The Brezhnev Era: Stagnation in the USSR

Under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union initially enjoyed a period of relative freedom. However, foreign policy turmoil in the early 1960s resulted in a reset under Leonid Brezhnev.

Jan 18, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

brezhnev era stagnation ussr


When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953, the USSR was a superpower that had developed tremendously from its ragged condition in 1922 after the Russian Civil War. Stalin’s successor was the more liberal Nikita Khrushchev, who relaxed restrictions on Soviet citizens and opened diplomatic dialogue with the West. However, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Politburo (top council) replaced Khrushchev with a Stalin-esque hardliner: Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev returned the USSR to a more restrictive state with the goal of sociocultural and foreign policy stability. During Brezhnev’s tenure (1964-80), the Soviet Union remained a very predictable, stable state…but lacked innovation and economic growth. This gave the era the nickname “Brezhnev Stagnation” and resulted in turmoil later in the 1980s.


Setting the Stage: Marxism-Leninism & the USSR

lenin during bolshevik revolution
A photograph of Vladimir Lenin in 1919, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution swept communists into power in Moscow and Petrograd, via the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)


In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution erupted in Russia as the Bolsheviks, a political faction seeking to replace the nation’s struggling monarchy with a communist regime, seized power in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These communists sought a state where all capital (factories) was owned by the people – meaning the government – to prevent the exploitation of labor. The theories of German political philosopher Karl Marx, writer of The Communist Manifesto (1848), were combined with the beliefs of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, to create a Marxist-Leninist government. In 1922, the Bolsheviks finally won the Russian Civil War and created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), also known as the Soviet Union.


Within the Soviet Union, private ownership of capital was prohibited. Beginning in the late 1920s, the USSR moved to the collectivization of agriculture under new leader Joseph Stalin. In 1930, this became formal policy for all peasant farmers. Simultaneously, the Soviet planned economy, which was organized into five-year plans, used a top-down organizational model focused on heavy industrialization. Industrial output rapidly increased but at great social costs. Peasants and workers who resisted collectivization or were forced into factory work could be sent to prison camps (gulags) or worse.


Setting the Stage: The Khrushchev Thaw

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Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (left) and US Vice President Richard Nixon (right) during the June 1959 Kitchen Debate in Moscow, via The George Washington University (GWU)


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Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union developed into a superpower by the early 1950s. After Stalin’s sudden death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev eventually emerged as his successor. Khrushchev embarked on a wave of liberalization policies in the late 1950s, creating an era known as the Khrushchev Thaw. Thousands of political prisoners from the Stalin era were freed, artists and writers were less repressed, and Soviet citizens gained access to Western news, media, and literature. There was also a significant increase in the amount of consumer goods, such as appliances, available.


In one highlight of the Khrushchev Thaw, US Vice President Richard Nixon met with Nikita Khrushchev in a mock-up of a typical American kitchen during a June 1959 exhibition in Moscow. The two leaders had a surprisingly frank debate about the merits of capitalism versus communism in providing for the good of the people. The “Kitchen Debate” emerged from a cultural exchange program between the two nations, where Americans and Soviets could learn about the lifestyles of their counterparts. Nixon challenged Khrushchev to air the video of their debate, and the impromptu debate was shown on television in both nations. Despite the tense dialogue between Nixon and Khrushchev, the event was seen as a positive development in the superpowers’ ability and willingness to interact peacefully.


Setting the Stage: The Fall of Khrushchev

kennedy cuban missile crisis
A photograph of US President John F. Kennedy ordering a blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of autumn 1962, via the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)


Shortly after the Kitchen Debate, the Cold War turned frosty again. On May 1, 1960, a US spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, with CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers being captured. The following spring, new US President John F. Kennedy used a CIA-trained group of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and depose communist leader Fidel Castro. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs Invasion failed when the US did not provide air support for the CIA operation, and a popular uprising did not occur. In retaliation, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall between East and West Berlin. The next autumn, the Cuban Missile Crisis ratcheted Cold War tensions to their peak when the US discovered the Soviets building missile launch sites in Cuba. Kennedy demanded the removal of the sites and placed a naval blockade around the island. For thirteen days, the world feared the sudden eruption of nuclear war, but diplomacy eventually prevailed.


The United States was largely seen as the victor when the Soviets, under Khrushchev, agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. Within the Soviet Union, many were already opposed to Khrushchev due to his liberalization policies and his de-Stalinization that had reduced the power of pro-Stalin figures. The Sino-Soviet Split of 1959-60 resulted in Chinese criticism that Khrushchev was too “pro-imperialist” and tolerant of the capitalist West. By October 1964, using the humiliation in Cuba as the final straw, political opponents of Khrushchev forced him to retire after a vote of the Central Committee of the Politburo. The former premier lived the rest of his life quietly, recording his memoirs on tape beginning in 1967 and passing away in 1971.


