Was it all Brezhnev’s Fault?

Gil KAZIMIROV, (2012), University of Cambridge, MPhil International Relations.

Since its creation, Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has come under fire for providing wrong factual information. While most its errors are tacit, one erroneous claim provides a strong case for its critics: the Soviet Union started to disintegrate in 1985. While the final stage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union started in the mid 1980’s, its first stage started somewhat earlier. Arguably it started with the appointment of Leonid Brezhnev as the First Secretary of the Soviet Union in October of 1964. Neither did it, according to the knowledge base, end with Brezhnev’s death in 1982. Rather, it was the death of one of his successors, Konstantin Chernenko, in March of 1985, which ended the Brezhnev era. This was an era which germinated the seeds of the people’s disillusionment with the Communist system. It did this in three stages. Characterized with a return to anti-imperialist struggle and a plethora of political and economic mistakes, the corrupt Brezhnev era first brought about significant popular discontent. Then, its inept leaders allowed the party to take the blame for the social and economic problems. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it allowed this discontent to be, at least partially, expressed and discussed. While these conditions would not suffice in their own right, their convergence during the Brezhnev era was vital to setting the wheels of change in motion.

It is no secret that Brezhnev’s tenure exacerbated the public discontent of the individual, particularly economically. Even according to the inflated official figures, basic production decreased from 52 index points early in his tenure to 37 towards the end and real income per-capita from 24 to 11 in 1985[1]. Shortly after Brezhnev took power, a lecturer visiting a mining hub Kemerovo, Siberia found that, because of the absurd shortages in consumer goods, the only product in the baby food department was Stolichnaya vodka[2]. To satisfy public outcry about such chronic food shortages particularly after the failed 1963 harvest, Brezhnev decided to invest 10 billion roubles into agriculture. This investment, however, was ill-advised because it was not only inefficient[3] but it mostly benefitted the ministries and construction companies[4]. Along with escalating Cold War tensions, the crisis milieu was not improved by the government decision to increase defence spending in the expense of vodka and tobacco quality. This was painfully felt particularly by the Russians and Ukrainians who were hard drinkers[5].

Partly to combat this, Brezhnev started an anti-alcohol campaign. It set the stage for the larger offensive later perpetrated by Gorbachev. This campaign, while morally justified, was economically devastating. Under Gorbachev, when the effects of this campaign were particularly felt, the years 1985-88 showed a 67 billion rouble loss of revenue since the alcohol monopoly provided 14 percent of the state’s budget[6]. This exacerbated the already overwhelming budget deficit and had a significant impact on the economic disintegration of the Soviet Union.

With the rapidly plummeting quality and quantity of products sold officially, a country-wide black market was born. While ostentatious consumption was unheard of under Stalin and rare under Khrushchev, the obliquity of the shadow economy during Brezhnev’s era made for a growing consumerist population. The lack of rigidity for economic offences incentivized many to speculate in these markets. As the markets grew in size (they amounted to about 80 billion roubles by 1981[7]) ordinary people started to want fashionable shoes, televisions and automobiles. This was tacitly encouraged by the regime which imported luxury goods from the west using oil revenues[8]. Another impact of these emerging markets is that civil engineers used as little material as they could, with the intention of selling the rest at premium black market prices. The Spitak earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 killed 25,000 people specifically because the concrete panels of recently built houses contained half the cement and twice the sand required by the norm[9]. Such incidents, when leaked to the public, caused understandable fury at the corrupt regime and lead to significant public discontent.

The Brezhnev era political mistakes added more fuel to the fire. The lack of goods was aggravated by Brezhnev’s goal to alter the balance of power in favour of the Soviet regime. The failed war in Afghanistan (which proved politically disastrous for the Soviet state) along with other endeavours, drove resources away from food production towards foreign policy. It is no secret that Brezhnev was the first Soviet leader to outspend the NATO countries in terms of military expenditure[10]. In one of his first tests as a leader, Brezhnev was faced with the increasingly radical Czechoslovak socialist party which advocated its own brand of the socialism (‘with a human face’). He broke under pressure from Moscow conservatives and the GDR leader Walter Ulbricht and exercised military force on August 21, 1968 to ‘remind’ the ruling elite of the true path to socialism[11]. This military intervention revealed that inter-party disputes were impossible to resolve without the use of force, exposing the weakness of the Soviet party. This was a grave foreign policy blunder on Brezhnev’s part. Unlike the Suez Canal crisis which distracted the eyes of the international community from his predecessor’s intervention in Hungary 10 years earlier, there was no analogous political event and this time the full gaze of the world was directed at the Soviet regime. This self-inflicted blow caused many party members see the Soviet Union through the glass of the critical international spectacle.

More mistakes soon followed. In 1970, spearheading regime opposition was the newly-established Committee for the Protection of Human Rights. Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Final Act on August 1, 1975 which accepted the universality of human rights giving a significant boost to the Soviet human rights movements[12]. Moreover, under Brezhnev more high-ranking party bureaucrats (‘apparatchiks’) enjoyed membership privileges than ever before. Combined with the era’s highfalutin military expenditure, permitting the lavish lifestyle of the party elite to continue virtually undisturbed was a step on the shoelaces of the already-stagnating Soviet economy. The luxurious dachas, the exclusive government shops and the travel privileges provided a stark contrast with the average Soviet way of life, allowing non-party citizens to see through official party doctrine and sense the injustice of the system[13]. Despite his promises, the striking division between party and non-party members remained undiminished under Gorbachev and provided a powerful source for regime criticism in the run-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union[14].

