Students in Karen Dawisha’s POL 471 class recently debated the motion “it would have been better for Russia had Brezhnev not died.” Taylor Valley makes the case for Brezhnev in this response.
To say “It would have been better for Russia if Brezhnev had never died” would be to refute the progress that Russia has made as a country. The claim that the Brezhnev era was the most peaceful era in Russia’s history stems from ignorance and is perpetuated by an unfounded nostalgia that plagues the collective memory of Russians everywhere. It is true that the Brezhnev era was more peaceful than past eras, but it was still riddled with problems that should not be overlooked or forgotten. If Brezhnev were still alive the economy would be in a state of ill repair and the people would lack the basic freedoms that would appall even the North Koreans.
The phrase “era of stagnation” is the most common and most appropriate way to characterize Brezhnev’s term in office. Despite the temporary prosperities as a result in the rise of oil prices, the economy was basically stagnant and even began to decline by the 1980s. Brezhnev made it impossible for Russia to progress. Brezhnev continued to embrace many Stalinist practices like the five-year plans and collective farming. These practices were outdated and rarely if ever met their goals.
Some may argue that the current wave of nostalgia for Brezhnev is proof that times were better then than they are now. That is not true, however. The Brezhnev era might have felt comfortable, but only comparatively so. We must remember that Brezhnev’s era of consistency did not allow for the growth of Russia as a whole. Under Brezhnev central planning was still in use. This relic of Stalin’s was hardly fit to promote the growth of Russia in the 1970’s. After Khrushchev was forced out of office in 1964 it is true that the eighth five-year plan did have its successes, but those were short lived. Brezhnev’s Russia peaked in the early 1970s with the rising price of oil, but unfortunately his rule dragged on for another decade. Under Brezhnev the ninth five-year plan exhibited signs of slowdown in production across every sector of the economy. The tenth five-year plan from 1976-81 fared even worse as the gross national product was estimated to have grown less than two percent per year . Under Brezhnev the economy was clearly lagging behind the international market and people began to take notice of the poverty in their country. Brezhnev’s era can also be characterized by the rise of dissident movements as his sub par governance began to provoke discontent.
Brezhnev’s reign of terror was much more subtle than Stalin’s. Astoundingly, the role of the KGB was expanded in 1965 and the organization was given sweeping authority over the control of dissidents and capture of supposed “spies”. Many political dissidents were harassed and jailed under Brezhnev without the hope of being released as their very existence was refuted. Amnesty International reported in 1982 that many “prisoners of conscience were charged with political offences such as ‘anti-Soviet agitation’”. This could be as simple as handing out fliers with opposing viewpoints. Not only were so called “agitators” harassed, but many innocent people whose actions were seen as just borderline criminal, so maybe just holding fliers instead of passing them out, were subject to KGB surveillance. These “would-be agitators” were monitored and would be confronted once they crossed the line into criminality. This approach was known as “prophylaxis” as it was a preventative method to ensure the security of the state. One third of political dissidents were deemed mentally ill and were forcibly treated in mental hospitals . In a report by then head of the KGB, Andropov, stated that 121,406 people were subject to some form of prophylaxis between 1967 and 1974 . Although dissidents at home could be dealt with quietly, dissent in the satellite countries was handled with outright cruelty.
When Aleksandr Dubcek was elected as the First Secretary in Czechoslovakia in 1968 he made plans to democratize, decentralize the economy, and give the people greater freedoms including that of speech and travel. Dubcek’s proposals are all very modest and are the basis of any modern society, but somehow to Brezhnev these proposals warranted a full-scale military invasion. A government that is threatened by the empowerment of its own people is surely not fit to govern. Brezhnev’s insecurities did not end in Czechoslovakia, but rather fueled a need to bolster his fragile system of governance abroad. The Soviets participated both financially and military in the overthrow of governments in the developing world for the sake of Socialism. Through these actions Brezhnev was in direct violation of the Helsinki Accords, which were put into place to promote self-determination and sovereignty. Brezhnev’s biggest foreign policy blunder was, without question, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets were there to overthrow the current leader and replace him with a pro-Soviet leader. This action blatantly disregarded the Helsinki Accords that were signed just four years earlier. Not only did the invasion undermine Brezhnev’s credibility as a world leader, it also failed in practice. The Soviets couldn’t hold Afghanistan; Brezhnev could barely hold the Soviet satellites. The necessity of the Brezhnev Doctrine is a testament to the instability of Brezhnev’s governance at home and policy abroad.
In conclusion, the Brezhnev era can be characterized by an economy that was crippling faster than Brezhnev’s health, an intelligence agency that acted as the fourth branch of government, and by a foreign policy doctrine that would only gain the respect of Ivan the terrible. I’d like to share an important quote that correctly illustrates the disparity between the nostalgia that the heart feels and the logic that the mind knows. President Vladimir Putin once said, “People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain” . Yes, nostalgia does have a place in the cultural narrative of a people, but the people also have the right to know the truth. Russia would not have been better off if Brezhnev were still alive.
Taylor Valley is a senior at Miami majoring in REEES and Political Science