Leonid Brezhnev: a plodder’s progress

DEV MURARKA February 23 1976

Leonid Brezhnev: a plodder’s progress

DEV MURARKA February 23 1976

Leonid Brezhnev: a plodder’s progress


When Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev dramatically swept Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev out of power and assumed leadership of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party on October 14, 1964, his chances of survival at the top were not considered good. He was relatively unknown, nondescript and thought of by friends and enemies alike as a transient actor on the Soviet political stage. Clever Western diplomats in Moscow and know-it-all sovietologists abroad wrote him off “as a party hack, a colorless apparatchik” or “apparatus” man. They were to discover their mistake in installments.

It is now 11 years later, and on February 24 Brezhnev delivers the political report to the 25 th Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the third such document to bear his stamp. His survival, despite persistent rumors of his departure in the Westem press, despite somewhat ghoulish and often ill-founded rumors about the state of his health, tells us not only about the character of the Soviet leader but also about the changing nature of political power in the Soviet Union itself. There was some speculation recently as to whether Brezhnev would have his report to the Party Congress read for him because of his age and patches of poor health. Remarked a knowledgeable Russian confidently: “Brezhnev is not a Stalin. If he cannot read the report, he cannot remain the leader.” Brezhnev is going to read the report.

What is the secret of Brezhnev’s political longevity? He is neither a charismatic personality nor an oratorical revolutionary. The answer is as complex as the man. He came to power with the support of only a few members of a political elite which was becoming nervous about the direction being taken by Nikita Khrushchev. It is true, Khrushchev had dismantled the discredited Stalin’s terrorist machine, but his impulsive waywardness and frequent shifts in policy had created a feeling of insecurity within the vast party-government bureaucracy. They may not have been sure how Brezhnev would shape up, but they desperately wanted a change. It appears to have worked out for the best, because in the decade since he came to power Brezhnev has brought to them what they wanted most—security of tenure. There have been no mass changes of party and government officials since he took over the leadership. There have been no social or ideological upheavals, either.

It may all appear effortless, even inevitable, now, but he came to power as the nominal head of a collective leadership that was intent on collective leadership, on decision making by consensus, and he had to struggle, and struggle hard, to establish his authority. In fact, it was not until the 24th Party Congress in 1971 that Brezhnev was able to establish his clear mastery over his colleagues in the party leadership.

What is remarkable is that he has persevered with consensus politics even after making his own authority supreme, very rarely outstepping its limits. It is striking, too, that since he came to power, very few changes have taken place in the politburo, which is the governing body of the Soviet Communist Party and, as such, the highest political authority in the country. Only two clear-cut cases of political execution have taken place. One was the sacking in 1972 of the Ukrainian leader and senior politburo member, Pyotr Shelest, who opposed the first Brezhnev-Nixon summit and all that it implied in terms of détente. The other was the demotion last year of Alexander Shelepin, the head of the KGB under Khrushchev and subsequently a prominent political figure among the younger generation of Soviet leaders. It is widely believed in Moscow that sometime toward the end of 1974, when Brezhnev was in poor health, Shelepin tried to manoeuvre him out of power. He failed and paid the price The endurance of the collective leadership, even if in a somewhat modified, watered down form, testifies to Brezhnev’s political skill and temperament. He has been a tough conciliator and mediator throughout his long political career. Born 70 years ago to a poor steelworker’s family in the Ukraine, he studied land manage-

ment and then became a metallurgical engineer. Since 1938 he has held a series of party posts, big and small. At an important stage of his career, during the war, he was a political commissar in the army, and his excellent war record has been of great help to him ever since. After the war he was a political commissar in the navy for a time. On the civilian side, his greatest achievement before taking over from Khrushchev was in masterminding the Khrushchev regime’s successful virgin lands reclamation scheme in Kazakhstan. It is this varied background that made Brezhnev a suitable candidate to replace Khrushchev in the first place. It also gave him a valuable instinct for the political manoeuvring and infighting so essential for survival at the top. Brezhnev learned how to get results with a judicious mixtureof persuasion and power. Characteristically,no one among his associates is known to be his particular favorite, and there is absolutely no evidence that he is trying to promote anyone to take his place. If he prematurely announced anyone as heir-apparent it would destroy the cohesion of the collective leadership and, not coincidentally, endanger his position as its head.Unlike Khrushchev, who was impervious to advice and autocratic to a degree, Brezhnev gives the impression of being a chairman of the board, albeit a very powerful chairman to whom the other members of the board usually defer. He does not always get his way, however, and sometimes he gets his way only with great

difficulty. He had a very tough time, for instance, making his colleagues agree to receive Richard Nixon in Moscow just after the American President had mined the rivers and started bombing North Vietnam in 1972. After the crucial politburo meeting on the question he told the then French ambassador to Moscow: “Mr. Ambassador, it has been one of the hardest days of my life”—or words to that effect.

