Monday, December 19, 2016

To every historian’s despair

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who did much to build up his country’s nuclear arms and its control over the Warsaw Pact countries. He was a rather vain man, who had himself awarded many medals in later life. His diaries also reveal the extent of his vanity, for they are full of detail about his hair, weight, clothes etc. But they also show, according to one modern writer ‘a total lack of intellectual and spiritual interests’ - ‘to every historian’s despair’.

Brezhnev was born on 19 December 1906 in Kamianske, Ukraine, to a metalworker and his wife. He studied at the metallurgical institute in Dniprodzerzhynsk (now Kamianske). In 1928, he married Viktoria Petrovna, and they had two children. After graduating in 1935, he worked as an engineer and director of a technical school, but also he began to hold positions in the local branch of the Communist party. Having survived Stalin’s various purges, in 1939, he was appointed Party Secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, and put in charge of the city’s defence industries.

During the Second World War, Brezhnev served as a political commissar in the Red Army, progressing steadily to become a major general in 1943, and head of the political commissars on the Ukrainian front. On leaving the army in 1946, he returned to high level party positions, gaining national prominence in 1950 when elected as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Two years later he was in Moscow, serving under Stalin in the powerful Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

With Stalin’s death in 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to First Secretary of the Central Committee, Brezhnev was sidelined, and posted to lower positions, first in the ministry of defence and then in the Central Committee of the Kazakh Republic. However, his administrative skills won him a recall to Moscow and membership of the Politburo. In 1960, he was promoted to the post of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, nominally head of state. In 1964, he resigned that post to become Kruschev’s assistant as Second Secretary. By this time, however, having been loyal to Khrushchev, Brezhnev had begun to side with those criticising his leadership, and may even have led to plot to remove him. Brezhnev took over as First Secretary (subsequently General Secretary) of the Communist Party later that same year.

Brezhnev’s early years as head of the Soviet Union were characterised by collective leadership: he left many affairs of state to colleagues, Aleksey Kosygin and Nikolay Podgorny, while he took charge of measures to control dissidence, through the Soviet Union, and travelled extensively aiming for more solidarity among the Union’s republics and its partners in East Europe. However, when Czechoslovakia tried to liberalise its Communist system in 1968, Brezhnev developed what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, justifying the invasion of Czechoslovakia by its Warsaw Pact partners. His leadership, in fact, would later be characterised by a massive build-up of nuclear arms, at a great cost to the country’s economy.

During the 1970s, Brezhnev sought to ease tensions with the West, especially the United States, while, at the same time, consolidating his own power base at home, diminishing the effect of collective leadership. He negotiated various weapons agreements with the US, culminating
 with SALT II in 1979 - although the US chose not to ratify it because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In his latter years, Brezhnev’s vanity led to a growing personality cult (he was obsessed with being awarded medals); and there was a marked deterioration in his health. By early 1982, he was rarely appearing in public, and was no more than a figurehead with decisions being made in the Politburo without his presence. He died in November that year. Further information is available form Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of World Biography, Encyclopædia Britannica, Spartacus, or Country Studies (Library of Congress).

Although Brezhnev kept diaries, there have been no published editions in English (possibly not in Russian either). Their existence first came to light in the 1990s when Dmitri Volkogonov, a Russian historian who had been head of the Soviet military’s psychological warfare department, published extracts in a Russian magazine called Top Secret. The US magazine, Newsweek, ran a brief item about that article, which is worth quoting in full:

BOMBS, SHMOMBS . . . what’s for lunch? Such were the thoughts that drove the leader of the Evil Empire at the height of the cold war. A newly published diary underlines the astonishingly pedestrian mind of Leonid Brezhnev, the burly Soviet leader derided by Russians for his senility and corruption. “Was home at the dacha. Had lunch - borscht with fresh cabbage. Rested in the yard, finished reading material. Watched hockey game - USSR-Sweden, 4-2,” Brezhnev recorded on April 10, 1977, just days after Moscow rejected an important U.S. arms-control proposal. Then came the most exciting part: “Watched evening news. Had dinner, went to bed.” Is it more - or less - scary to learn what the Soviet leader was really like? While Brezhnev faithfully recorded the monthly changes in his weight (ranging from 179 to 182 pounds), policy matters received only fleeting attention. “Talked to [Supreme Soviet Chairman Nikolai] Podgorny about soccer and hockey and a little bit about the constitution,” Brezhnev recorded months before a new Soviet Constitution was passed in 1977. The combined talents of Woody Allen and Nikolai Gogol probably couldn’t have produced a less significant historical document. The diary marks such high points of Brezhnev’s final years as a hunting trip on which he “killed 34 geese,” a visit to the circus and a game of dominoes with Podgorny. A more typical entry reads, “I didn't go anywhere. No one called. In the morning I had my hair cut, shaved and washed my hair.” Says historian Dmitry Volkogonov, who published excerpts from the diary in Top Secret weekly: “When I read this I was sorry for Brezhnev, but I was sorrier for the great nation he led.” ’

