Skip to content
Leonid Brezhnev, 1974.

Brezhnev, Leonid Il'ich 1906- 1982

Leonid Illyich Brezhnev was Soviet Premier from 1964-1982. He asserted the USSR's right to intervene in the affairs of other socialist states, a policy often referred to as the "Brezhnev Doctrine."

Biography

Leonid Brezhnev, 1974.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, leader of one of the two most powerful nations in the world, was born to Russian parents in the Ukrainian mining town of Kamensk in 1906. Little is known about his youth, except that at age 15 he went to work in the steel mill that employed his father.

After the Russian Revolution, Brezhnev pursued a technical education and became a land surveyor. But his political ambitions soon became apparent: He joined the Communist Party in 1931, then held a series of local party posts. The young apparatchik showed a remarkable ability to correctly survey the political landscape. After Stalin's death, Brezhnev correctly tied his fortunes to Nikita Khrushchev, helping the new Soviet premier pursue his "Virgin Lands" agricultural campaign in Kazakstan (where Brezhnev was serving as first secretary of the Communist Party), and in supporting Khrushchev during an aborted attempt to remove him from power. Soon, Brezhnev was named a full member of the Politburo.

By the early 1960s he was seen as Khrushchev's likely successor. Named chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1960, he resigned in 1964 to become Khrushchev's direct assistant as second secretary of the Central Committee. The assistance he offered, however, was not what Khrushchev had hoped for. After only three months in the post, Brezhnev helped lead the conservative coalition that forced Khrushchev from power.

Brezhnev himself was one of the primary beneficiaries of Khrushchev's ouster. Named first secretary of the Communist Party, he became one of the two most important men in the Soviet Union. The other was Premier Aleksei Kosygin. Eventually, however, Brezhnev emerged as the dominant force and was named General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Brezhnev's colorless leadership style was a strong contrast to Khrushchev's dynamic but turbulent reign. This was reassuring to the vast Soviet bureaucracy, which had been threatened by Khrushchev's reforms. Indeed, under Brezhnev, the Soviet bureaucracy flourished, and government power centers like the KGB regained the authority -- if not quite the brutality -- they had enjoyed in Stalin's time.

The Soviet decision in 1968 to invade Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring was an early indicator of Brezhnev's world view. In a speech justifying the move, he spelled out what came to be called the "Brezhnev Doctrine," asserting Moscow's right to intervene in the affairs of other socialist states.

Brezhnev was, above all, a Cold Warrior, dedicated to the ongoing struggle with the United States. Though more cautious than Khrushchev, he nonetheless supported U.S. antagonists and left-leaning regimes throughout the world, most notably in Vietnam, the Middle East and the Third World. A new era of detente was heralded in 1972, when Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the SALT treaty, freezing certain U.S. and Soviet weapons systems. But the new era was short-lived, corroded by lingering Cold War antagonisms. By 1979, it was only a memory, as Brezhnev and his comrades approved the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

By this time Brezhnev was an increasingly feeble old man. As Brezhnev's health deteriorated, so did the Soviet economy. Years of heavy spending on the defense and aerospace industries, at the expense of agriculture and other sectors of the economy, had taken a toll. Ordinary Soviet citizens had to wait in long lines to get basic necessities, and economic productivity and the Soviet standard of living fell into a slow but steady decline.

When Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982, at the age of 75, the Soviet Union itself had less than 10 years to live.

Popular Documents

June 20, 1967

On Soviet Policy following the Israeli Aggression in the Middle East

Polish document describing the speech given by Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU) on the actions undertaken by the Soviet leadership before and during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Brezhnev tells the CC CPSU plenum that the Arab struggle in the Middle East has both a class struggle and a national liberation dimension. Brezhnev blames Israeli aggression for the start of the war and Arab blunders and low morale for the humiliating defeat of the UAR forces. Given the success of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Soviets were forced to consider diplomatic and political methods for saving the Arab leadership. When Israeli forces did not stop their aggression against Syria, threatening to overrun the Syrian capital of Damascus, Brezhnev claims tells the CC CPSU that Soviet leadership warned the Americans that the Soviet Army would have to intervene and, at the same time, threatened the Israeli that any further actions would result in Soviet involvement in the war. Brezhnev claims that, since the war ended just hours after the Soviets had made their threats, the imperialist powers acquiesced to Soviet demands. This documents is a translation of the version the Soviet leadership sent to the United Polish Workers’ Party for the information of the Polish leadership.

June 2007

About the Middle East. Folder 81. The Chekist Anthology

Information on the situation in the Middle East prepared by KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov in April 1973, prior to a 7 May 1973 discussion in the Politburo.

Andropov stated that given the increase in anti-Israeli propaganda in Egypt and Syria, as well as the heightened state of readiness of their armies, it was possible that a coalition of Middle Eastern states could resume military operations against Israel before, or during the upcoming Nixon-Brezhnev summit.

To prevent this, the KGB initiated a series of active measures. Specifically, they dispatched KPSU Politburo Candidate Member K.G. Mazurov to speak with Egyptian President Sadat and Syrian President Assad on the USSR’s behalf; informed the United States government through unofficial channels that a resumption of hostilities in the Middle East was not in Moscow’s interests; delayed the delivery of new Soviet surface to surface missiles to Egypt; and dispatched a well known Soviet journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs to Cairo and Damascus to study the situation.

July 6, 1981

Conversation between SPD chairman Willy Brandt and the Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU Leonid Brezhnev on 30 June 1981 in Moscow

Memorandum of a conversation between Brandt and Brezhnev. Among other things, Brezhnev focused on the increased hostility between members of the international community. He pointed to debate over missiles in Europe as an example of that tension.

December 12, 1979

CC CPSU Politburo Resolution # 176/125, Concerning the Situation in "A" [Afghanistan]

The decree is on the situation in Afghanistan.

December 29, 1979

Excerpt from the Minutes of the CC CPSU Politburo Meeting, 'Reply to an appeal of President Carter about the issue of Afghanistan through the direct communications channel'

Soviet letter to US President Jimmy Carter responding to the US position on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The CC CPSU Politburo informs the White House that the Soviet leadership desires to maintain detente with the US and that the intervention of Soviet troops was done at the request of the Afgan leadership, under Article 51 of the UN charter.