The Brezhnev legacy

New-old challenges confront East and West with the departure of Leonid Brezhnev from the scene. For Moscow, it will be to evolve a leadership capable of overcoming the stagnation and inefficiency of the Soviet system and improving the life of the Soviet people. For the Soviet Union and the West, it will be to work out a mutually understood, realistic relationship that encourages coop-eration where possible but permits competition without inviting nuclear war.

It would be foolhardy to think that Mr. Brezhnev's death will quickly change the internal or foreign policies of the Soviet Union. In the land of the czars, especially, change comes exceedingly slowly. But a new cast of leaders in the Kremlin does provide a fresh start of sorts, an opportunity for East and West to reassess where they stand and where they wish to go. As the inevitable succession struggle is played out in Moscow, it is to be hoped that the United States especially will exercise restraint and patience.

This is in fact an occasion to reflect on the Brezhnev era and its portent for the future. In the eyes of most in the West, Brezhnev was simply the staid, humorless leader of the world's one remaining imperial power. In historical terms, however, he represented a step of progress. It is true that ordinary Soviet citizens were generally indifferent to and often mocking of the Soviet President. But on the whole they welcomed his efforts to give consumers a better deal, to hold the line against any return of public terror, and to extend some limits of allowable criticism.

Politically, Brezhnev can be credited with removing arbitrary one-man rule and instituting a style of governing through consensus - a system that is likely to endure. It is a totalitarian, repressive system, to be sure, but it has provided a measure of stability and calm in Soviet society after decades of war and upheaval, something the Soviet man in the street alone can appreciate. On the negative side, of course, Brezhnev and his colleagues allowed stability to become ossification. Far from being a shining example of communist achievement, the Soviet Union today is weighed down by dogmatic conservatism, entrenched bureaucracy, corruption, and ideological ritual. One of the questions for the future is whether, when younger men do begin to replace the present Politburo leaders, they will be more pragmatic, less ideologically hidebound, more open to reform.

It is on the foreign front, however, that Leonid Brezhnev made his biggest imprint. Regardless of present problems in East-West relations, Brezhnev did have a firm commitment to peace and detente. He saw the relaxation of tensions as a way to advance Soviet interests in the world without dangerous confrontation, and he invested a lot of political capital in this - signing a peace treaty with West Germany, improving ties with the United States, concluding a strategic arms control agreement.

Today that policy is frayed - both because the Soviet Union risked its top priority of peace by grabbing for gains in such places as Angola and Afghanistan and because of inflated expectations in the West. Yet this does not necessarily discredit the basic policy. Surely the West would prefer to have the new Soviet leaders pursuing their nation's interests by peaceful competition rather than by force. Surely it sees signs of liberalization in Eastern Europe which, despite the setbacks in Poland, represent a gradual loosening of that region from the Soviet hold.

Mr. Brezhnev may not have been the world's favorite leader. But even he left a legacy, elements of which are worth salvaging.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.