Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982)

Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982), general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1964 to 1982. His time in office is noted as an era of both stability and stagnation in the domestic and foreign policies of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Leonid Ilich Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye

Leonid Ilich Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye (present-day Dniprodzerzhyns`k, Ukraine) in the southwestern territory of the Russian Empire. The son of a steel worker, he moved with his family to Kursk Oblast, where he studied at a college for land surveyors. In 1931 he returned to Dniprodzerzhyns`k, where he became a member of the Communist Party and in 1935 completed his studies at a metallurgical institute.

Early Career

After serving in the Red Army in the Russian

After serving in the Red Army in the Russian Far East as a political commissar (a party official supervising army commanders), Brezhnev began his climb up the party ranks. A beneficiary of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s that eliminated many top-level party officials, Brezhnev became deputy mayor of Dniprodzerzhyns`k in May 1937 and secretary for propaganda of the regional party organization in 1939. He participated in World War II as a senior political officer in the Red Army. After the war ended in 1945, Brezhnev became head of the Zaporizhzhya and Dnipropetrovs`k party organizations in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). In 1950 he was transferred to head the Communist Party in the Moldavian SSR (present-day Moldova), where he was responsible for integrating the region into the Soviet structure. In 1952 he was rewarded for his service to the party by his election as a candidate, or nonvoting, member of the party`s newly expanded Presidium (formerly Politburo), the Soviet Union`s highest decision-making body. At that time he also became a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Brezhnev`s career owed much to his early

Brezhnev`s career owed much to his early association with Nikita Khrushchev, whom he worked under during World War II. During the succession struggle that followed the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953, the Presidium was reduced in size from 35 to 14 members. Brezhnev lost his candidate membership and was appointed deputy head of the political arm of the armed forces. When Khrushchev became first secretary (later called general secretary) of the CPSU later that year, he made Brezhnev deputy and then first secretary of the party apparatus in the Kazakh SSR (present-day Kazakhstan). In this post, Brezhnev supervised Khrushchev`s ambitious Virgin Lands program, which sought to bring vast new tracts of land under agricultural cultivation.

Brezhnev was elected as a full member of

Brezhnev was elected as a full member of the Presidium in 1957. He also served as the Central Committee secretary in charge of the Soviet space and missile program. From 1960 to July 1964 he served as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the largely ceremonial position of head of state.

Soviet Leader

In 1964 Brezhnev was a key actor in the

In 1964 Brezhnev was a key actor in the ouster of his former mentor, Khrushchev, who was accused by his party colleagues of sponsoring a variety of poorly planned and unsuccessful projects. Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev as first secretary of the Communist Party. For several years he shared power with Aleksey Kosygin, who was head of government as prime minister, and with Nikolay Podgorny, who was head of state. In 1977 Brezhnev replaced Podgorny as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and thus became head of state as well as head of the Communist Party.

During Brezhnev`s rule

During Brezhnev`s rule, the Soviet Union experienced a period of first stability and then stagnation. In contrast to the dramatic shifts in policy introduced by his predecessors, Brezhnev displayed a more cautious approach to leadership. He also promoted stability within the ruling elite and gave significant policy making powers to the bureaucracy. Rejecting the populism of Khrushchev, Brezhnev believed that technical progress and scientific management would solve the Soviet Union`s troubles. This approach initially led to positive results in the economy as well as to progress in improving relations with the West. However, Brezhnev`s initiatives ran into difficulty in both areas.

Domestic and Foreign Policies

In economic terms

In economic terms, the increases in the standard of living that initially occurred under Brezhnev were soon overshadowed by the chronic crises of the Soviet economy. Hampered by the inefficiencies that were endemic to centralized economies, the Soviet economy was unable to compete with the West. The increasingly conservative, aging leadership proved incapable of understanding the need for dramatic economic reform. The leadership had no answer to the long lines, shortages, corruption, and other symptoms of economic decline that characterized the Soviet economy in Brezhnev`s last years.

Brezhnev`s foreign policy initiatives

Brezhnev`s foreign policy initiatives met similarly mixed fates. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (an alliance of Communist nations) invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 put an end to the Prague Spring, a movement to create socialism with a human face. This invasion demonstrated the limits of reform the Soviets would tolerate in Central and Eastern Europe. The official line, known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, warned that the Soviet Union would use military force if necessary to maintain its influence in Eastern Europe.

Brezhnev`s attempts to improve relations

Brezhnev`s attempts to improve relations with the West achieved some initial successes. A nonaggression treaty with West Germany, signed in 1970, and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), signed in May 1972, were high points in the process of detente, or relaxation of tensions, with the West. In 1975 the Soviet Union in theory agreed to respect basic human rights when it became a signatory to the Helsinki Accords. However, Soviet hopes for a dramatic increase in trade and access to Western technology faded as a result of Western dissatisfaction with human rights violations in the USSR and Soviet support for revolutionary movements in developing nations. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 strained Soviet relations with the United States and helped ensure that the SALT II treaty, signed in 1979, would not be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Relations with the United States continued to deteriorate after the Soviet Union supported the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement.

The difficulties the Soviet Union experienced

The difficulties the Soviet Union experienced in both economic and foreign policy had parallels in the political realm. Dissidents were treated harshly. Those who violated the orthodoxy that the leadership imposed in the intellectual and cultural spheres were subject to lengthy prison terms or incarceration in mental hospitals. The leadership also did little to involve the populace in political affairs.

Brezhnev 1 | Brezhnev 2 |

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