“Financially, a Soviet man had never lived better than he did under Brezhnev”

Realnoe Vremya publishes the second part of the interview with historian Aleksandr Shubin about the era of Leonid Brezhnev

The era of Leonid Brezhnev began in the country 55 years ago. In the second part of the talk about the personality of the Soviet ruler and his era, Doctor of Historical Sciences Aleksandr Shubin explains if Brezhnev and his team were going to build Communism, if they built developed Socialism and how the concept of “Soviet men” in modern society is linked with the name of Secretary General Brezhnev.

“Brezhnev considered that he and his team couldn’t allow a big war and hunger”

Mr Shubin, in your book on the stagnation you write that Brezhnev as a leader was, first of all, interested in the Military and Industrial Complex (MIC) and agrarian affairs. Can we say that he was good at these issues, first of all?

I think the most important thing Brezhnev was good at was formation of managers: it was his major specialisation he was even indispensable in — he carefully followed HR issues almost till the end of his life, and we can say Brezhnev was an outstanding management psychologist. As for the MIC as well as space, agriculture, culture, foreign affairs, he dealt with them, of course, and he was very effective in foreign affairs in the middle of the 70s. Can we say that Brezhnev knew this all in detail? If the leader thinks that his head is the size of Earth and is good at everything, it is likely a bad leader. Such people as Brezhnev trusted their advisers and knew how to listen to specialists anyway. I wouldn’t single out a sphere of the country’s life Brezhnev was especially good at. But he had priorities he paid at a lot of attention to.

Your colleagues note Brezhnev’s some care about the countryside. Did Leonid Brezhnev really care about it?

Not that Brezhnev cared about the countryside a lot: his work had two key priorities. Brezhnev thought that he and his team couldn’t allow a big war and hunger. This came from his generation’s fate. This is why a relatively peace-loving foreign policy, reinforcement of the country’s defence and some pandering to collective farms became a priority for Brezhnev. First of all, it is a write-off a debt, monitoring the country’s bread provisions. The situation in meat supply was worse in the USSR, but Soviet people had to have bread on their table. He was a person of the generation that experienced both hunger and war and considered that he couldn’t allow all this to repeat in the country. Brezhnev was lucky here with the oil boom as well, which helped finance both areas of his policy financially. We can say that a Soviet man had never lived better financially than he did under Brezhnev.

Was there a big sense for the nuclear weapons state in spending huge money on the MIC?

World powers reached a consensus at that time that nuclear weapons couldn’t be used. It was clear that such an application could be suicidal, and our country was threatened by other challenges. For instance, what should they do if the Chinese army intervenes in the USSR? Were nuclear weapons used on Zhenbao Island? While our people died. Take same Afghanistan: what could they do if there were a pro-American or pro-Mao regime on the USSR border with the state, which will soon start to send armed extremists to our country through mountains and the Panj River? (This, in fact, happened in the 90s after our stay in Afghanistan). How could nuclear weapons help here?

Local wars in those years showed that one had to have different armaments and armed forces to resist those arising threats, and nuclear weapons didn’t eliminate these threats. America had huge nuclear potential but lost the war in Vietnam, and this also was an important lesson for the Soviet leadership — it is quite possible to win a nuclear-weapon state with a Kalashnikov.

I wouldn’t single out a sphere of the country’s life Brezhnev was especially good at. But he had priorities he paid a lot of attention to

“Supercentralised model of social state was created”

In your work on the stagnation you note that there was no Socialism under Brezhnev, that not developed Socialism (as it was claimed at that time) but a social state and industrial society was built. Wasn’t there any society with social justice in the country in general?

In my opinion, there was no Socialism in the Soviet Union because Socialism is a clear concept developed in the 19th century with clear criteria like both Marx and his opponents Proudhon, Bakunin and Lenin had. They all say that socialism is a society without exploitation, without division into reigning and working classes. It is absolutely obvious that there was a division into classes in the USSR: on the one hand, there was bureaucracy, there was technocracy, on the other hand, there were workers and collective farmers, and there also was intelligentsia as a creative class in any industrial society.