Volkogonov also makes mention of Brezhnev’s diaries in his biography of Lenin. This was translated into English, edited by Harold Shukman and published by The Free Press in 1994 as Lenin: A New Biography. Brezhnev wrote his diary every day, Volkogonov says, between ten and twenty lines, in a flowing, sweeping hand. And he gives a series of examples, as follows:

10 April 1077
‘Was at the dacha, had lunch. Borshch made with fresh cabbage Rested went outside read some papers. Watched hockey USR Sweden - USR won 4-2. Watched “programme vremya [Time]” Had dinner - sleep.’

21 January 1977
‘Rested at home for first half of the day lunched at home. Weight 85.200 Second half worked in Kremlin Signed PB [Politburo] minutes of 20 January. Bogolyubov reported . . .’

16 February 1977
‘Work at the house.’

18 March 1977
‘Exercise. Then talked to Chernenko. Then with C[omrades] Gromyko A.A., Andropov Ustinov - we read materials about Vance’s visit - Rang Pavlov G.S. on cost [next word started and crossed out] Read all kinds of material with Galya Dorishina Went to the circus.’

13 April 1977
‘Morning usual domestic chores. They took blood from a vein From 11 o’clock conversation with Daoud Question of one-to-one meeting dropped Had good rest - (lunch) Worked with Doroshina.’

14 April 1977
‘At home - Tolya washed my hair Weight 86.700 Talks with Podgorny about presenting me with Koms, card Presentation of Komsomol card No. 1 speech by Tyazhelnikov my speech Galya read serial from ‘pravda’ on limitation of strategic arms Who are the authors of this material Lunch and rest 2.30-4.10’

15 April 1977
‘Zavidovo 4 ducks - 33rd wild boar - 21- dragged’

22 April 1977
’86.400 Five o’clock meeting devoted to his [Lenin’s] birthday Talked with Grishin Gromyko Chernenko Doroshina

23-24 April 1977
‘Days off’

3 May 1977
‘Weight - 85.300. Talk with Ryabenko. Talk on phone with Storozhev? I know what he wants. Talk with Chernenko K.U.-? About PB agenda Tailors - gave the grey suit, got the leather double-breasted casual jacket Rang Yu.V. Andropov - he came and we chatted Worked with Doroshina’

3 June 1977
‘Received Chernenko - signed minutes worked with Galya Doroshina Rest - flew to Zavidovo - 5 boars.’

Volkogonov’s text (in the Lenin biography) continues: ‘And so it goes on [. . .] The diary meanders in this way for hundreds of pages. [. . .] The important point is that the Leninist system of the monopoly of power facilitated and even favoured the promotion of colourless, mediocre and semi-literate people, whose intellectual potential was only half-developed. Everyone knew it, and it suited almost everyone.’ He concludes: ‘Brezhnev’s pathetic diary only arouses one’s pity for the country.’

More recently, other writers have echoed Volkogonov’s assessment of Brezhnev’s diaries. Edwin Bacon, in his essay Reconsidering Brezhnev (found in Brezhnev Reconsidered, edited by Edwin Bacon and Mark Sandle, published by Palsgrave Macmillan in 2002), says: ‘The late Russian historian Dmitrii Volkogonov had access to the diaries of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1990s, and notes the mundanity of their content, and Brezhnev’s apparent obsession with minor, personal issues, rather than the great issues of state.’ Bacon quotes two extracts form Brezhnev’s diaries:

16 May 1976
‘Went nowhere - rang no one, likewise no one me - haircut, shaved and washed hair in the morning. Walked a bit during the day, then watched Central Army lose to Spartak (the lads played well) . . . 7 August. 19th day of holiday. Swam in sea 1.30 - massage pool 30 minutes. Washed head - with children’s soap . . .’

16 June 1977
’86.00 [kilograms]. 10 a.m. Supreme Soviet session. Appointment of Com. Brezhnev as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (a lot of congratulations).’

And, finally, Vladislav M. Zubok in his book A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), states: ‘Along with many young Communists of the 1930s, Brezhnev acquired the habit of keeping a diary to raise his intellectual level. The diary’s content, however, reveals a total lack of intellectual and spiritual interests. To every historian’s despair, Brezhnev recorded mostly routine and banal events of his private life.’

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