UNEARTHING THE SECRETS AND THE CORRUPTION OF LEONID BREZHNEV’S FINAL YEARS IN THE KREMLIN
It sounded more like the decline and fall of the Roman Empire than a recent chapter in the history of the staid and sober Soviet Union. A spectacular trial that opened in Moscow last week filled the Soviet news media with lurid tales of illicit sex among the ruling elite, lavish lifestyles, buried treasure, nepotism, greed and suicide. The Soviet public also learned from a leading historian that a former leader, declared clinically dead, miraculously revived to rule his country for she more years. The revelations all concerned the 18-year period—from 1964 until his death in 1982—when Leonid Brezhnev ruled as Soviet president and Communist party general secretary, a period now officially denounced as the “era of stagnation.” And as the sensational corruption trial of Brezhnev’s son-in-law and eight other former highranking Soviet officials got under way, the era itself appeared to be on trial as the 10th defendant.
For four days last week, clerks in the military collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court read aloud a detailed five-volume indictment. The star defendant in an alleged multimilliondollar web of corruption, stretching from Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia to Moscow, was Yuri Churbanov, once the Soviet Union’s second-highest police official as first deputy interior minister. Churbanov is also the third husband of Brezhnev’s daughter, Galina. Eight other former high-ranking police officials stand accused of massive bribery and corruption during the late 1970s and early 1980s. But Churbanov could face the death penalty if convicted of taking cash bribes and gifts worth more than $1.3 million.
And even as court clerks were reading out the 1,500-page indictment, the weekly Moscow News published a damning article by the widely respected Soviet historian Roy Medvedev. He claimed that other corrupt officials kept Brezhnev in office by covering up his almost total physical and mental collapse following a stroke in 1976. Most observers said that the appearance of the article just as the trial got under way was no coincidence. In the current age of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform-minded
supporters are clearly keen to discredit their conservative opponents in the Kremlin, most of whom attained their lofty positions under Brezhnev. As a result, the trial is widely viewed as an attack on the corruption, political cronyism and economic mismanagement that characterized the entire Brezhnev era.
The disclosures by Medvedev clearly added force to that attack. Claiming that Brezhnev was pronounced “clinically dead” after his 1976 stroke, Medvedev said that he was revived and continued to rule in a virtual daze until his death in 1982. Brezhnev “gradually found it more and more difficult to carry out the most simple protocol functions and
could no longer understand what was going on around him,” the historian wrote. Brezhnev’s confused condition fostered a climate of widespread influence peddling by top Soviet officials, he added. Medvedev also described the former leader as a “weak-willed man with a weak character” who was largely kept in power by corrupt officials who flourished under his benevolent tutelage.
Expelled from the Communist party under Brezhnev in 1969, Medvedev has now
emerged as a leading reformist historian. His disclosures aroused interest among Kremlinologists around the world. University of Toronto political science professor Donald Schwartz, who specializes in Soviet affairs, said, “Certainly in Brezhnev’s last years, from what we could see in terms of his physical appearance and the length of time he was absent from public view, there was direct indication that his health prevented him from functioning as a leader should function.” However, he could not confirm Medvedev’s specific allegations. Schwartz called Medvedev a “well-known maverick” who may have been “attempting to rewrite history” in support of Gorbachev’s reform policies.
In its report on the opening day of the trial the Communist party newspaper, Pravda, branded the accused men as “guardians of the underworld” who enjoyed “grabbing as much wealth as possible” while pursuing a “path of degeneration and betrayal.” And in their zeal to publicize the defendants’ wrongdoings, the official Soviet news agencies offered the media photographs of police digging up hoards of cash and jewelry allegedly hidden by corrupt officials.
According to Soviet prosecutors, one of the most corrupt of those officials was Churbanov. A lowly official in the interior ministry
in the 1960s, Churbanov’s prospects suddenly improved when he was assigned as a personal security guard to Galina Brezhnev. Churbanov divorced his wife to become Galina’s third husband in 1971. Brezhnev swiftly promoted his new son-in-law to the rank of major-general. And in 1980, Churbanov—whom Pravda described as a powerhungry man who used family connections for criminal purposes—was appointed deputy interior minister, second in charge of the country’s massive police force.
But while the marriage brought Churbanov privilege and wealth, it also brought him personal grief and ridicule. Galina’s two previous husbands had both been circus performers— one a strongman, the other a trapeze artist—and her fascination with the big top did not end after she married Churbanov. She soon began an open love affair with Boris Buryatia, another circus performer known as Boris the Gypsy, who was 20 years her junior. The relationship was the talk of Moscow ruling circles during Brezhnev’s last years. But it suddenly ended in 1982, after the flamboyant Buryatia was arrested along with two senior bureaucrats for illegal possession of diamonds, jewels from the czarist era and a fortune in foreign currency.
