The Political History of Concealing Illness, from Brezhnev to TrumpRoundup
tags: Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, Donald Trump
Joy Neumeyer is a historian of Russia and Eastern Europe and fellow at the European University Institute, where she is writing a book about death and despair in late Soviet culture.
In the late 1970s, after suffering a series of strokes and other medical crises that left him increasingly weak and incoherent, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wrote a boastful diary entry about his recent doctor’s visit: “[They] checked [my] brain cells, said everything was good, you should be envied and congratulated[,] you’re strong and healthy.”
During his shortened hospital stay with covid-19, President Trump tweeted that he was feeling “better than 20 years ago,” while his physician (who has praised the president’s “incredible genes”) announced that he was “doing great” — a rosy assessment called into question by his repeated bouts on oxygen and an intensive course of treatment.
Trump’s obsession with projecting the appearance of good health echoes a similar fixation among the ailing leadership of the late Soviet Union, whose leaders died in rapid succession in the early 1980s while insisting on their own (and the country’s) perfect condition. Like his Communist counterparts, Trump’s predilection for pageantry offers a hollow illusion of vitality while letting potentially fatal problems fester.
Brezhnev had been general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party since 1964, and saw his health decline considerably following a 1976 stroke. According to some accounts, he also suffered from heart failure, as well as an addiction to sedatives and sleeping pills. Kremlin doctors struggled to rouse Brezhnev for official meetings and televised appearances, which broadcast his slurred speech and shaking hands to millions of viewers.
With information about his deteriorating condition restricted to the Politburo, Soviet citizens filled in the blanks with rumors and jokes that cast the general secretary as dying, dead or perpetually regenerated. According to one joke, Brezhnev’s daily routine began with reanimation, followed by makeup, a banquet, an awards ceremony and concluding in clinical death.
As Brezhnev’s mind and body failed, an adoring cult grew around him that stoked his ego. Paeans to Comrade Brezhnev’s “unflagging energy, principles and vision” appeared on the front pages of major newspapers, while official ceremonies hailed “Dear Leonid Ilyich” with extended applause and kisses. Obsequious peers in the Politburo granted him medals including the glittering Order of Victory, a diamond-encrusted military decoration from World War II that was dubiously awarded in honor of his minor role as a political commissar on the southern front.
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