1964: Leonid Brezhnev Takes Power

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Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev pictured in 1968, via Foreign Affairs


Born in 1906 and growing up in a working-class household, Leonid Brezhnev had a typical life for a Soviet youth in the early 1920s. He was politically ambitious, moving rapidly up the Communist Party ranks beginning in the early 1930s. During World War II, he had served as a commisar, or political officer, rather than a combat commander and was a major general by the end of the war. In the early 1950s, just after the death of Stalin (who had appointed Brezhnev to important posts in 1950), he allegedly placed his political loyalty with Khrushchev, whom he sensed would be the next premier.


Upon the removal of Khrushchev, it was quickly apparent that 58-year-old Brezhnev was poised to be the next official leader of the Soviet Union. Three months before Khrushchev’s ousting on October 14, 1964, as the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev had resigned from that post to become Khrushchev’s second-in-command. Often described as politically shrewd and patient, Brezhnev helped solidify his power by moving loyal allies into key government positions. Typically quiet, unlike the often-bombastic Khrushchev, Brezhnev focused on sensible political decisions and had a calm private life.


Brezhnev’s Goals as Premier: Stability and Loyalty

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Buses drive in front of an exhibit set up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth, via Central European University (CEU)


The Khrushchev Era had seen the Soviet Union enjoy great economic and technological advancements but also turmoil, especially in foreign policy. Khrushchev was criticized after his ousting for promoting ill-researched ideas, often in hasty attempts to catch up to the United States. Leonid Brezhnev took the opposite approach and did not propose sweeping reforms in either political direction. This was a relief to many Soviet bureaucrats, who had chafed at the rapid reforms of Khrushchev. Brezhnev was a coalition-builder and tried to build consensus, even sharing international recognition with Soviet diplomats. This helped solidify his own power by reducing the incentive of other high-ranking officials to try and oust him.


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Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


Under Brezhnev, turnover slowed in the bureaucracy, allowing bureaucrats to hold their positions for many years. Replacements were typically made in a direct hierarchical fashion, meaning there was little promotion of outsiders. Brezhnev’s entrenchment of a slow-moving bureaucracy helped ensure domestic stability but also prevented problems from being handled. Over time, inefficiencies in the Soviet economy could worsen as entrenched; secure bureaucrats had little incentive to take personal and professional risks by trying to reform policies. Allegedly, younger bureaucrats also had less incentive to fix problems because turnover was so slow that they would not likely be rewarded for their innovations.


Lack of Economic Reforms Under Brezhnev

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An economic report showing Soviet grain imports rising faster than energy exports during Brezhnev’s later years, via the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)


By the mid-1960s, when Brezhnev came into power, the Soviet Union was suffering from declining productivity. This sparked debates over how to increase productivity, with some calling for a decrease in military spending in order to devote more manpower and capital toward economic production. Brezhnev was unwilling to do this, as he wanted to maintain the support of the military. The Soviet military was a major employer and industrial power, employing up to 10 percent of the nation’s labor force and using up to 60 percent of its steel prior to the mid-1980s. Only later analysis would determine the true extent of Soviet military spending: 40 percent of the government’s budget, as opposed to the 16 percent that was officially claimed.


During Brezhnev’s tenure as premier, Aleksey Kosygin, head of state of the USSR, attempted to shift Soviet economic production away from military equipment and heavy industry and toward consumer goods but was not supported by Brezhnev. Attempts to reform the centrally-planned Soviet economy were made difficult by complexity and managers’ lack of initiative and experience with free market principles. Similar to Brezhnev himself, managers of state enterprises did not want to risk making significant changes, even though the Kosygin reforms of 1965 gave some opportunities to do so.


Foreign Policy Under Brezhnev: The Brezhnev Doctrine

tank during prague spring 1968
A Soviet tank in Prague, Czechoslovakia during the 1968 Prague Spring uprising, which was crushed on orders of Leonid Brezhnev, via Radio Free Europe


One event that sapped any remaining initiative behind Kosygin’s 1965 economic reforms was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Czechoslovakia had been suffering from its own decline in economic productivity but had made more robust attempts at free-market reforms. In early 1968, the conservative leader of the nation’s communist party was replaced with a liberal, Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek quickly implemented liberal reforms, such as the end of government censorship. Fearing that other communist satellite states in eastern Europe might follow suit, Brezhnev rallied other Warsaw Pact nations to invade and replace Dubcek. It decided that, since the United States was heavily embroiled in the Vietnam War, there would be no American or NATO intervention.