Galina was implicated in the scandal but
was never prosecuted. Buryatia died later in prison under mysterious circumstances. Soon after, Brezhnev’s brother-in-law, Semyon Tsvigun, deputy chairman of the KGB, the Soviet security police, committed suicide. It is widely assumed that he did so because his attempts to cover up the scandal and preserve the family honor had failed.
A major investigation into corruption in Uzbekistan was launched after the 1983 death of Sharaf Rashidov, a close Brezhnev associate, who for 25 years was first secretary of the republic’s Communist party. Since then, Rashidov has been posthumously disgraced under Gorbachev. A grandiose mausoleum built in his honor in the republic’s capital of Tashkent has been dismantled. As well, two former Uzbekistan officials charged with corruption have been shot and 100 others arrested. 'Two more top republic officials, who had been scheduled to be tried last week, committed suicide in prison.
With the conclusion of the reading of the
massive indictment last Thursday, the nine defendants entered their pleas. Churbanov, 51, admitted that he had abused his office, but denied the capital offence of taking bribes. His lawyer, Andrei Makarov, later explained that the lesser charge carries a maximum penalty of only 10 years’ imprisonment. But Judge Mikhail Marov, a major-general in the army, said that Churbanov will be required to clarify his plea later in the trial.
Former Uzbekistan interior minister Khaidar Yakhyayev pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. Yakhyayev, 61, claimed earlier in court that investigators had applied “moral and psychological pressure” on him to confess in prison. The other seven defendants, all former Uzbekistan police officials, pleaded guilty to taking bribes. But they denied that the value of the payments reached the levels claimed by the prosecution.
In his defence, Churbanov reportedly told investigators that “gift-giving” was a mark of friendship in mainly Moslem Uzbekistan. But state prosecutors charged that top-level police officials in the republic regularly paid bribes to their superiors in Moscow, sold promotions and accepted gifts from officers who wanted to remain on the force. The indictment accused Churbanov of 1,500 separate offences, including the illegal requisitioning of defence ministry labor and materials worth about $40,000 to build his personal dacha, or country retreat. Churbanov allegedly received more than $1.3 million worth of
bribes from Uzbekistan officials, including regular shipments of wine, cognac, fresh pomegranates and other delicacies flown to him on the Soviet airline, Aeroflot, from the southern republic.
According to Pravda, much of the bribe money was raised through widespread fraud in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry. Several recent newspaper accounts depicted local party bosses as feudal chieftains, amassing great personal wealth through a network of crime. Beginning in the 1970s, corrupt Uzbekistan officials reportedly inflated cotton harvest figures there by more than one million tons annually, earning millions of dollars from the state treasury for nonexistent crops.
Former Soviet interior minister Nikolai Shchelokov was also accused posthumously last week of receiving bribes from the defen-
dants. He was fired by Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, and committed suicide in 1984, apparently to avoid prosecution. Shchelokov’s wife, who was rumored to be a partner of Galina Brezhnev in illegal diamond speculation in the late 1970s, had committed suicide earlier. Soviet newspapers reported that Shchelokov—Churbanov’s onetime boss and the country’s top police official—amassed a fortune in bribes with which he bought 16 Western limousines, furs and crystal chandeliers for himself and his family.
Several of the defendants complained of ill health during the opening days of the trial— adding to the melodrama. The first morning’s session on Sept. 5 was adjourned early when Khushvan Norbutayev, 54, the former police chief of Uzbekistan’s Kashkadary region, complained of heart pains and had to leave the courtroom. That afternoon, another former regional police chief, Yakub Makhamdzhanov, entered the court with a gauze bandage plastered over his left eye. No explanation was given for the bandage. Then, Yakhyayev asked to be released from prison and put under house detention due to heart problems. The court refused the request.
The next day, a physician was summoned to the courtroom to administer medicine to two other defendants complaining of illness. Norbutayev failed to appear in court. His lawyer said that he suffers from angina pectoris, a painful but not necessarily dangerous heart ailment.
On Friday, the mysterious rash of illnesses continued, forcing the court to adjourn early when Makarov, 34, Churbanov’s lawyer, suffered a heart spasm. The trial is scheduled to continue this week when the first of an expected 200 witnesses—including Galina Brezhnev—takes the stand. But Western journalists who were permitted into the courtroom last week are now barred from the proceedings until the final days of the trial. The West, intrigued by the courtroom melodrama being played out in Moscow, will have to rely largely on the Soviet press as the plot unfolds. If the revelations of the trial’s opening days are any indication, an era of decline will be fully on show.
A SPECTACULAR TRIAL HAS FILLED THE SOVIET NEWS MEDIA WITH TALES OF SEX AND SCANDAL
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