Brezhnev: The Making of a Statesman 
by Susanne Schattenberg, translated by John Heath.
I.B. Tauris, 484 pp., £30, November 2021, 978 1 83860 638 1
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Lessthan a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a travelling exhibition arrived in Kerch on the Crimean Peninsula. Filling several rooms in the Kerch museum, it was a display – a small selection – of the gifts laid at the feet of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev while he was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the second most powerful man in the world. This was puzzling. Brezhnev had died ten years earlier, in 1982, and Crimea was by now a province of newly independent Ukraine. Why should the Ukrainian government want to honour a half-forgotten Soviet autocrat? But honour was hardly the exhibition’s intention.

There were life-size Brezhnev vases bearing his portrait, and lacquered boxes showing scenes of his (largely mythical) heroism in the Great Patriotic War. There were statue groups showing Leonid Ilyich solving engineering problems for an audience of awed scientists, six-foot Brezhnev pencils from the Karl Liebknecht Pencil Factory, Asian rugs embroidered with words of squirming servility, miniature machine tools presented with love from the working people of Krasnodar, a Vietnamese portrait of him wearing a real suit and with real medals glued to the canvas … Toadies of the world, unite! But what sort of man, what kind of leader, had accepted this junk as his due?

Few people remember Brezhnev kindly. At best, he is a pathetic figure with bushy eyebrows stumbling across the international scene, jovial but almost incoherent under the weight of tranquillisers, vodka and oncoming dementia. At worst, he is the man who unleashed the Warsaw Pact armies to overthrow the Prague Spring in 1968, who destabilised half the world by sending Russian forces into Afghanistan in 1979, who devised the Brezhnev Doctrine licensing communist states to use armed force against any nation threatening to leave the ‘socialist camp’. Susanne Schattenberg sets out to correct and sometimes reverse these impressions. ‘I expected to be working on a Stalinist, a hardliner, an architect of domestic and foreign policies of repression,’ she writes in the introduction to this book. But ‘instead of a Cold Warrior, I was faced with a man who passionately fought for peace and ruined his health in the process. Instead of a dogmatic ideologue, a heart-throb who loved fast cars and liked to crack jokes.’ A heart-throb? She adds, disarmingly: ‘I will not escape accusations of being something of a Brezhnev apologist.’

She is not being quite fair to herself. She doesn’t defend the man’s most notorious decisions. If Schattenberg tilts towards her subject, it is by omission. She does not linger on the implications of Brezhnev’s middle-rank authority in the lethal campaign against kulak peasants, or during Stalin’s Great Terror, or for Khrushchev’s gigantic ‘Virgin Lands’ project. But the scale of her research is daunting: she has excavated pyramids of party files, American, French and especially German documents and correspondence, and examined – last and deservedly least – Brezhnev’s so-called ‘memoirs’. Millions of copies of this multi-part ghostwritten hagiography were published and prescribed for Soviet schools. A wad of distortion, evasion and sheer fiction, its author didn’t compose a word of it apart from the quotations from speeches, and probably didn’t even read it all.

He headed the Soviet Union, as leader of the Communist Party, from 1964 until his death in 1982. Before that, he had served as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet for several years. But no insatiable lust for power, no gift for intrigue, lay behind Brezhnev’s ascent. The point was that nobody in the highest echelons of the party was afraid of him. Many quite liked him and admired his hard work, though some thought he was a bit of a nincompoop. His great selling point was that he wasn’t Stalin or Khrushchev. Brezhnev, his colleagues assumed, wouldn’t have them shot or send their families to Siberia. And unlike Khrushchev, Stalin’s ebullient successor, he wouldn’t suddenly fire them in a drunken rage or set them impossible targets in titanic, half-baked projects. He was someone the supreme nomenklatura – the Politburo members and the secretaries of the Central Committee – felt they could control and restrain if necessary.

