kormilets)” in some official slogans, Il’ich in other slogans (exploiting the coincidence of patronymics with Vladimir Il’ich Lenin), and Lyonya in popular anecdotes that mocked the echo with Lenin’s last name — was in the midst of his long decline in 1980. Failing health and mental capacities, already audible in a 1975 speech, made him an ineffective leader of the so-called gerontocracy, the aging Politbiuro that locked the government in stagnation. On his death in 1982, power passed first to Iurii Andropov, the KGB chief who died in a little more than a year, and then to Brezhnev crony Konstantin Chernenko, who also soon died.
Judging by the titles he accumulated and the medals that bedecked his chest, Brezhnev was at the height of his powers in the late 1970s. He became a marshal of the Soviet Union in 1976, and a year later he became chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the first leader to head both the Presidium and the Communist party. In 1979 Brezhnev received the Lenin prize for literature (the prize was later recalled). He staked his legacy on a number of purported accomplishments. A commissar in the Soviet Army during the Great Patriotic War, he later recounted his exploits in a ghost-written memoir that gave him a prominent role in several victories. His political legacy was to have been the attainment of what was called “developed” or mature socialism, which in reality was a way to explain the stagnation of the system. The so-called Brezhnev Constitution was promulgated in 1977. Yet none of these illusory deeds could eradicate the stench of corruption. The decay of the Soviet system apparent by 1980 was a cruel mirror of the decay of his body, although it took a bit longer to perish. By the mid-1980s Brezhnev’s legacy was in disrepute, attacked by historians and journalists, and more effectively perhaps, by popular jokes.
Although the involvement of Brezhnev’s family in wide-scale corruption, and the failures of his leadership are now well-known, some in post-Soviet Russia look back to the stability of his era with some nostalgia. Patient and benign compared to his predecessors, the Brezhnev regime worked on a consensus model that foreswore mercurial swings and gave citizens a measure of control over their lives. Although the reputation Soviet life in the 1970s has experienced a revival, almost nobody would claim that Brezhnev himself was a gifted leader.