This is primarily intended for those who, like myself, are studying Russian History at A level in Britain. The information should be equally valid for any student or enthusiast.
For those who study history, Leonid Brezhnev provides one of the most challenging subjects for historical analysis. This is for a number of reasons.
- There is a shockingly small amount written about in proportion to his role in world events. Compared with his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, a man whose leadership was less than half the length of Brezhnev’s, there is very little to be found. Of course, when contrasted to the giants of Russian history for which a wealth of literature exists, Peter the Great, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, he is a mere footnote.
- People are not entirely sure what it that he achieved. The main understanding of his accomplishments comes primarily from his interactions with the west, such as the SALT II limitation treaty, negotiated with then US President Jimmy Carter.
- He is most commonly remembered for his stagnations and conservatism- and these are not the makings of gripping historical document. The Discovery Channel do not constantly re-run features on him (if indeed they have any) and his biographies are not met with the public fanfare of, for example, those of American Presidents.
There is detailed information to be found, particularly in Alex Nove’s excellent book, “Stalinism And After”. However, the chapter to be found there goes far beyond what is required for A level examinations. Now we have established that Brezhnev is not exactly an accessible figure for study, we can establish what it is we need to know about. And the answer, rather surprisingly, is that the A Level student does not need to know a great deal. There has never been a question, at least on the AQA syllabus, based directly on him, and he is primarily used with reference to the economic legacies of both Stalin and Khrushchev. This is what a student, in my experience, needs to know about him.
- He was born in 1906 in the Ukraine.
- To all intents and purposes, he ruled the Soviet Union for 18 years, becoming First Secretary in 1964, and then General Secretary in 1966. He led until his death in 1982.
- His faltering health in the late 1970s and early 1980s seriously reduced his ability to lead.
- He supported the policy of propping up faltering Soviet satellite states, known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. This was used to justify actions such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.
- He built up one of the most powerful national arms and aerospace programmes in history, although he did very little with it. This put a colossal drain on the economy, which was already in a state of decline.
- Due to economic problems, living standards actually declined over the course of his leadership.
- He reached an agreement with Jimmy Carter on bilateral arms limitation, but the US Senate declined to ratify the SALT II treaty.
- He reversed Khrushchev’s policy of decentralisation. This lead to increasing levels of corruption and waste, which would smother any chance of a Soviet economic revival. It would also be part of the justification for the Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Glasnost and Perestroika” policy.
When evaluating the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, it is hard to be favourable. The kind things we can say about him, SALT II and his strengthening of the Soviet military, were either failures or wasted efforts. Where Russian history is remarkable for its spectacular blunders, the blandness and mediocrity of his mistakes are perhaps the only unique thing about him.