100 YEARS OF GRANDPA BREZHNEV


14.12.06
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov)

There were many jokes about Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader whose centenary will be observed on December 19. Many people look back on the Brezhnev era with nostalgia and believe that it was under him that the nation reached the peak of its might.
The Soviet Union and Soviet culture will always be associated with Brezhnev’s name. This was his time – vegetarian and violent, absurd and rational, unspeakably dull and incredibly interesting all at the same time.
Many people say that Brezhnev was kind, sentimental, and simple. Indeed, in those days if you observed the tacit rules of the game, you could live a peaceful life, receiving a salary of 120 rubles per month, and waiting for it to be raised to 150 rubles in due course. Some managed to earn even more than that: a communist party central committee instructor made 300 rubles. But failure to observe the rules spelled trouble: exile for the famous, labor camps for the lesser known, and tanks for rebellious satellite countries.
Brezhnev’s economy was an economy of shortages, of equality in poverty. At the same time, it was an economy of inequality between the regions of an enormous country. This is why we now have an enormous gap between Moscow and the rest of the country. Apart from Moscow and Leningrad, only the Baltic nations, with a strong farming sector, had a more or less decent life, but this fact did little to alter the overall gloomy picture.
Alexei Kosygin, a pragmatic prime minister, saw the flaws in the economic system and made a feeble attempt to launch reforms and grant more independence to plants and factories in the latter half of the 1960s. Brezhnev sincerely believed that no reforms were necessary and did not take much interest in what Kosygin was trying to do. Eventually, his attitude let the reforms fade away, and by 1968, a period of economic and political frost had set in: Soviet tanks in Prague; massive trials of dissidents; attempts at re-Stalinization; and the beginning of the end of Alexander Tvardovsky’s magazine Novy Mir, a mouthpiece of the liberal intelligentsia.
The eighth five-year plan, which ended in 1970, was the last one to register economic growth. Problems started cropping up later on. The Soviet economy would have collapsed much earlier but for the oil of Samotlor. It prolonged the existence of the U.S.S.R., but it also buried all attempts at reform. The nation fell into an oil-induced stupor – an era of stagnation and gerontocracy, senile leaders, and double-think of the people…
But for all his simplicity and dislike of change, Brezhnev had the intuition to guess what ought to be done in order to unite a “new historical entity – the Soviet people.” I don’t mean cheap booze, those dreadful fruit-and-berry beverages that made a village lose itself in drink, or the “blood, sweat and tears of Comrade Alvaro Cunhal,” leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, which the intelligentsia gulped with disgust. Nor am I referring to the Marxist-Leninist chants with which the party and government leaders lulled the whole nation to sleep – their monotonous speeches became the soundtrack of the era. The main asset Brezhnev used to unite the nation was intangible: the memory of the war, sacred and immutable with its own ironclad mythology.
The first thing he did upon coming to power was turn Victory Day on May 9 into the nation’s main holiday (and a day off) in 1965. This holiday had a patriotic rather than Marxist-Leninist connotation. Leonid Brezhnev knew the truth about the war, but preferred mythology, which rested on a whole package of legends. In 1967, Brezhnev’s liberal-minded speechwriters invited popular writer Konstantin Simonov to take part in writing a speech devoted to the inauguration of a monument on the Mamayev Hill in Stalingrad. The two war veterans – Brezhnev, a former political instructor, and Simonov, a legendary war correspondent, talked through the whole night. “What a man!” the elated Brezhnev exclaimed. But when Simonov complained that the publication of his wartime diaries was prohibited for ideological reasons, Brezhnev told him bluntly: “Who needs your truth? It’s still too early for it.” The nation-uniting mythology required a package of ideologically impeccable legends rather than
the truth about the war, which could have undermined the very foundations of Brezhnev’s system.
Until he turned into a feeble old man in the mid-1970s, Brezhnev skillfully maintained a rigid balance between the party, political, and ideological interests. He destroyed instantly and without mercy the group led by the influential former KGB head Alexander Shelepin, who considered Brezhnev a transient figure. In so doing, Brezhnev nipped re-Stalinization in the bud, whether he intended to or not.
In the late 1960s-early 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev did not take sides when the liberals from magazine Novy Mir clashed with the nationalists from Molodaya Gvardia and orthodox conservatives from Oktyabr. True, Tvardovsky’s Novy Mir was routed, but the informal Russian Party and even the Stalinists received a terrible blow. Unable to cope with his magazine’s defeat, Tvardovsky died in 1971. But the untalented editor of the conservative Oktyabr, Vsevolod Kochetov, committed suicide in 1973.
The majority of people who lived in the Soviet Union remember Brezhnev as an innocent, funny and kind-hearted granddad, who was fond of fast cars and white-filtered Novost cigarettes. They knew him as a hunter of wild boars and the fairer sex with a real passion for trinkets who accumulated endless orders and awards, and who by the end of his life had developed speech impediments after suffering heart attacks and strokes.
Sometime around 1980, my brother took his little daughter for a walk not far from Brezhnev’s dacha in Zarechye (a state farm several kilometers from Moscow on the Skolkovsky highway), and they bumped into Brezhnev’s limo about to depart. He was sitting there stone-faced. Nobody tried to chase the young dad and his daughter away – nothing wrong with people walking. In that sense, those were humane times. “Go to granddad, and give him a flower,” my brother told his daughter. Brezhnev took the flower and burst into tears…
It is this sentimental and harmless leader that the former Soviet people miss so much. But maybe they are simply nostalgic for their younger years. –0-