Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982 (Episodes 102 and 103). His 18 year reign was second to only Joseph Stalin during the years of the USSR. Brezhnev’s time was marked by an economic stagnant time that has been blamed in part for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Born in 1906 in the city of Dniprodzerzhynsk (aka Kamenskoe) in the Ukraine to a Russian working family, Brezhnev joined the Komsomol in 1923. He became a member of the Communist Party six years later. His education, like many of his colleagues was not an intellectual one but a technical one. Over the years he moved up the ladder, especially after the Great Purges of 1937-39 on the orders of Joseph Stalin.
During World War II, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, Brezhnev helped evacuate industry from the Ukraine east, ahead of the German advance. During those years he met his mentor, Nikita Khrushchev the man he eventually was to oust in 1964. At the end of his military service, he left as a Major General but had never really served in a fighting unit.
Quickly, Brezhnev began to move up the ladder once again serving as a First Secretary of his home region and later as a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. When Stalin had died in 1953 his career looked quite bright as Khrushchev had begun to assume power. He was then made First Party Secretary of the Communist Party of theKazakh SSR. In 1957 he helped his mentor defeat the “Anti-Party Group” which helped him gain a place on the Politburo. Within a few years in became apparent that he was being groomed to take over from Khrushchev as he was made Second Secretary.
Starting in 1962, Khrushchev was becoming more and more erratic in his behavior and he plunged his country into the Cuban Missile Crisis (Episode 99). By 1964, Brezhnev and his fellow Politburo members had had enough so they orchestrated a coup that took out his mentor peacefully (Episode 101), a first in Soviet history.
Whereas Khrushchev was a reformer, Brezhnev was the opposite. He quickly reversed many of the more recent reforms put in place by the former leader and began to retrench and place his own cronies into positions of power. At the beginning of his reign, he shared power with Alexei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny. Over the years he played each against the other with him eventually taking sole control of the Soviet Union.
Brezhnev turned to the United States to discuss détente. The two nations were in the midst of the Cold War and an unsustainable arms race. The toll on the Soviet economy was staggering. The USSR was focused on military buildup at the expense of their people. Food and consumer product shortages began to show up with greater frequency. This led to more dissatisfaction but it was becoming increasingly difficult to speak out as Brezhnev began a policy of repression led by his eventual successor Yuri Andropov.
During his time as head of the USSR, he sent in troops to crush the Czechoslovakian uprising (the Prague Spring) and started the war in Afghanistan. This war was to produce a cooling between the two super powers, the US and the USSR. The Americans boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and further damaged the Soviet economy by stopping all grain exports to them.
More and more, Brezhnev’s cronies dug their hands deeper into the pockets of the people with a level of corruption not seen since the late-Tsarist times. Not only did Leonid Illyich not do anything about the corruption, he seemingly encouraged it. It is this position that makes me place the man on the list of worst Russian/Soviet leaders.
When he died in 1982, the countries economy was in shambles and the corruption so deep that within nine short years, the USSR would be forced to dissolve under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.