But Brezhnev wasn’t a mediocrity. He was average: not at all the same thing. He was the sort of Russian male whom foreigners think typical: large, handsome, a great dancer brimming over with sentimental poetry and song, and with an eye for the ladies. Not too bright, perhaps, but loaded with charm and the skill to use it. And he was a survivor. Born in 1906 to Russian parents in Ukraine, he witnessed revolution, civil war and famine as a child. The steel town of Kamenskoye, where he spent his childhood, changed hands between Red and Whites several times. His family – skilled working class, not badly off, able to afford nice Sunday suits for the children – briefly retreated to Kursk, in Russia, where Brezhnev joined the Komsomol and then, at 25, the Communist Party. He married Viktoria Petrovna, a midwifery student, and worked as a land manager before the party sent him to the Urals to serve in a collectivisation drive. This was the first of many episodes in which Brezhnev did not directly take part in actions of state terror – the arrest and deportation of the wealthier kulak peasantry – but worked in the administration rearranging the landscape around those actions. Back in Ukraine a few years later, he led a student brigade to collect wheat from ‘grain procurement saboteurs’, who were then dealt with by the OGPU security police. More than four thousand peasants from his district alone were deported to the Arctic in January 1933. Again, it wasn’t Brezhnev who did the dirty work.

The great Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, in which nearly four million people died, was at least partly caused by forced collectivisation. But Brezhnev’s memoirs say nothing about it. He rose steadily to become director of the Dzerzhinsky metal plant, encouraging ‘shock workers’ to outdo the production targets set by the Five-Year Plan. Schattenberg defines him in the late 1930s as ‘a rather normal example of the new type of engineer’, somebody who was less interested in creating a new society than in getting back to a ‘“good” life in which one did not have to worry about where one’s next meal was coming from and had time for hunting or sleigh rides’. More by luck than anything else, he emerged almost unscathed from the Great Terror of 1937-38; in the town where he worked, more than a thousand people were shot, after ‘hostile Trotskyites’ were supposedly discovered in the steelworks. Friends and colleagues all round him were liquidated, and Brezhnev saved himself only by confessing to a culpable ‘lack of vigilance’.

Schattenberg is right to talk, at this point, about friendship. The friends who emerged from this nightmare alive would form a sturdy alliance around Brezhnev in the years ahead, as he moved to Moscow and into the supreme circles of the party: the Dnepropetrovsk Mafia. Friendship in Russia, above all in terrible times, has an importance rare in more fortunate countries: even more than love and marriage, it is the bond expected to last, to be regularly cultivated and honoured and never betrayed. Brezhnev was fortunate in the comrades he could summon, mostly from Ukraine, to work with him in Moscow when he needed support. Of course, as Schattenberg emphasises, such circles of friends formed in adversity shade into the patron-client relationships that dominated the post-Stalin Soviet Union, networks which were often corrupt, nepotistic and disinclined to promote anyone on the mere basis of merit. Brezhnev functioned as a patron to his own circle, but by now he was a client too. Khrushchev became party leader in Ukraine in 1938, and recruited this young man – obedient, efficient and popular – to help reconstruct Soviet authority in a country traumatised and depopulated by the purges. Under this protection, Brezhnev rose rapidly. He became head of the local trade department, then Ukraine’s chief propagandist (which he hated), and then – with tremendous success – boss of armament production in the USSR’s main industrial region as it prepared itself against the approach of war. He was still young, vigorous and informal with his subordinates; more friends gathered to reinforce his mafia.

Then, in 1941, war came. At this point Brezhnev lost control of his own narrative. The personality cult constructed around him in the 1960s invented him as a hero, holding back advancing Germans by himself with a single machine gun. Not much of this was true. He was a political commissar alongside troops fighting in the Malaya Zemlya peninsula on the Black Sea, and he did hurt his jaw when the landing craft he was riding in hit a mine. But he seems never to have been in combat, and instead spent the war very efficiently keeping the frontline troops supplied. The nonsense developed many years later, when he reached the Kremlin. Brezhnev remained emotionally obsessed by his own war experience and allowed the flatterers of the party propaganda machine to erect clumsy myths about his courage and leadership in battle. Perhaps he came to believe them. In 1976, on his seventieth birthday, he had himself appointed a marshal of the Soviet Union, to general derision. At this stage, as actual memories of the Great Patriotic War diminished, its monuments suddenly began to swell to unthinkable size. One, The Motherland Calls, towers 85 metres above Volgograd; the Motherland figure over Kyiv is 62 metres tall and brandishes a nine-ton sword. The Brezhnev cult reached an obsequious peak in the port of Novorossiysk, close to the Malaya Zemlya battlefield, where the mega-monuments include concrete torpedo boats on plinths and a concrete Kalashnikov two storeys high. Brezhnev opened war museums and dioramas, and made the Supreme Soviet appoint seven ‘hero cities’ (there are now twelve).

