Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Volkogonov on Brezhnev
Dimitry Volkogonov comes into his own in the era of Brezhnev, in part because he was already a reasonably important Party apparatchik at the time. In fact, Volkogonov had access to Brezhnev's personel file at the time, and even participated in the early phases of the disastrous and immoral intervention in Afghanistan. Who was Brezhnev? Before the creeping senility and physical infirmity overtook him and turned him into a running punchline of untold political jokes, Brezhnev was an affable man, not well-read or worldly, but good-looking, charming, personally generous, apparently loyal, and well-liked by colleagues and supervisors.
Gradually Brezhnev worked his way up through the ranks of Stalin’s regional and then national political regime. Khrushchev (with Stalin's personal knowledge) tapped Brezhnev for multiple advancements, but was eventually undone by his own protegee. Volkogonov says that Brezhnev never evinced any particular courage other than leading the coup to overthrow Khrushchev, and even mentions that fact that one eyewitness reports that Brezhnev collapsed in fear when he believed that Khrushchev was about to act against him. But Brezhnev was the right man for the job of overthrowing Khrushchev, in that his own personal moderation and penchant for stability helped to galvanize party officials who were disgusted by Khrushchev’s theatrical antics, unending reforms, and enthusiasm for change of any sort.
Where Khrushchev never sat still even in his retirement, and never met an idea he didn’t like; Volkogonov says that Brezhnev craved consensus and the maintenance of the status quo, and never really came up with an original or profound idea. (And obviously, in his later years, Brezhnev could barely speak coherently, and was often physically guided, script in hand, from one appointment to the next, as--to paraphrase Volgonov--a sort of experiment to see how long a dying man could be made to maintain even the pretence of working in an official post.)
The author combed Brezhnev’s voluminous personal records and diaries, and rarely if ever found evidence of creativity, abstract thought, or theoretical sophistication. Brezhnev's diaries reveal nothing so much as the record of his hunting accomplishment, though in his advanced age he was sometimes hurt by the recoil of the rifles he could no longer control. (Near the end, Brezhnev merely supervised the hunting, doing no actual shooting.)
The Brezhnev era, as a whole, was a conservative and stable one, although certain intellectual and cultural trends that had emerged under Khrushchev showed continued vitality beneath the surface of official Soviet life. And Brezhnev's 18 year reign witnessed the "beginning of the end" or at least the "end of the beginning" of Russian communism. Under Brezhnev, who refused or could not reconstitute terror to move the economy forward, the Soviet economy stagnated, awash in corruption, cronyism, regulation, extreme centralization, and bureaucracy. The basic Soviet model of political economy was obviously flawed: the Soviets could not compete with America and the West, and maintaining military parity was helping to bankrupt the system. Indeed, probably only massive amounts of petroleum kept the state adrift. But the Brezhnev regime knew enough to understand that Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe depended on military coercion, so the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the whole Brezhnev doctrine made sense in the context of certain inherent Russian weakneses. Without the invasion, the Soviet system might well have collapsed much sooner than it did.