Brezhnev era on trial in Moscow

The corruption trial of Yuri Churbanov, which opened in Moscow yesterday, seems destined to intensify the process of ``de-Brezhnevization'' - the critical reassessment and ultimate repudiation of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982. At the height of his power, Mr. Churbanov was a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Communist Party Central Committee, the No. 2 man in the ministry of the interior, and a three-star police general. The source of his power was domestic: He was married to Brezhnev's only daughter, Galina.

The trial of Churbanov and eight Uzbek officials is expected to last for months. Investigators are said to have assembled 110 volumes of documents on the case, which likely detail the widescale corruption not only of Churbanov, but also of other Brezhnev confidants and relatives - and perhaps the former leader himself. Little if anything is likely to remain of Brezhnev's reputation once a verdict is finally handed down.

The Soviet media are already laying considerable stress on Churbanov's relationship to Brezhnev. Newspapers of varying views on political reform - from the relatively conservative daily Pravda to the outspoken weekly Ogonyok - have referred pointedly to Churbanov as ``the son-in-law.'' Ogonyok has brought the case up to date with the allegation, published on the eve of last June's party conference, that four delegates were tainted by the Uzbek corruption scandal.

The trial promises to be as lurid as it is politically significant. A source has seen the videotaped confessions of one senior Uzbek official who speaks of a solid-gold bust - a 70th birthday present to Brezhnev by Uzbekistan's party chief Sharaf Rashidov - and demands for ``spending money'' by Churbanov and other leaders.

On one occasion, the source says, Churbanov arrived in Uzbekistan and casually requested about $50,000. On another occasion, Rashidov demanded several hundred thousand. Rashidov died in 1983 and was subsequently disgraced.

If the trial turns into an attack on the Brezhnev era, this could come as a further blow to Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking member of the Communist Party Politburo. Almost alone of the leadership, Mr. Ligachev has on several occasions criticized the blanket condemnation of Brezhnev's rule that is now favored by leading reform-minded intellectuals.

In his most detailed published comments on the Brezhnev era, made in a speech in August 1987, he described the Brezhnev years as an ``unforgettable time'' during which ``people's lives became materially and spiritually richer.''

In saying this, Ligachev is not defending his own record. He did not benefit from Brezhnev's rule. Soon after Brezhnev came to power, he seems to have fallen afoul of the new leadership - because of his honesty, a source unsympathetic to Ligachev says. From 1965 to 1983 he administered the distant and relatively insignificant Siberian region of Tomsk.

But once again Ligachev seems primarily motivated by reasons of political strategy. His concern seems to be based more on the fear that too much criticism of the party's past will undermine its legitimacy in the public view. By taking this line he may be acting as the voice of the silent majority of Communist Party cadres, many of whom collaborated with corrupt leaders or remained quiet during the Brezhnev years.

Other institutions that are usually believed to be apprehensive at the pace and extent of reforms seem less concerned at the prospect of Brezhnev's disgrace. A Soviet filmmaker, Igor Itskov, who last year showed his controversial documentary on Soviet history to large groups of the military, recalls receiving a particularly large number of questions on Brezhnev. Many of them, he says reflected indignation at Brezhnev's penchant for awarding himself high military rank and awards for bravery. The socially conservative writer Viktor Astafyev expressed similar views last year in a stinging attack on Brezhnev on behalf of World War II veterans.

The KGB, another relatively conservative political institution, is leading the investigation into Brezhnev. One detailed version of Galina Brezhnev's misadventures currently circulating in Moscow states that the KGB's deputy chairman, Semyon Tsvigun, committed suicide in 1982 because a KGB investigation into high-level corruption was blocked by the political leadership.

The police have thrown up their own leader in the person of Gen. Sergey Krylov. A long essay published in June's Ogonyok described Krylov as an innovative and honest policeman who finally committed suicide in 1979 in despair at the damage being done to the police force by Churbanov and Nikolay Shchelokov, minister of the interior and a close friend of Brezhnev. Shchelokov was removed as minister in late '82 and committed suicide in '84. In December '84, Churbanov was dismissed. He was finally arrested in February '87.

His trial was expected to start earlier this year, but was postponed without explanation.

The delay, a usually well-informed source says, was because he suddenly began to ``remember'' details of his confession which he previously had failed to give investigators. These are said to include the location of alleged caches of valuables given to him as bribes.

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