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The fast fading of the Brezhnev era

By Roy MedvedevRoy Medvedev is a Soviet historian and sociologist. / July 12, 1983



Lenin once said that real political figures do not perish politically with their physical passing. Yet there are some political figures whose influence withers even while they live. The process might be called a political passing. Consider the late Leonid Brezhnev. He held for some 20 years the top Soviet political post, playing a major role in the domestic and foreign political life of the USSR. He would seem to have earned several lines, maybe pages, in history. Yet he was to prove such a mediocre personality that he could not command a long political legacy.

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The Soviet Central Committee's statement to the public on Brezhnev's passing said his ''life and activity'' will ''always be an inspiring model of true service.'' Similar words echoed the day of Brezhnev's burial.

But two weeks later, at a meeting of the Central Committee, was sounded strong if indirect criticism of the former leadership, its style of bureaucracy and management. Brezhnev's name appeared less and less in the press. His portraits came down.

At a Kremlin session on the 60th anniversary of the Soviet state, Brezhnev's name sounded only once, in opening remarks by Konstantin Chernenko. Everyone took as criticism of Brezhnev another phrase from the rostrum, met by applause: that the ''party and the people'' should be geared to ''deeds and not slogans.'' The release in January of Brezhnev's final bit of memoirs drew modest comment in the press. From February on, his name was to get prominent mention once, at the celebration of Lenin's birthday.

Why the political demise? For one thing, Brezhnev deeded his successors a legacy of complex problems. Indeed, the last five years of his rule saw deepening economic and political crises.

Economic development plans have gone unfulfilled. The economy has been growing at not more than 2 percent a year. Key performance indices have worsened. Problems have arisen in industry, transport, agriculture. Grocery shelves were emptying, and in most industrial centers rationing was introduced. All this has sparked dissatisfaction among wide segments of society.

The international position of the USSR has become more complicated. Little remains of the era of ''detente.'' Ties with the US recall the days of ''cold war.'' East and West find themselves on the threshold of a yet more expensive and dangerous turn of the arms race. Looking eastward, the Soviet leadership sees the thorny problem of Afghanistan; westward, the problem of Poland.

The considerable political capital amassed by Brezhnev's administration during detente is almost completely spent. Reviewing the Brezhnev era, foreign analysts note that under him the USSR achieved unprecedented military might, drawing equal with the united might of the West. But even strident critics of Soviet military power realize its development is limited by that of other basic branches of the economy. Without well-organized industry, highly developed science and technology, flourishing agriculture, it could prove a difficult or impossible task to develop Soviet military might further or even maintain its present level.

Political, economic, even military difficulties cannot fully explain the political passing of a leader. Some leaders have failed in these senses, seen their causes decline, yet lived on politically.

But, as American analyst John Dornberg wrote before Brezhnev passed on, in Brezhnev's era the nation regressed in a cultural and intellectual sense, and in the area of human freedoms. And to protest and dissidence Brezhnev's only reply was repression.

Dornberg noted that former Soviet leader Khrushchev, whatever his motives, had at least fed hopes of a society where citizens would breathe more freely, clerks would display initiative without fear of consequences, where understanding between party and people would be established, where power would one day be based more on law and trust than on fear. He observed that a day after Khrushchev's toppling, an American visitor here noted that the eyes of a woman friend from Intourist were red from bitter tears. Khrushchev, she explained, had freed her family from a Stalin-era camp in the 1950s. It turns out that Dornberg was right to wonder who would cry when Leonid Brezhnev goes.