Brezhnev and Nixon, 1973. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen, US Government.

Brezhnev and Nixon, 1973. Photo: Robert L. Knudsen, US Government.

Reviews As Brezhnev saw it. Diaries of a “stable decline” in three volumes

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2-3: 2018, pp 116-118
Published on on september 6, 2018

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During the dissolution of the Soviet Union and during the first post-Soviet years, the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1964—1982) was most often described as a period of political degeneration and economic stagnation. Brezhnev himself — the second most successful Soviet ruler after Stalin in terms of number of years in power — was a popular target of countless jokes. Perhaps no one at that time could imagine that the image of a man who had spent the last years of his life gravely ill and visibly senile while still in office, watched by the whole world, would change in the foreseeable future.

In today’s Russia, however, the Brezhnev era is more and more frequently being viewed as a period of stability that lacked the state terror of Stalin’s era, the reform chaos and social tension of Khrushchev’s rule, and the drop in the country’s global prestige that followed the end of the Cold War under the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. This partial rehabilitation of the Brezhnev era does not provoke the same strong feelings outside the Russian Federation as does the ongoing rehabilitation of Stalin’s foreign policy. The importance of this rehabilitation of “stability” under Brezhnev, on the other hand, should not be overestimated: too much nostalgia for this part of the past could put the regime of Vladimir Putin in a bad light.

Historians researching the communist system often agree that, even today, the Brezhnev era — especially the first seven years when Brezhnev, having risen to the post of leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) thanks to party support and numerous intrigues, managed to seize power and silence critical voices of potential opponents without being challenged — remains the least-studied period in the entire history of the Soviet Union. In light of this, the recent publication of Brezhnev’s work-related and private notes, collected in three volumes of almost 3,500 pages, has attracted rather a lot of interest.

Of these three large volumes, only the first and the third contain notes written by Brezhnev himself. The second volume contains notes from Brezhnev’s secretaries, listing his meetings and negotiations.

In volume one, there are notes from the period 1964—1982, when Brezhnev was the top leader of the Communist Party. The previous period, 1944—1964, is covered by volume three. The notes far from completely cover the period — after 1944 there is a break until the early 1950s, and he does not start writing things down more systematically until 1957. In any case, the newly published documents illustrate Brezhnev’s way of thinking in the time period between the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, with its criticism of the “cult of Joseph Stalin’s personality”, and his death in 1982.

The editors point out the enormous importance of this collection, but there are significant objections. Brezhnev’s diaries do not disclose as much about their author as is the case with, for example, the memoirs of his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev or one of his successors, Mikhail Gorbachev.1 The Khrushchev memoirs, in particular, became a world sensation when they were published. Forbidden in the Soviet Union, they were first published in the West in the early 1970s and only much later, in the late 1990s, in Russia. On the other hand, it is necessary to bear in mind that both Khrushchev and Gorbachev wished to give their view of Soviet reality to an audience, while Brezhnev wrote his diaries for himself. And this is precisely the aspect that makes him unique; so far, there is no book on the market that illustrates the direct thoughts of any other Soviet top leader. In this context, it is necessary to add that the official memoirs of Leonid Brezhnev, three self-glorifying and Lenin Prize-awarded volumes published already during his lifetime under the titles The Small Land, Rebirth and Virgin Lands (Malaya Zemlya, Vozrozhdenie, Tselina, 1978—1979), are more or less worthless for contemporary historiography.

Brezhnev’s notes do not construct a coherent narrative about his work or even about his private life. In order to decode the meanings of his texts, thorough knowledge of the Soviet political system and Soviet history is essential. Even then, a successful interpretation is not guaranteed, although many of the notes can help the reader increase his or her overall knowledge of the period in question. In any case, however, the notes illustrate Brezhnev both as an important political figure and as a human being.

What is evident is the fact that Brezhnev does not refer to classic works of Marxist-Leninist ideology, but “speaks Communist” nonetheless. In other words, there is no “secret Brezhnev” hidden in the diaries, i.e. a Brezhnev different from the one who could be watched on the daily TV news. Some of his notes surprise the reader with their banality; one does not have to be the leader of one of the two Cold War superpowers in order to come to conclusions such as, “The situation is difficult,” or, “It is necessary to do some thinking.” With progressing illness, Brezhnev more frequently enters banal texts into his diaries.

