Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR and Communist Party general secretary, died on 10 November 1982, unlamented outside the curtilage of his family and political retainers. The official cult of his greatness had for years been the object of ridicule among citizens of the Soviet Union, and his mental and physical degradation had been an open secret. Dignity was absent in death, too, because the bearers lost hold of the coffin as it was being lowered into the earth outside the Kremlin Wall.
He and his Politburo were responsible for much misery. They ordered the occupation by Warsaw Pact members of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and arrested the dissenters who demonstrated against this on Red Square. In 1979 he signed the order for Soviet armed forces to invade Afghanistan. His economic policies produced a widening technological gap between the USSR and the West. People in every Soviet republic suffered a decline in their standard of living. Having stabilised politics in Moscow after ousting Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, he claimed to have achieved ‘developed socialism’. Many Russians asked what was the good of it all if they stayed poor and oppressed.
Brezhnev was a presence on the global stage for nearly two decades. He held summits with US presidents. He was on friendly terms with European leaders such as Willy Brandt and Georges Pompidou. Under him, the USSR attained parity in nuclear weaponry with America. It spread its influence into Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Susanne Schattenberg wants Brezhnev to be taken more seriously than has been the norm. He ruled the USSR longer than any Soviet leader except Joseph Stalin. Such longevity in power would have been impossible had he been the dunderhead of popular ribaldry. Schattenberg points to his wiliness. She also presents him as a towering hero of the politics of global peace. She highlights his part in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 that settled – or appeared to settle – relations between the two superpowers. She recounts that his experiences in the Second World War gave him an unending zeal to avert a third one.
Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman describes his initial ambivalence about the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and his barely conscious endorsement of the 1979 Afghan invasion. The book rightly stresses that the scope for his initiatives, few though they were, was limited by the constant need for the Politburo’s approval. Brezhnev was not a dictator. All in all, though, Schattenberg ‘bends the stick backwards’, to use Lenin’s expression, by presenting Brezhnev in a kindly light and turning the lamp away from his harshness. She presents him as a sympathetic figure who was ‘the caring general secretary’. Her evidence is mainly as follows. He did not rant at underlings. He disliked firing and replacing his appointees. His practice was to let Politburo comrades discharge their duties without interference. Supposedly, he even kept his distance from the KGB’s dirty work. She also highlights his penchant for ‘body politics’ when he met his counterparts from North America or western Europe. He was an avid glad-hander of presidents and prime ministers, though they privately complained about his slobbering man-kisses and prolix stories about the war. He could tell a good joke – as a young man he had wanted to be an actor. Until his sad last years, he was a handsome man with a dashing physique and an active pursuer of the ladies, especially youngish Soviet nurses.
Brezhnev was a twitchy negotiator, forever fiddling with his watch chain or clanging his cigarette holder on ash trays. For self-discipline, he received a cigarette box fitted with a device allowing it to be opened only once an hour, though as a back-up he always kept a second packet on his person. After his doctors forbade him from smoking, he got his aides to blow tobacco smoke into his face. He even asked the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a fellow nicotinophile, to perform this service for him.
The strength of Schattenberg’s book lies in her unparalleled examination of the Brezhnev papers in Moscow’s archives. Sometimes the author’s background commentary raises an eyebrow. To take just one example, she suggests that Brezhnev’s amours broke the pattern of prudishness in the Soviet leadership, perhaps forgetting that foreign affairs commissar Georgy Chicherin was a notorious collector of rent boys, NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov was a drug-dependent bisexual and Lavrenti Beria, his successor in office, abducted comely young women off the street and raped them.
The strangest omission from the book is any discussion of the oil question. OPEC did the USSR a huge favour in 1973 by hiking the price of hydrocarbons on the world market. This enabled Brezhnev to pay for expensive interventions around the world. It also gave him the money to buy American grain. But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, US president Jimmy Carter cut off vital cereal exports, precipitating an economic trial of strength between the superpowers. The Soviet Union’s hydrocarbon comeuppance did not happen until four years after Brezhnev died, when oil prices crashed. The shock to budgetary planning was devastating for Mikhail Gorbachev. But it was Brezhnev who had set the mood of complacency about the Soviet budget’s invulnerability to such an event.
Schattenberg poignantly traces Brezhnev’s drawn-out decline in health. In 1975, using crib cards prepared by his aides while in talks with Carter, he read out more than he was supposed to. He turned to his team and blurted out, ‘What, don’t I have to read out the second half?’ Later Carter spared him any indignity and suggested that they remain seated during toasts at a banquet at the US embassy in Moscow. By that time, in his late sixties, Brezhnev was under the constant care of doctors and addicted to sedatives. He nevertheless dressed smartly, keeping his own tailor, though few Soviet citizens knew of his bespoke suits or fast limousines. Privilege was kept a secret as much as possible. When appearing on television, Brezhnev could not allow himself to parade as the USSR’s style icon. Standardised apparel was the rule even for the rulers.
The unprepossessing image of him spread around the world and outlasted his mortal existence. When the Spitting Image satire series began in Britain in 1984, a Brezhnev-like puppet was used to represent the Kremlin leadership. The running gag was that he needed to be pulled out of a freezer to make public statements. All other Soviet leaders were made to look like him. The joke was not so very far from historical reality. Brezhnev really had been subjected to medical ‘reanimation’ several times. What he never managed to achieve in the long years of his pomp was a restoration of the USSR’s prospects for economic health.