All that came later. At the time, the party thought Brezhnev’s wartime performance rather disappointing, and he was sent off to supervise the integration of two small territories into Soviet Ukraine: Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, which had been part of Czechoslovakia, and northern Bukovina, on the fringe of prewar Romania. Little is known about what he did there, but he was responsible for organising dummy ‘popular requests’ from people supposedly asking for their region to be allowed to join the Soviet Union. He was aware of the grim battle going on against anti-Soviet partisans, mainly Ukrainian nationalist bands, but probably left the detail of repression to others.

Back in Ukraine, Brezhnev ran into trouble with Stalin, who was setting impossible deadlines for the repair of the war-shattered Zaporozhe steelworks. Brezhnev, characteristically, did not blame his colleagues or saboteurs, but – after ritual self-criticism – urged his staff into such desperate efforts that the first blast furnace was fired up on time that June. He was forgiven: Stalin awarded him the Order of Lenin at the end of the year. ‘What attracted so many people to Brezhnev,’ wrote Roy Medvedev, later a dissident who had no reason to like him, ‘was his softness, the lack of the usual hardness and cruelty associated with party bosses of the time, a kindness that sometimes also came at the expense of business.’ He detested the old Bolshevik management style of yelling and threatening, and where possible avoided punishing individuals. This reputation for mildness followed him when in 1950 he was appointed party boss in Moldavia – another conquered territory that had been added to Soviet Ukraine and was now tormented by famine and a brutal collectivisation drive which led to 35,000 Moldavians being deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Brezhnev was polite, even moderate, when he reproached subordinates for failing to meet Moscow’s crazy production targets for crops unsuitable to the local soil and climate. Some colleagues thought him too lenient. Then, at a party congress in Moscow, Stalin noticed him. He liked Brezhnev’s looks, tall and well-dressed: ‘What a handsome Moldavian!’ Always impressed by appearances, Stalin made him a candidate member of the Presidium, the supreme party body, and in that office Brezhnev endorsed Stalin’s orders during his last paranoid frenzies, including the arrests over the fictional doctors’ plot.

Stalin died in March 1953, and Brezhnev lost his job as the succession struggle began. But he was still important enough to be present, allegedly with a gun, at the arrest of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s fearsome head of secret police. Khrushchev, replacing Stalin, was soon looking after his old protégé again, and in 1954 Brezhnev was promoted to rule Kazakhstan. There, in the vast and thinly populated semi-desert, he was made political manager of the Virgin Lands Campaign, Khrushchev’s gigantic scheme to plough up the steppe (43 million hectares of it eventually, mostly in north Kazakhstan) and plant it with grain crops.

Leonid Ilyich was in his element there, driving or flying up and down his enormous fief, urging his staff to get out of the office and into the field, fighting to improve the wretched conditions of the hundreds of thousands of young volunteers arriving from Russia and Ukraine. He left for Moscow just in time, before the shallow soil was exhausted and the first fabulous harvests dwindled to a memory. In the Kremlin he became one of Khrushchev’s most loyal henchmen – loyal, but cautious. He kept silent in 1956 when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes in his earth-shaking Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress. And when hardliners – the Anti-Party Group – attempted a coup against Khrushchev the following year, he attacked the plotters only when it was safe to do so. At the shouting climax of that struggle, he collapsed and had to be carried out. Some of those present thought he was faking it, ‘a cowardly man without principles’. Unfair: the collapse was probably real. But ‘cowardly’? In spite of the jolly, backslapping manner, Brezhnev was highly strung, strikingly nervous, with a tendency to disintegrate in moments of extreme crisis. Henry Kissinger, who saw a lot of him a few years later, noticed that ‘he is nervous, partly because of his personal insecurity, partly for physiological reasons … You will find his hands perpetually in motion, twirling his watch chain … flicking ashes from his ever present cigarette, clanging his cigarette holder against an ashtray.’ Kissinger assumed that chain-smoking and vodka were to blame. He did not know that Brezhnev was hopelessly addicted to heavy-duty tranquillisers prescribed by the Kremlin doctor.