Making things worse, Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, brought forth the cause he saw responsible for the systemic economic failures to the scrutinizing view of the people for the first time in Soviet history[15]. Under Brezhnev, corruption was rampant – a price was placed even on party membership (2,000 roubles in Adzharia in 1982[16]). Andropov was rigorous in his anti-corruption crusade. Instead of simply blaming ‘bourgeoisie elements’ he went after top party officials, causing the head of the MVD Shchelokov to commit suicide and bringing to trial many others, such as Usmankhodzhaev, the party leader of Uzbekistan, for the Great Uzbek Cotton Scam[17].  Andropov’s purge, while removed 9 out of 25 oblast party bosses in the Ukraine alone, failed because it replaced these with officials made of the same fabric of their predecessors – accustomed to, and even expectant of bribes[18]. It was to stop alienating top officials from around the USSR à la Andropov that Gorbachev largely overlooked black market dealings and created a capitalist hub in the dissolving USSR, now socialist mostly by name.

Lacking the political credibility and sense of impeccability of their predecessors, the political decisions on behalf of Brezhnev era leaders brought about a social attitude never seen before – blaming the Party. In contrast with Khrushchev’s more reformist regime, Brezhnev’s arrival marked the start of a failed crusade for the Party to reassume its mantle of infallibility[19]. Considering the brief relaxation of the Party’s grip on individual life under Khrushchev, Brezhnev’s return to draconian methods of population control was particularly painful. Since party control seemed ubiquitous it is hardly surprising that the Brezhnev regime found its subjects blaming the system not only for perverted economics and politics but even for such things as domestic violence and alcoholism, traffic accidents or poor weather. During this epoch, for the first time in Soviet history, rather than blaming hardships on Japanese spies, Trotskyite agents and other counterrevolutionary enemies of the people, Soviet citizens began seeing the regime as the source of failure. This new view of the regime was a legacy of the Brezhnev era and had a decisive impact on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The largest error committed by Brezhnev era leaders was to allow this view to be expressed in public. The late Brezhnev era is characterized with a diminished fear of the regime which was so characteristic of the 1930’s and 40’s. Political dissidents were almost never shot and rarely jailed. Often they were forced into exile like writer Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov whose actions were more influential outside the USSR than within. Despite the failure of his purge, Andropov succeeded in dispelling the myth of an infallible Soviet party. This guaranteed the partial re-emergence of freedom of speech and criticism, which at its zenith provided an outlet for the 74 years of suffering of the Soviet people. Many used these freedoms to stage mass protests:  in the spring of 1978, when Tbilisi students went out to the streets and demanded the Georgian language to be incorporated in the state constitution, not only were these protests not brutally suppressed but the requests were partially granted[20]. In the same spirit, the spring and summer of 1989 alone saw 51 mass demonstrations involving 350,000 people[21]. It is no doubt that the Brezhnev regime is largely responsible for allowing the dissent which led to the fall of the USSR to be widely expressed.

Just when it seemed like the Soviet Union established itself as a superpower and guaranteed its subjects a life of ‘communal’ servitude, the Brezhnev era leaders stormed the political front and, unwillingly perhaps, made way for a freer society. Whether pursuing, in the words of Gorbachev, ‘a fierce neo-Stalinist line’[22] or simply trying to hold on to their pedestals of power, Brezhnev era leaders disenfranchised the Soviet people and provided them the opportunity to express themselves. Through a combination of political and economic mistakes the Brezhnev era chiefs were responsible for beginning the process of collapse of the Soviet Union. The timely deaths of its elderly leaders perhaps foreshadowed the fate of their own Communist motherland.


Arutiunov, Sergei. Late-Soviet Prerequisites for Post-Soviet Disasters: Reflections. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. Zhizhn’ I Reformy, Vol. 1. Moscow: Novosti, 1995.

McCauley, Martin. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. Essex: Pearson, 2008.

Neimanis, George. The Collapse of the Soviet Empire: A View from Riga. London: Praeger, 1997.

Watson, William. The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Westport: Greenwood, 1998.

[1] Development of the USSR economy, resources and efficiency, 1971-85: percentage change over five-year periods (official figures) cited in Watson, William. The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Westport: Greenwood, 1998, p. 91.

[2] McCauley, Martin. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. Essex: Pearson, 2008, p. 363

[3] One case in point is that at least one-third of irrigation water trickled into the ground because plastic covers were not placed under the concrete canals. Cited in McCauley, Op. Cit., p. 351

[4]McCauley, Op. Cit., p. 351

[5] Ibid, p. 352

[6] Ibid, p. 400

[7] McCauley, Op. Cit., p. 367

[8] Arutiunov, Sergei. Late-Soviet Prerequisites for Post-Soviet Disasters: Reflections. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, p. 260

[9] Ibid, p. 261

[10] Watson, William. The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. Westport: Greenwood, 1998, p. 28

[11] McCauley, Op. Cit., p. 356

[12] ibid

[13] Watson, Op. Cit., p. 62

[14] McCauley, Op. Cit., p. 363

[15] Ibid. p. 367

[16] Arutiunov, Op. Cit, p. 262

[17] A cycle whereby cotton production figures were inflated to draw more subsidies from Moscow which in-turn were used to bribe officials to verify the production of even more imaginary cotton.

[18] McCauley, Op. Cit, p. 389

[19] Neimanis, George. The Collapse of the Soviet Empire: A View from Riga. London: Praeger, 1997, p. 4

[20]Arutiunov, Op. Cit., p. 258

[21] McCauley, Op. Cit, p. 418

[22] Gorbachev, Mikhail. Zhizhn’ I Reformy, Vol. 1. Moscow: Novosti, 1995, p. 218.

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