We can say that as a result of modernisation, first of all, industrial urban society was built in the Soviet Union, and the final phase of modernisation always leads to the creation of a social state. People in the USSR as well as in Sweden or France shouldn’t, first of all, see hunger, children should get education even if their parents aren’t rich, pensions, a holiday and so on needed to exist. This provided stability and development to the industrial society. Such a system — kind of additional storey above industrial society — and its stabiliser is usually called a social state. We have different models — Swedish, French, American, Japanese. As a result of the Communists’ victory and forced modernisation, a supercentralised model of social state was created here. Socialism, in fact, is already a post-industrial society where there is no division into managers and the managed and specialists and non-specialists. In socialism, everyone is a specialist (including thanks to knowledge intensity and automation of production) and workers are both creative and self-managed, they aren’t managed. Machines, not people, are managed.

In socialism, a man becomes a man, a subject, not a tool of one’s will. This didn’t exist in a society where leaders swore their loyalty to Marx’s teaching.

How powerful was the Soviet social state? Might they be proud?

The Soviet social state had its advantages over “capitalist” models. Some of its parameters simply caused envy among people who came from the West — utility bills, cheap and free services. But the quality of these services wasn’t high, of course, and worse than any criticism at times. Here I remembered a joke born in the USSR and then told by USA President Raegan: a person asks a car mechanic when he could pick up the car. And he says: “In five years”. The client asks: “Before or after noon? The thing is that the plumber’s coming in the morning”. Slow service and a great deficit in quality products were plain to see in the USSR. It was linked with the end of the formation of urban society. Now, unlike their fathers, people wanted not just boots or a coat but fashionable shoes and a blue coat with pearl buttons, a certain model. The standardised Soviet economy couldn’t meet the demand where not quantity but quality began to matter.

If there was cheese on the shelf in the USSR, it was just 2-3 options of cheese, not a hundred like in the West where, to tell the truth, most of it isn’t purchased and thrown away — it is irrational, in Kosygin’s opinion. People were fed in the USSR. “What else do they need? We gave them cheese, ice cream, we are also trying to give them sausage”, but people wanted not just sausage but salami, not just cheese but cheese with a certain taste. But it was impossible to find parmesan and Roquefort in the USSR.

In this respect, a consumer boom among the citizens was inevitable — an industrial society was built in the USSR, and it was little for a person to have a roof under his head and the fact that he was dressed, had shoes on and was fed somehow — he needed the same things but of a better quality, and a car, good video equipment. And the Soviet economy was too standardised for this, it was built to produce tonnes and items. And not every thing weighing a kilogramme pleases the consumer.

It is a problem that causes an interminable debate — it isn’t clear what these people thought, as I said they were they very closed. Officially, of course, they talked about Communism, while in private they talked about milk yield and our bases in Cuba

Brezhnev chaired a party that was called Communist. Did he and his comrades want to build Communism? Was this idea alive?

It is a problem that causes an interminable debate — it isn’t clear what these people thought, as I said they were they very closed. Officially, of course, they talked about Communism, while in private they talked about milk yield and our bases in Cuba. The word “Goulash Communism” came into use in the West as early as under Khruschyov, which meant that communism was when any person always can up and cook a tasty and good goulash free. The West had its own meaning for it — the society of common well-being. This stresses once again that at first, we had parallel paths with the West, but the socialist ideas — what everything began for — were forgotten by leaders. Their advisers still remembered and read something. The programme of the CPSU adopted under Khruschyov talks about the creation of Communism, the death of the state in detail — but it is unclear if party committees died out. But in the 60s there was a task to substitute the state for public self-governance. It seems that these things didn’t interest Brezhnev personally — they seemed to interest Suslov more who gave the communist idea of the 70s canonical forms.

But he postponed the coming of Communism too understanding that Communism should be built without hurry, in the style of Bernstein — “the movement is everything, the final goal is nothing”.

In fact, it reminds modern China’s desire to build Socialism by 2049. And if it hasn’t built it yet, it is clear that it was too early for us to announce Socialism. These issues interested Andropov, and when he came to power, he wrote that we didn’t know the society we lived in. If we don’t know it, what socialism was it? Hello, where am I? And Brezhnev had another specialisation and was interested in other problems, not long-term futurology.