Brezhnev’s happiest time began in 1960, when he was made chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet – equivalent to the state presidency. Affable and talkative, he travelled round the fringes of the Cold War – Finland, Sudan, Ghana, Guinea, India, Morocco, Iran – promising strings-free development aid and charming leaders who were surprised to meet a Soviet grandee with a sense of fun. In the glow of Soviet space achievements, he could say in Tehran that ‘the voice of a Soviet person from the cosmos sounds like the triumph of the intellect and the equity of communism.’ But by 1964, storms were gathering in Moscow. In the end, Schattenberg writes, ‘Brezhnev and his comrades found Khrushchev’s indomitable urge to bait, aggravate and humiliate to be utterly unreasonable.’ They plotted to telephone him at his Black Sea villa, summon him back to Moscow and force him to resign. It was in Brezhnev’s room that the plotters met, but one of them remembered that ‘we literally had to drag the trembling Brezhnev to the telephone, such was the fear that gripped him when he realised that it was down to him to begin the whole business.’

Khrushchev was packed off to his dacha; Brezhnev was installed in his place. His colleagues, each with his own gang of client followers, trusted him to reward them with ‘cadre stability’ at the top, and the new first secretary obliged by abolishing time limits in office and the rotation of party appointments. He insisted on collective responsibility, even assembling a large, argumentative team to draft his major speeches. ‘What Stalin and Khrushchev had achieved with terror and humiliation, Brezhnev pushed through with his joviality and conviviality.’ His reign, which would last for almost twenty years, is often dismissed today as ‘the era of stagnation’. And yet the 1970s, especially, brought a turn towards consumers – small private cars, better housing and pensions – throughout the Soviet bloc. As Schattenberg puts it, ‘for the first time in its entire history, Soviet power said to the people, “Relax” and did not demand enthusiasm from them.’ To meet these aspirations, goods and even food had to be imported from the capitalist world. In 1972, for instance, the USSR spent $750 million on grain from America. But meat and dairy shortages only grew worse as purchasing power increased. All over Soviet Europe, sullen queues besieged empty shops and hard currency debts piled up. Brezhnev was repeatedly at odds with his prime minister, the dour Aleksei Kosygin, over the economy’s persistent failures and the corruption and indifference of those in charge of it. But ‘Brezhnev’s (superstitious) belief in the superiority of the Soviet economic system made him search for the reasons for all problems outside of the Soviet Union, in the international situation, or in human factors, but never in the structure itself.’

He declared, to the alarm of Marxist purists, that the Soviet Union had reached the stage of ‘developed socialist democracy’. But it was now that the state set out to crush the new generation of democratic dissidents: Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, organised a new Fifth Administration to deal with them in labour camps, prisons or psychiatric hospitals. Schattenberg is defensive about this. She protests that Khrushchev had many more people jailed for ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ than Brezhnev, who in her view was reluctantly obliged to make concessions to Politburo hardliners. He ‘bore responsibility, but he was not the driving force behind the arrests’. He knew and revered Andrei Sakharov, and was reluctant to agree to his eventual banishment to Gorki. But Aleksandr Bovin, one of the shrewdest men on his staff, concluded that Brezhnev ‘simply did not understand the issue of democracy and human rights’.

This became all too clear during the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968. At the outset, Brezhnev took a fatherly liking to Alexander Dubček, the new party leader in Prague. ‘It is speculation,’ Schattenberg writes, ‘but he clearly saw in him a Czech [sic] version of himself: a young, pleasant man who was replacing an unpopular party leader … Brezhnev quite clearly considered Dubček his protégé.’ In other words, he saw the Czechoslovak reform movement in narrow Soviet terms: as a cadre problem to be solved by a reshuffle of personalities, some cautious policy changes and the restoration of trust between Prague and Moscow. When it became clear that Dubček and his allies were proposing rights to free expression and political diversity, Brezhnev was baffled. Again, he ‘simply did not understand’ what they were on about. When he finally saw they were serious, he was appalled at the breach of trust and friendship by Dubček – ‘his Sasha’ – rather than by the political challenge.

