Peter Rutland: The Dynamic Side of the Leonid Brezhnev Era

Roundup: Talking About History

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

With Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s impending return to the presidency, he is set to rule Russia for even longer than General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in power from 1964 to 1982. There is increasing talk of a Communist-type restoration. But what do we really know about the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev years? This topic has received scant scholarly attention in the West. The period is too distant to be worthy of study by political scientists, and yet recent enough that it is only now attracting the attention of historians.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachevcleverly branded the Brezhnev period as the era of “stagnation” in contrast to what he saw as his own dynamic and visionary leadership. This label struck a chord in the West, used to seeing a parade of geriatric leaders atop Lenin’s tomb. But it is a mistake to take Brezhnev’s infirmity as symbolic of the entire Soviet Union any more than we should see Queen Elizabeth II — on the throne since 1953 — as signaling lack of change in Britain. Just as the social and economic development of the late tsarist era sowed the seeds of the Bolshevik Revolution, so the forces that tore apart the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had their roots in the Brezhnev era.

Several weeks ago, 20 scholars gathered at Wesleyan University to present their ongoing research on the late Soviet Union. Their work reveals a Soviet Union that was dynamic and even innovative, with deep and widening regional and social differentiation. Clearly, the way the system worked in practice diverged from the official account of how society functioned. The scholars at the workshop drew on a wealth of new sources — from interviews with surviving participants to recently released archival materials...

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