“There is a version: Brezhnev was put as a kind of transitional figure”

Historian Alexander Shubin about Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Stagnation Period and the threshold of perestroika

“There is a version: Brezhnev was put as a kind of transitional figure”
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Fifty-five years ago, in October 1964, after the forced resignation of Nikita Khrushchev, 57-year-old Leonid Brezhnev headed the country as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Since perestroika, the period of Brezhnev's rule has been called the Stagnation Period in public discussions and historical science — the period of absence of serious economic and technological development necessary for the country, although many Russian citizens are ready to call Brezhnev’s rule primarily the era of calm life and stability. Alexander Shubin, Doctor of Historical Sciences, the author of the book Golden Autumn, or The Period of Stagnation of the USSR in 1975-1985 gg told Realnoe Vremya about what the Brezhnev era really was and what Brezhnev was like, first of all, as a leader.

“Shelepin was too young and cruel to lead the country”

Doctor Shubin, as a result of the conspiracy of the top party leadership, Khrushchev was removed. Why did Leonid Brezhnev head the Soviet Union in October 1964?

I think it was the result of multilateral negotiations. The circle from which they were choosing was obvious — Mikhail Suslov, Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin. As you know, the engine of the anti-Khrushchev conspiracy was the head of the Committee of the party and state control under the Central Committee of the CPSU Shelepin, but Shelepin was too young and too cruel to lead the country. By the way, there is a version (which, however, neither Shelepin nor Semichastny in his memoirs does not confirm) that Brezhnev was put as a kind of transitional figure, but this is not proven — those people who removed Khrushchev from power did not say anything at all, and here we, apparently, will never know the exact content of the conversations that preceded Khrushchev's removal from power.

Why could Brezhnev be considered at that time an influential figure, if we put aside the version that he was not a temporary figure?

For a long time, Brezhnev was Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, and since 1957 — a member of the Presidium of the Central Committee, headed for some time the Supreme Soviet of the USSR — and this gave him all-Union fame. By the way, we often underestimate the publicity of figures in Soviet society, but the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (this is formally the head of the state, whom Brezhnev was) appeared on the TV screen a little less often than First Secretary of the Central Committee Khrushchev: Brezhnev presented awards, congratulated the labour collectives and, in general, was a famous person in the country and the world. Besides, in the Central Committee, Brezhnev was responsible for many programmes of development of the country, including space, and such work gave the establishment of good relations with, for example, the Armed Forces. Therefore, Brezhnev had accumulated the potential that could allow him to claim, along with other leaders, to the first place.

There is a feature film about Brezhnev's rise to power — The Grey Wolves, which, however, is associated with some political speculation, but it correctly shows that it was quite dangerous to agree to the first place in the case of exposing the conspiracy, and many of the members of the conspiracy did not want to risk, thus, hoping that they would remain part of the collective political leadership. Brezhnev decided to agree to be the first, and thus he largely determined his fate and the fate of the country.

So Brezhnev was a brave man?

He was a brave man in that respect.

Brezhnev after his speech at the grand plenum of the Central Committee of Komsomol, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Lenin Komsomol. Palace of Congresses, October 25, 1968. Photo: wikipedia.org
Brezhnev decided to agree to be the first, and thus he largely determined his fate and the fate of the country

“The economy, of course, was evolving, but inertially”

Can we say that the choice of Brezhnev by the participants of the anti-Khrushchev conspiracy could be determined not only by the party and state experience of Leonid Ilyich but also the gentleness of his character, which was very important in those years, keeping in mind the Stalin period?

They for certain would have rejected a more rigid person, and we know that a more rigid, irreconcilable person was not claiming for this place — it is already mentioned Alexander Shelepin. Brezhnev was the most loyal among the comrades of these people, besides, Brezhnev was the best communicator in the top management, so he went for the top post.

Was it immediately clear what goals the new, as it was believed, collective leadership headed by Brezhnev was setting?

It was clear — in 1965, there were two plenums of the Central Committee: one plenum introduced khozraschyot at a number of enterprises, and the other was designed to normalize the situation in agriculture. Under the reform of khozraschyot, the sovnarkhoz was liquidated, that is, from the territorial system of economic management they switched to the departmental one (but this was the eternal Soviet swing: we strengthen officials in the centre, then at the local level), and it was decided to experiment with the market, anticipating Gorbachev's reform of the ‘80s.

As is often happens in our country, at first the reforms give some impetus, hopes arise, people begin to work in a new way, to take advantage of new opportunities, but then everything goes, as they say, in the sand and swamp. The trouble of the Kosygin reform (or even you can call it Brezhnev-Kosygin) was that while individual enterprises and industries were transferred to khozraschyot, they received advantages and economically pulled ahead, and when the entire economy was transferred to khozraschyot, many enterprises no longer had advantages, and the incentives to work vanished by the early ‘70s.