Brezhnev’s standing with the Russian people is a more complex and delicate matter. Soviet leaders are selected not by the people but by the elite of the Communist Party. The relationship between the Soviet people and their leader is like an Oriental marriage: they fall in love with him after the marriage, not before. To survive he has to win them over. The Soviet people took to Stalin. In the beginning they took to Khrushchev. In Brezhnev’s case, they were indifferent in the beginning and have come to appreciate him only during the past five years. “He is a good man”—this is how common people often describe Brezhnev. He is not a tyrant like Stalin, he is not uncouth like Khrushchev and, if he is not brilliant, neither is he unintelligent. He is earnest in his aspirations for his people. In one aspiration, in particular, Brezhnev has the wholehearted support of the masses, especially the growing urban middle class from whose ranks the country’s political elite is drawn: namely his desire to raise the Soviet standard of living to the comfortable bourgeois level of the Americans. During his 11 years in power, no other act has aroused such fervent support in all sections of the Soviet public as his involvement with Nixon and America: it signified psychological equality with the United States, with the promise of material equality to follow.

Before he could deal with the Americans Brezhnev needed stature. During his early years in power, a party lecturer in Moscow was asked by a member of his audience whether there was any danger of another “personality cult” in the Soviet Union (a euphemism for Stalinist dictatorship). He dismissed the idea totally. “How can there be a personality cult,” he said, “when there is no personality ?” It would have been difficult to upstage the uninhibited bubbliness of Khrushchev, but Brezhnev had a political as well as a personality problem. As a member of a collective leadership, how could he establish his mastery without destroying the character of collectivity? On the other hand, if he could not rise above

the others, how could he deal on equal terms with the leaders of other governments who were masters in their own house? Thus, the logical imperatives of power, at home and abroad, forced Brezhnev to seek preeminence. At the time of the 24th Party Congress in 1971, his ascendancy was complete, and a media campaign was begun to portray him as not only the leader but the leader. This had an effect on the foreign as well as the domestic front. Visiting dignitaries were no longer satisfied with meeting only Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin; they wanted to meet Brezhnev as well. Indeed, it wasn’t long before Brezhnev took over completely the handling of major foreign policy matters which previously he had left to Kosygin. It was at the 24th Party Congress, too, that Brezhnev laid down the long-term foreign policy objectives aimed at détente.

To justify détente he needed ideological underpinning and found it in a very simple formula: he argued that if material progress was to be made there had to be stability, order and discipline, not dissension, at home. The eruption of intellectual ferment that began after the death of Stalin had continued and, in fact, gathered momentum after Khrushchev was removed from power. In part it was inspired by the fear that there might be a return to Stalinist terror, in part by a genuine belief shared by sophisticated Russians that post-Stalin changes had not gone far and deep enough. To Brezhnev and his colleagues, and indeed to the majority of the people, this made little sense. They argued that to continue the process of liberalization would be to undermine the stability of the entire system. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 not only ended Dubcek’s enlightened experiment in Prague, it also isolated the dissidents at home and destroyed whatever remote chance they had of finding more popular support. By putting down dissent Brezhnev tightened his grip on the leadership. He was despised by dissidents at home and abused by liberals abroad, but he was seen to be in full control of the situation, which established his negotiating position with the West, above all with the United States. Such are the paradoxes of power.

Brezhnev pursued détente with singleminded vigor, ruthlessly overriding any obstacles, internal and external. His belief in détente was based on four important considerations. First, if the Soviet standard of living was to be raised quickly, large in-

puts of foreign technology and capital would be required; inputs would not be forthcoming unless there was some easing of cold war mistrust and tension. Second, if the Soviet Union’s resources were to be available to increase the country’s standard of living, it would be essential to control and, if possible, halt the race for evermore sophisticated and expensive weapons. This, too, could only be achieved by détente. Third, détente, on the right terms, would appear to confirm that the Soviet Union was on a par in terms of military | power with the United States. Finally, détente would contain the Chinese, blocking the creation of a Sino-American coalition aimed against the Soviet Union.

Détente has failed to bring about an immediate improvement in the Soviet standard of living. Inputs of foreign technology and capital have not materialized on the scale Brezhnev envisaged. It is clear that he and his advisers overestimated the extent jj of the economic gains the Soviet Union would derive from détente, but he can arI gue that in all other respects it has been a great success. He can point to the huge grain purchases from the United States in 1972 and 1975, purchases that probably would not have been possible without dé| tente. He can point to the success since 1972 of the strategic arms limitation agreements. He can point to a general improvement in the international political climate, despite the alarums over Portugal, Angola, the Middle East and other hot spots. He can even claim that Peking is showing faint signs of moving toward accommodation with Moscow. But for the Soviet people the fact that détente has not substantially improved their standard of living is a disappointment and, while Brezhnev can 5 blame factors beyond his control, he canjj not escape responsibility for having aroused unrealistic expectations.

Nevertheless, Brezhnev remains unassailable for the moment. He will appear before the 25th Party Congress with his vision of the future, and after the Congress he will continue to run the country, carry on, perhaps for a long time. The people give him credit for the fact that after more than a decade of his stewardship the Soviet Union is a stronger, more stable and more relaxed country. Overall, the standard of living has gone up, though inevitably there is grumbling about shortages of foodstuffs (particularly meat), high quality consumer goods and other creature comforts. Matej rially, the gap between the town and country remains a big one. Certainly, a price has been paid for this achievement: the enforced ideological and intellectual conformity, the restrictions on travel abroad and emigration, the undoubted suffering of a tiny minority of politicized intellectuals. But the masses do not care about these shortcomings or their long-term ef| feet on society. They feel more injured if they can’t buy sausages in the local meat shop. Brezhnev understands this. It is what has sustained him in power, DEV MURARKA