Schattenberg gives a wonderful account of the fateful, grotesque meeting in July 1968 at the frontier railway station of Čierna nad Tisou. In the small, stuffy railwaymen’s club room, the Soviet delegation wasted days and nights trying vainly to identify and split off ‘honest’ communists who might replace Dubček, while Brezhnev, once again ‘falling ill’ with a nervous crisis, wandered around the station in his pyjamas. After a long night-time discussion with Dubček, he somehow persuaded himself that ‘Sasha’ had promised to suppress the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in Prague. This was quite wrong. But Dubček’s failure to do anything of the kind finally convinced Brezhnev that Dubček had lost control of the situation and betrayed what he saw as their ‘great mutual trust’. The Warsaw Pact invasion, already long prepared, drove into Czechoslovakia on 21 August. Ordinary Czechs and Slovaks were condemned to twenty more years of totally unnecessary unhappiness, while the world communist movement was damaged beyond repair.

Over the next ten years, Brezhnev’s approach to foreign relations – seeking personal trust rather than political convergence – seemed at first to pay off. He established boozy good relations with Willy Brandt, as the West German chancellor set about recognising the frontiers left by the Second World War (when the Bundestag threatened to reject the new treaties, Brezhnev sent Brandt’s lieutenant Egon Bahr a suitcase of dollar bills to buy over the opposition; Bahr was horrified, but luckily nobody found out about it). He welcomed an approach by Richard Nixon, despite the reluctance of the Politburo and of his implacably negative foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, and greeted Henry Kissinger with bear hugs and heavy jokes. When the president came to Moscow in May 1974, he found Brezhnev ‘like a big Irish labour boss’, backslapping at one moment and at the next bellowing with anger (for the benefit of listeners in Hanoi) about the Vietnam War. Here and at Camp David, Nixon was a terrified witness to Brezhnev’s addiction to speed, as he screeched cars round tight corners and on one occasion bashed the sump out of a new limousine. Knowing his lust for fast cars, the Americans gave him a Cadillac and then a Lincoln Continental. President Pompidou provided a Maserati, and Willy Brandt came up with a Mercedes 450 SLC coupé.

All of this​ nourished Brezhnev’s ambition to be a ‘Western’ statesman: sociable, pleasure-loving, relying on intimacy and trust between leaders. But he overdid it, inviting condescending sneers from Western hosts. The French were insulted by his indifference to protocol, turning up to high-level meetings hours late or not at all. Nixon was taken aback when Brezhnev introduced him to a young air hostess who was sharing his villa at Camp David. Other hosts assumed it was vodka that sometimes made him unsteady and slurred, when in fact he had been sandbagged by those Mickey Finn tranquillisers. And yet something was achieved, and East-West tensions were at least prepared for relaxation. There are moments in this book when Schattenberg seems to imply that Brezhnev was a premature Mikhail Gorbachev, sharing the same hopes but working before the time was ripe. That he certainly wasn’t, lacking both Gorbachev’s intelligence and his desperate courage. All the same, the outlines of the great arms limitation agreements of the future were sketched out in Brezhnev’s talks with the Americans. And, in the teeth of hardline Politburo disapproval, he led the Soviet Union into the Helsinki Process, the sequence of conferences on ‘security and co-operation in Europe’, including the delicate topics of human rights and freedom of movement, that dominated East-West diplomacy in the 1970s.

The Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975. But over the next few years, the Cold War – far from thawing – entered its short final glaciation. The Americans took fright at Soviet involvement in the Angolan civil war, and all America’s allies – West Germany especially – were shocked by Moscow’s new SS-20 missiles targeted on Europe. Nato’s response – the double-track decision to station Cruise and Pershing missiles within range of Moscow – and American reluctance to ratify the Salt treaties, were taken by the Politburo as evidence that the US had embarked on a new aggressive policy towards the Soviet Union. At the same time, Brezhnev’s health declined. In Poland for a party congress, he embarrassed his hosts by trying to conduct the playing of the ‘Internationale’. These breakdowns were still spasmodic, and he had periods of recovery in which he could take back command. But from the mid-1970s Soviet foreign policy was effectively being run by three elderly Politburo men: Gromyko, Andropov of the KGB and Dmitri Ustinov, the minister of defence.

‘Brezhnev had made himself, his personality, his humanity, his ability to play the Western statesman and his trustworthiness the central factor of Soviet foreign policy,’ Schattenberg writes generously. ‘With it, he took all before him and then, after 1975, lost it all again … creating a vacuum that was filled with mistrust.’ This is a distinctly German perspective (Schattenberg is a professor at the University of Bremen), and it’s true that without Brezhnev’s support and friendship, Brandt might not have succeeded in raising his country’s status from informal Allied protectorate to independent European statehood. ‘Bahr and Brandt would later regret the missed opportunities; they thought they could have achieved much more with Brezhnev … before he became fossilised as an apparatchik and inaccessible to them.’