As for domestic politics, the most attention is given to the communist cadres and measures that concern staffing. Although questions regarding the Soviet economy and agricultural problems are mentioned, the solution is usually found in measures connected to cadres rather than in system changes. There are, however, few details about moves happening behind the scenes — especially when it concerns Brezhnev’s personal control over the pillars of the communist dictatorship, i.e. the leadership of the party, the KGB political police, and the army.  For example, we cannot learn from the notes how Brezhnev managed to remove an entire generation of young top politicians from the highest power during the first three years after he had replaced Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. The young politicians were headed by former KGB chairman Alexander Shelepin, who had been appointed by Khrushchev, probably in order to replace him as the head of state one day. This would have been very interesting information since it was precisely this step that prevented the generational renewal at the highest political level in the Soviet Union during the rest of Brezhnev’s career. It was by no means a coincidence that the aging “Brezhnev generation” (Alexei Kosygin, Mikhail Suslov, Brezhnev himself, Nikolai Podgorny, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko) died, one after the other, in the early 1980s, which led to a situation that was resolved by the appointment of the “too young and inexperienced” (judged from a communist-conservative point of view) Mikhail Gorbachev to the top job in the Kremlin. Brezhnev’s focus on political rituals and his understanding of the necessity of rewarding the devoted and faithful also documents the importance of the policy concerning the cadres in Brezhnev’s mind. He himself made certain that he received more honors, decorations and medals than any of the other Soviet leaders.

The notes dedicated to international affairs are, in my opinion, much more interesting than the domestic ones. Those dating from the 1960s show a certain concern about a partial loss of the country’s global prestige that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This is indicated, for example, by a note following the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967. As early as 1965, Brezhnev wrote that he was well aware of the fact that the Soviet Union must keep its combat readiness at the highest level in order to “secure peace” for itself, i.e. to push through its will in world affairs. Unfortunately, the notes from 1968 that deal with the Czechoslovak Prague Spring, the first major crisis of the Brezhnev era, do not explain how the Soviet global strategy influenced the decision to invade Czechoslovakia and stop its reform attempts. Even less can be learned about the last crisis of this kind under Brezhnev, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. On the other hand, we do learn about Brezhnev’s thinking during the most successful period of his foreign policy, starting with the 24th Congress of the CPSU in 1971 and ending with the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki in 1975. During this particular time, characterized by the Ostpolitik, and by the visit of US president Richard Nixon to Moscow in 1972 and Brezhnev’s own trip to Washington in 1973, a “balance of power”/détente was reached, i.e. the Soviet Union reached a balance of power with the West that allowed it to keep its strategic positions. When he met Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford in Helsinki, Brezhnev seemed have gained a lot of global prestige. At the same time, however, he fully ignored all warnings concerning the growing domestic crisis of the Soviet system that would erupt only one decade later.

During the last stage of his life, Brezhnev became a textbook example of a politician who has lost his self-reflection and sound judgment. He did not know when to leave his job. Nor were the people closest to him willing to force him to retire. In this respect, it is informative to follow the development of his health problems through his own eyes. His problems had begun already by the end of the 1950s, soon after he had turned 50 and become one of Khrushchev’s closest allies. His health worsened after the aforementioned invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. From an ideological point of view, it is surprising how much the leader of the world’s communist movement believed in healers and even miracles while his trust in the Soviet health system was limited. He needed high doses of narcotics during his last days in power, which is also evident in his diary.

To those who do not read Russian but want to learn more about Brezhnev’s notes, I can recommend a series of articles published in English by the historians Victor Dönninghaus and Andrei Savin, who were members of the editorial team.2 I fully agree with their conclusion that the notes from Brezhnev’s diaries have already provided us with valuable information about this period, but that there is great potential to deepen our knowledge about the Soviet system and the Cold War once the Russian authorities decide to open the archives of relevant and still top-secret documents. Unfortunately, the current behavior of the authorities in Moscow does not promise any quick progress in this regard. ≈


1 Russian editions: Khrushchev, Nikita, Vremya, Lyudi, Vlast, Moskva: Moskovskye novosti 1999, Gorbachev, Mikhail, Zhizn i reformy, Moskva: Novosti 1995.

2 Raleigh, Donald J (guest editor), “Russia’s Favorite. Reevaluating the rule of Leonid Ilich Brezhnev, 1964—82”, Russian Studies in History, Vol. 52, No. 4, Spring 2014.

  • by Tomas Sniegon

    Historian and senior lecturer in European Studies at the University of Lund, Sweden. Currently working on a project about Soviet dictatorship, financed by The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • all contributors

Brezhnev, Leonid, Rabochie i dnevnikovye zapisi, V 3-kh tomakh, Moskva: Istoricheskaya literature, 2016, 3 500 pages.