Upon hearing the word “USSR” you would be forgiven for thinking purely of Joseph Stalin, the infamous Russian dictator. Stalin ruled communist Russia from 1922 until his death in 1952, and with infamous phrases such as ‘one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’ he is an un-ignorable presence in the history of the USSR [United Soviet Socialist Republic also commonly referred to as Russia, the ‘Soviet state’ or sometimes simply ‘the communists’].
However life continued on[ironically] after Stalin’s death and many of the rulers of the post-Stalin USSR are also well worth a mention. Directly after Stalin Nikita Khrushchev took control, then after a vicious coup, Leonid Brezhnev came to the forefront. Brezhnev is one of the more interesting characters of the USSR and controversy surrounds his eighteen year long rule, from this controversy appears two “Brezhnev” characters
The bad Brezhnev
Often the most common criticism of Brezhnev and his regime is essentially that nothing happened. Often Brezhnev is referred to as ‘dull’ and ‘grey’ in character. Much of the historiography on Brezhnev’s regime emphasizes his tendency to focus solely on maintaining stability and balance, a propensity which [according to some historians] resulted in him not actually doing anything. This coupled with the wider soviet context of economic downturn, dissatisfaction and disenchantment of the Russian people and rampant corruption paints a pretty damning picture. Essentially under Brezhnev the soviet system was in severe disrepair, meaning that Brezhnev has continually come under heavy fire for not instigating a more innovative and revolutionary reform program.
Add to this the slight [read massive] issue that by the end of his regime Brezhnev was severely ill and the situation appears even more dire. In the latter years of his rule there were continual jokes and comments made about his health. Primarily people seemed to be focused on actually confirming he was still alive, which again is not really high praise for his leadership style. [for a lovely visual of what Brezhnev was like think of an embalmed corpse and you’d be very near the mark] Due to his ill health during the latter years of his rule Brezhnev was undoubtedly of little use.
The Good Brezhnev
But it’s not all bad, in more recent years historiography has begun to re-evaluate Brezhnev’s impact on the USSR and therefore a more positive view can also be seen to emerge. Brezhnev is said to have had very good relations with his colleagues, this is primarily evidenced by the fact that he was not ousted from power like both his predecessors and his successors. He also had better luck with foreign policy and had a hand in resurrecting the USSR’s reputation upon the world stage through the early stages of his policy of détente. Additionally, unlike he successor Gorbachev he was able to maintain the stability and existence of the USSR.
Was Brezhnev good or bad then? – As research into the Brezhnev era evolves so does the view of his regime. Perhaps he was somewhere in the middle, just a man trying to reform and recover the badly damaged communist reputation of the USSR. But then this train of thought also begs the question of why didn’t he take more of a revolutionary approach? Brezhnev is certainly a subject to be investigated.