Two colossal crises lay immediately ahead: Afghanistan and Poland. According to Schattenberg, Brezhnev had almost nothing to do with the calamitous decision in December 1979 to send Soviet troops into Afghanistan. He was drugged and out of it: the troika running foreign policy kept him informed but concluded that he didn’t grasp what was going on or understand the papers they made him sign. The Politburo apparently assumed that it would be a repeat of Czechoslovakia 1968: a quick invasion, no serious resistance, and a replacement of cadres. Instead they found themselves in a merciless nine-year war that would cost more than fourteen thousand Russian lives alone and destroy much of the Soviet system’s remaining credibility at home.

Over Poland, in contrast, Brezhnev came back to life, and was active and sometimes even alert as the Solidarity revolution flamed across the country in the summer of 1980. But his old delusions remained. He thought he could be a trusty, fatherly friend to Stanisław Kania, the new Polish leader, and persuade him to crush the counter-revolutionaries. Once again, he thought cadre changes might solve the problem; once again, he ‘simply did not understand’ the fundamental scale of Solidarity’s challenge. Schattenberg herself underestimates the starkness of the crisis. If the Soviet Union had invaded Poland – the ‘national tragedy’ dreaded by its communist rulers as much as by their subjects – the Poles would have risen and fought a bloody, sacrificial war in the heart of Europe. The Politburo knew this. Nonetheless, the Warsaw Pact divisions were driven up to Poland’s frontiers, with the attack set for 8 December 1980. All that was missing was nerve in the Kremlin. Perhaps the Politburo, shocked by its Afghan blunder, never meant to use force, merely to threaten it. But they judged, correctly, that Solidarity was only deterred from seizing full power by fear of an invasion. So the bluff was maintained. Kania’s successor, General Jaruzelski, knew perfectly well by 1981 that the Kremlin had decided on no account to use force. His excuse for the putsch imposing martial law that December – that he did it to forestall a Soviet-led invasion – was therefore a lie.

Schattenberg should have made that clear. But her whole treatment of this climax – the use of massive armed force to crush Solidarity, intern tens of thousands of its members and install a military dictatorship – is disconcerting, and not only for Polish readers. ‘For Brezhnev,’ she writes, ‘it was ultimately a small triumph. The old three-card trick of fatherly persuasion, clear warnings and banking entirely on the cadre issue had proven its worth once again. They had managed to bring their Polish comrades into line without resorting to violence.’ That is, putting it mildly, an eccentric account of what happened. As a journalist who covered the episode, I am reminded sharply of West Germany’s striking deafness to the Polish struggles for freedom – none deafer than Helmut Schmidt’s governing Social Democrats. Who were these untidy, reckless Poles whose antics threatened to upset the grand reconciliation between Bonn and Moscow?

Polish communism was dead, though it took nearly eight years for the nation to wriggle out from under the corpse. Much the same could be said about the Soviet Union, steadily decomposing in the last stagnant years of the Brezhnev era. Mummified rather than fossilised, he allowed a shaming personality cult to be constructed while he struggled to manage a few hours’ work a day. Watching his solemn greed for more and more medals and state prizes, Russians began to laugh: the ridiculous official cult, his inability to give a coherent speech, even his huge eyebrows, turned Brezhnev into a joke.

Foreigners, noting that the Politburo was now led by ailing old men (cadre stability), put his weakness down to age. In fact, Brezhnev was only 75 when he died in 1982, younger than some of his senior colleagues. But he had ruled the Soviet Union for eighteen years. Brought up within the party system, he could not imagine radical reform that went beyond what had happened after Stalin’s death: the party had ceased to be the instrument of mass murder and of the lawless deportation of millions. So he tried, earnestly but without much success, to make the Soviet peoples safer, happier and better off. There was, perhaps, a chance to transform the USSR’s governance in his first years of leadership. But such heresy was inconceivable to a ‘homo sovieticus’ like Leonid Ilyich. By the time Gorbachev set out to grapple with the monstrous faults in the political structure, only four years after Brezhnev’s death, it was too late.

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