Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (Russian: Леони́д Ильи́ч Бре́жнев; IPA: [lʲɪɐˈnʲid ɪlʲˈjitɕ ˈbrʲeʐnʲɪf] ( listen); Ukrainian: Леоні́д Іллі́ч Бре́жнєв, 19 December 1906 (O.S. 6 December) – 10 November 1982) was the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), presiding over the country from 1964 until his death in 1982. His eighteen-year term as General Secretary was second only to that of Joseph Stalin in length. During Brezhnev’s rule, the global influence of the Soviet Union grew dramatically, in part because of the expansion of the Soviet military during this time, but his tenure as leader has often been criticised for marking the beginning of a period of economic stagnation in which serious economic problems were overlooked, problems which eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoe into a Russian worker’s family. After graduating from the Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum, he became a metallurgical engineer in the iron and steel industry, in Ukraine. He joined Komsomol in 1923, and in 1929 became an active member of the Communist Party. He was drafted into immediate military service during World War II and left the army in 1946 with the rank of Major General. In 1952 Brezhnev became a member of the Central Committee, and in 1964, Brezhnev succeeded Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary. Alexei Kosygin succeeded Khrushchev in his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers.
As a leader, Brezhnev took care to consult his colleagues before acting, but his attempt to govern without meaningful economic reforms led to a national decline by the mid-1970s, a period referred to as the Era of Stagnation. A significant increase in military expenditure, which by the time of Brezhnev’s death stood at approximately 15% of the country’s GNP, and an aging and ineffective leadership set the stage for a dwindling GNP compared to Western nations. While at the helm of the USSR, Brezhnev pushed for détente between the Eastern and Western countries. He presided over the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to stop the Prague Spring, and his last major decision in power was to send the Soviet military to Afghanistan in an attempt to save the fragile regime which was fighting a war against the mujahideen.
Brezhnev died on 10 November 1982 and was quickly succeeded in his post as General Secretary by Yuri Andropov. Brezhnev had fostered a cult of personality, although not to the same degree as Stalin. Mikhail Gorbachev, who would lead the USSR from 1985 to 1991, denounced his legacy and drove the process of liberalisation of the Soviet Union.
Early life and career
Origins and education
Brezhnev was born on 19 December 1906 in Kamenskoe (now Dniprodzerzhynsk in Ukraine), to metalworker Ilya Yakovlevich Brezhnev and his wife, Natalia Denisovna. At different times during his life, Brezhnev specified his ethnic origin alternately as either Ukrainian or Russian, opting for the latter as he rose within the Communist Party. Like many youths in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he received a technical education, at first in land management where he started as a land surveyor and then in metallurgy. He graduated from the Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum in 1935 and became a metallurgical engineer in the iron and steel industries of eastern Ukraine.
Brezhnev joined the Communist Party youth organisation, the Komsomol, in 1923, and the Party itself in 1929. In 1935 and 1936, Brezhnev served his compulsory military service, and after taking courses at a tank school, he served as a political commissar in a tank factory. Later in 1936, he became director of the Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum (technical college). In 1936, he was transferred to the regional center of Dnipropetrovsk and, in 1939, he became Party Secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, in charge of the city’s important defence industries. As a survivor of Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937–39, he could gain rapid promotions, since the purges opened up many positions in the senior and middle ranks of the Party and state.
Second World War
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Brezhnev was, like most middle-ranking Party officials, immediately drafted. He worked to evacuate Dnipropetrovsk’s industries to the east of the Soviet Union before the city fell to the Germans on 26 August, and then was assigned as a political commissar. In October, Brezhnev was made deputy of political administration for the Southern Front, with the rank of Brigade-Commissar.
When Ukraine was occupied by the Germans in 1942, Brezhnev was sent to the Caucasus as deputy head of political administration of the Transcaucasian Front. In April 1943, he became head of the Political Department of the 18th Army. Later that year, the 18th Army became part of the 1st Ukrainian Front, as the Red Army regained the initiative and advanced westwards through Ukraine. The Front’s senior political commissar was Nikita Khrushchev, who became an important patron of Brezhnev’s career. Brezhnev had met Khrushchev in 1931, shortly after joining the party, and before long, as he continued his rise through the ranks, he became Khrushchev’s protégé. At the end of the war in Europe, Brezhnev was chief political commissar of the 4th Ukrainian Front which entered Prague after the German surrender.
Immediate post war
Brezhnev left the Soviet Army with the rank of Major General in August 1946. He had spent the entire war as a commissar rather than a military commander. After working on reconstruction projects in Ukraine, he again became First Secretary in Dnipropetrovsk. In 1950, he became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union’s highest legislative body. Later that year he was appointed Party First Secretary in Moldavia. In 1952, he became a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and was introduced as a candidate member into the Presidium (formerly the Politburo).
Stalin died in March 1953, and in the reorganisation that followed, the Presidium was abolished and a smaller Politburo reconstituted. Although Brezhnev was not made a Politburo member, he was appointed head of the Political Directorate of the Army and the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant-General, a very senior position. This was probably due to the new power of his patron Khrushchev, who had succeeded Stalin as Party General Secretary. On 7 May 1955, Brezhnev was made Party First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR. His brief was simple: to make the new lands agriculturally productive. With this directive, he started the initially successful Virgin Lands Campaign. Brezhnev was recalled to Moscow in 1956. The harvest in the following years of the Virgin Lands Campaign was disappointing, which would have hurt his political career if he had stayed.
In February 1956, Brezhnev returned to Moscow, promoted to candidate member of the Politburo and assigned control of the defence industry, the space program, heavy industry, and capital construction. He was now a senior member of Khrushchev’s entourage, and in June 1957, he backed Khrushchev in his struggle with the Stalinist old guard in the Party leadership, the so-called “Anti-Party Group“. Following the defeat of the old guard, Brezhnev became a full member of the Politburo. Brezhnev became Second Secretary of the Central Committee in 1959, and in May 1960 was promoted to the post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet,, making him the nominal head of state, although the real power resided with Khrushchev as First Secretary. In 1962, Brezhnev became an honorary citizen of Belgrade.