The economy, of course, was evolving, but since the beginning of the ‘70s, it had developed inertially. The production facilities were being updated, resources were allocated, new objects were being built, the objects which were the drivers of the economy — these were mainly enterprises of the military-industrial complex, the BAM (the appearance of which was also attributable to a military situation), thanks to the discovery of new deposits the gasification of the country was progressing, power engineering advanced, the gas pipeline Urengoy-Pomary- Uzhgorod and many other projects were building, but the essence of Brezhnev's policy by the mid-70s had been reduced primarily to the stabilization of personnel.

Of course, nowhere was it widely stated that the stabilization of personnel was the main point of Brezhnev's policy, but the concept of “care of personnel” was present, which meant that the official, who did not fail clearly, could sit in his place and lead until he dies or is moved to some other place. All this meant that if the official sat for a long time in his place, he would not have incentives to any innovations, because it is always risky and he can fail, and it also meant that there would be no incentives for his subordinates — they would understand that this place was occupied and, they say, why then stand out: if they notice that you stand out, they would begin to think that you try to make problems for the boss.

Therefore, since the ‘70s, everyone began to deal only with those affairs on which they were put by the party, to acquire profitable connections, properties, and, in fact, there was already a fusion of power and property taking place, which finally repulsed all incentives for development in the country and the country moved to the inertial phase by the end of the ‘70s.

Photo: rambler.ru
The trouble of the Kosygin reform (or even you can call it Brezhnev-Kosygin) was that while individual enterprises and industries were transferred to khozraschyot, they received advantages and economically pulled ahead, and when the entire economy was transferred to khozraschyot, many enterprises no longer had advantages, and the incentives to work vanished by the early ‘70s.

Yes, objects were introduced, but the rates of growth were falling, but the population of the country was growing, there were fewer different resources for each person, and the new party generation had to do something about this problem because Shelepin left, Kosygin died, Podgorny “left”. And in Brezhnev's environment, the struggle for the predominance of one or another line of change began: we know that there appeared Andropov’s version of reforms, Gorbachev’s version, Tikhonov’s version, and this was the threshold of perestroika.

“Those who tried to do more turned out to be an Academician Sakharov and were thrown out of the elite”

Why didn’t the new leaders, including Brezhnev, become economic and technological strategists? Were they “not interested in the powerful development of the country”, as one historian put it?

It's an objective thing. On the one hand, the ideology in the country was overseen by a man whom all his life had taught that a step to the left, a step to the right was an escape — it's about Suslov: he was a man who rigidly did not accept revisionism. Partly such was Andropov — the head of the KGB, who “knew everything about everyone”. These people were very much frightened by the practical cases of revisionism, that is, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (which in the USSR was called the counter-revolution), the Czechoslovak events of 1968, when revisionism got out of control.

After all, what is revisionism? It is a change of existing canons and dogmas. For a very long time, Brezhnev and Suslov had perfectly complemented each other: the first worked well as a stabilizer of personnel, and the other justified it ideologically, and the following turned out — why change something if milk yields grow, factories are built, fields are opened, oil and gas are extracted? That is, for a long time, there was no strategy at all.

Yes, since the early ‘80s, the development of economic strategies is already in full swing, but the country's leaders could not look at the situation from the outside — they looked at it from the point of view of revision of rather artificial ideological dogmas, and those who tried to do more, they turned out to be Academician Sakharov and were thrown out of the elite. You see, if someone began to talk freely about the problems in the elites, he turned out to be not just a revisionist, but also a slanderer of the Soviet social and state system. Therefore, those who had the ability to strategic thinking were puzzled — how else not to get out of the apparatus?

Reforms had to be so well wrapped in the package of Marxist-Leninist-Suslov doctrine that the real project of transformation of the country did not work. With all the enormous difficulties of developing a strategy, something was done in the ‘80s, but the downside was the inability to openly and rationally discuss the problems.

It was all about ideological dogmas?

Everything was about dogmas, and dogmas were needed to stabilize the system, and it turned into a vicious circle: if you abandon the dogmas, then you have the system going into disarray and you do not have time to take advantage of the benefits of abandoning the dogmas, when the system disintegrates into many warring projects, which happened during perestroika. And the new projects were also imbued with dogmas because the liberal dogmas that replaced the Communist ones were no better — they were the same dogmas and very much simplified.

To be continued

Interviewed by Sergey Kochnev