The US did not respond militarily, and Brezhnev’s aggressive foreign policy held the Soviet bloc together for another twenty years. Military intervention in Czechoslovakia to shut down the Prague Spring liberal reforms established the Brezhnev Doctrine: the USSR would intervene militarily to protect any communist government under threat. In 1979, the Soviets would use this rationale to invade Afghanistan, which had a communist government under threat of collapse by rebel forces. The Soviets were also aware that the United States was trying to gain a diplomatic foothold in Afghanistan and minimize Soviet influence. As with Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev was trying to maintain the status quo and prop up the pro-Soviet government, despite strong local opposition.


Detente & Arms Negotiations with the United States

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Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev (left) and US President Richard Nixon (right) meeting in the USSR in June 1974, via National Public Radio (NPR)


Despite the US condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and Brezhnev’s refusal to implement market reforms to prop up lagging productivity, the US and Soviet Union enjoyed a period of reduced Cold War tensions known as detente. In 1972, US President Richard Nixon famously re-opened diplomatic relations with China, sparking fears in Moscow that the Soviets might lose geopolitical influence. An undeclared border war between the Soviet Union and China in 1969 raised the possibility that the US could play the two communist giants against each other. Thus, Brezhnev was open to direct dialogue with the United States to ease tensions.


In May 1972, only a few months after his visit to Beijing, Nixon arrived in Moscow to meet Brezhnev for the first time. Despite the previous tensions between then-vice president Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, a warm relationship quickly developed between President Nixon and Brezhnev. The Soviet premier engaged in arms reduction talks with Nixon, culminating in the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talk) Treaty. These talks had been proposed as early as 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson, but a treaty was not signed until May 26, 1972. A second round of talks began later in the year, with SALT II eventually being signed by Brezhnev and US President Jimmy Carter in June 1979, only months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ended detente. As with economic reform, Brezhnev did not move quickly.


Stagnation by 1982

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A graph showing the rapid Soviet nuclear weapon buildup, exceeding that of the United States, between 1950 and 1980, contributing to military overspending, via Statista


Brezhnev’s goal of stability and foreign policy strength had made many Soviet citizens, especially bureaucrats, happy. However, by the time of Brezhnev’s death in 1982, after years of poor health, a deep stagnation had settled into the Soviet Union’s economic production and political system. Economic growth had almost entirely stopped by the end of Brezhnev’s premiership. One theory as to why this economic malaise had been allowed to linger was that unelected powers in the Soviet Union, especially the military and the intelligence apparatus, had little incentive to focus on economic growth. Additionally, Brezhnev’s poor health after 1975 likely limited any possibility of true reform, and anti-reform conservatives allegedly tried to prevent him from handing off power to a younger leader to maintain their own status quo.


Politically, the USSR was dominated by older men by the time of Brezhnev’s death. As early as 1977, almost half of the Politburo (Soviet legislature) was at least in its late sixties. In 1981, the average age of the fourteen voting members was 69. That year, the body voted for Brezhnev to continue as premier until 1985, at which time Brezhnev would be almost eighty years old. The youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, was fifty. Famously, after Brezhnev’s death in November 1982 and the swift passing of the two subsequent premiers, both elderly, US President Ronald Reagan quipped that he couldn’t make any foreign policy headway because the Soviet leaders “kept dying on me.”


Aftermath: Brezhnev’s Legacy

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US President Jimmy Carter (left) with Leonid Brezhnev (right) in 1979, revealing Brezhnev’s advanced age (72) and penchant for medals, via National Public Radio (NPR)


The legacy of Leonid Brezhnev is complicated. Westerners tend to criticize Brezhnev for being a hardliner whose opposition to economic reform doomed the Soviet Union to eventual collapse. He is also condemned for his military interventions in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979, and Poland in 1980 to prop up or restore pro-Soviet communist regimes. Frequently, he is mocked for his love of unearned medals and vice-like grip on political power long after he should have retired. Physically, he was often teased in the Western press for his bushy eyebrows and rotund figure.


However, Brezhnev’s focus on stability and detente is often remembered with nostalgia in Russia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 led to economic and social chaos. Quality of life improved during his long tenure in office, with Pepsi even being introduced to consumers in 1974. Some Western observers also praised Brezhnev’s sense of humor, which was unthinkable compared to Stalin or Khrushchev. Although Brezhnev was a conservative, he did not engage in the violence of Stalin – though his underling and eventual successor, Yuri Andropov, allegedly did plenty as KGB chairman. On the whole, despite some appealing personal qualities, most analysts agree that Leonid Brezhnev’s refusal to adapt to fix a lagging economy and excessive military-industrial complex ultimately doomed Soviet communism.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.