Does it mean we should explain to many that under Brezhnev the country obviously needed a change, it was “pregnant” with it — the same market that would be able to solve the problem of both deficit and high-quality services and goods?

The country was “pregnant” with a change, the question is what change it was. The market is, of course, good and amazing if there is money in the pocket. It is good that today we are not in the queue for sausage or a cake. Soviet society can’t be idealised, it enervated people a lot. Though people didn’t starve, there weren’t fewer problems than now. Soviet society achieved the limit of its growth, and then disadvantages, mass irritation would grow. Moreover, people didn’t know what the era of changes could end with. And if they hadn't been in 1985, they would have been in 1995 and started with a lower bar.

And if we want the country to move forward, we need to solve the problems raised in the late post-Brezhnev era and during Perestroika, we need to eliminate the barrier that wasn’t eliminated then. Unless we do it, we will move not to a happy future but degrade like Bangladesh and such countries that go back to eternal rotting because they didn’t completely solve modernisation problems. And it is the sense of the Brezhnev era. On the one hand, we’ve approached new horizons. On the other hand, we’ve approached the threat of rot. And, sadly, I must admit we’ve chosen to rot at the moment.

Brezhnev was a big statesman, he was in situ in the late 60s and early 70s. And the main lesson is that one should retire on time

Could you explain if the concept “Soviet man” can be first of all linked with the Brezhnev era? Because we have a lot of Soviet men around us. What is a Soviet man in the era of Brezhnev? Does this concept sound proudly?

The concept of “Soviet man” can be linked with all periods of the 20th century — we have a lot of people who dream of living like under Stalin. Moreover, it is talkative and disputing people who would have likely lived in Gulag under Stalin. There are also people of the 60s among today’s Soviet people — it is the generation of thaw, they also people of Perestroika who aspire for judgement, creative impulses who have market and democratic illusions.

The historical responsibility of the Brezhnev era was that it, first of all, cemented Soviet burgess. Most of this generation are people of bourgeois nature, crafty, tenacious, and by the way, they were the people who pilfered the country in the 90s — though the same black-market traffic of the 90s met the demand. In the early 80s, they thought of fixing the porch, accumulating some money for a new fridge, marry off the daughter with success and find the stupid son a place in the university for a bribe — it is also Brezhnev’s legacy. Of course, all this irritated the stagnation intelligentsia. It was the era of a strong countryman, the “kulak” — it is what “commissars in dusty helmets” fought against but failed (laughing). If there weren’t serious prospects and possibilities to seriously discuss the future of the country, people decided like “everyone does one’s own business, for instance, the land parcel, the flat”. I am not against. Flat, dacha is needed, of course, but it must be the foundation you lay on, you base on when you go up. And it was impossible to go up in the Brezhnev era, and cementing this foundation people taught themselves to consider that the “economic basis” is the most important thing. They didn’t understand that “there weren’t enough carrots for everyone”, and then they looked at the demolition of the foundation in the 90s with terror and not understanding why it was happening. Because these “strong men’s” humanitarian problems didn’t concern previously. Now I’ve been probably quite critical about the Brezhnev generation and traditions of the Brezhnev era, but it is linked not only with age. Not all people of the Brezhnev generation were “kulaks” psychologically, not all “kulaks” succeeded in the Brezhnev era, and sound society must have room for some people who are “kulaks”.

What are the conclusions of Brezhnev’s activity and his era?

Brezhnev was a big statesman, he was in situ in the late 60s and early 70s. And the main lesson is that one should retire on time. Probably the supreme leader must be more cultivated than Brezhnev was, he must be a more creative and intellectual individual. But in this respect, Brezhnev expressed “his class”, Soviet bureaucracy of that time.

When a boss overstays, he crosses out all achievements of the first part of his rule and rarely adds up new achievements by the end of the term, which is also characteristic of Brezhnev. The détente went down the drain, the old man discredited power from the rostrum, symbolised hopelessness, a dead end and the rot. Brezhnev’s experience shows that the country must develop dynamically, its social structure must change, perhaps with small stops, but not too long. If one holds a pose for long, the body becomes numb and aches.

By Sergey Kochnev