By John Helmer, Moscow
Before presidential dementia became fashionable in the US, there was, Russians used to joke, Leonid Brezhnev.
Once on a visit to a hunting lodge not far from Moscow, I was told by the forest ranger that he used to assist in setting up for a Brezhnev shoot. It was very late in Brezhnev’s life, the ranger said; his job had been to kill the animal and fix it with supports so that Brezhnev might shoot it dead again. I’m not sure my informant was telling the truth. The story was a popular anecdote in Moscow for years, before and after Brezhnev died himself on November 10, 1982.
In a new biography of Brezhnev by Suzanne Schattenberg, a German university professor , Brezhnev is diagnosed with addiction to sedatives and terminal heart failure in his late years; the sedatives caused the well-known slurring of his speech. Brezhnev did not decline into dementia.
Schattenberg’s book also tries to recover the history of the man from newly available evidence, and salvage him from the jokes. This has caused competitive American academics to make fun of them both – Brezhnev and Schattenberg. According to Yuri Slezkine,* an émigré to California, “Soviet party leaders tend to get the biographies they deserve…Susanne Schattenberg’s new biography of Brezhnev is almost as bland as its subject.” Slezkine then retells some of the jokes he remembers from his days as a student in Moscow before concluding it was “bewilderment [which was] represented by Brezhnev’s ‘collective leadership.’”
That’s wrong in the light of Schattenberg’s evidence; discreditably so because Slezkine cannot have come to his conclusion if he had read the book.
Schattenberg concludes: “today, everyone agrees on Brezhnev’s immense importance for the Soviet Union, After all, he ruled and shaped the country for eighteen years – the second longest time at the helm after Stalin’s thirty years (1924-1953); while Khrushchev only clung to power for eleven (1953-1964). Neither of Brezhnev’s successors [Yury] Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko lasted two years in office before their deaths; within six, Mikhail Gorbachev led the Soviet Union to its demise.”
To those among Russians who judge that Brezhnev should have resigned by 1976 and he would be taken more seriously, and remembered more positively, Schattenberg reveals that in December 1976 and again in April 1979, Brezhnev did propose his resignation and retirement. However, the Politburo refused – for their political reasons (personal ambition, collective succession, state security), not Brezhnev’s.
To understand how Russians older than the age of 50 now remember the peacefulness and optimism of Brezhnev’s time, and the dread of war he helped them to overcome, this book helps. But now that Russians realise they are compelled by their foreign enemies to be at war again, Brezhnev’s history helps to explain why the hopes those enemies have pinned on Russians less than the age of men like Alexei Navalny (born June 4, 1976) have been doomed to fail from the start.
Geographically, Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye, a small metalworks town on the Dnieper River in eastern Ukraine, where his father and mother had moved from Kursk, across the border in Russia, in search of work; he moved back and forth to Kursk to escape civil war famine and violence, and for his college training in farm management and agriculture. He made his career advancement through a Ukrainian network centered in the east around Dniepropetrovsk. He also spent time around Lvov in the west in 1944-46 fighting against the Banderites funded by the US for guerrilla war against the Soviet Army, after the Germans had been driven out. He then spent several years running the Soviet administrations in Moldova and Kazakhstan before 1956, when he was promoted to Moscow to join the entourage of Nikita Khrushchev.
Ethnically, his grandfather on his father’s side may have been Jewish; his mother’s family was rumoured to be Jewish but was not. His father, Ilya Yakovlevich, sheltered Jews during the Civil War; according to Schattenberg, he did this “more out of a sense of justice or Christian charity than revolutionary fervor.” Kamenskoye, Brezhnev’s hometown, was occupied by the German Army in 1918, when he was 12; the White Army, the Cossacks and the Red Army took, lost and retook Kamenskoye twenty times during this period. About a quarter of the population was Jewish until the German Army, with Ukrainian assistance, murdered them between 1941 and 1943.
The only language Brezhnev read or spoke was Russian. His cultural preference was for films and theatre rather than books; he could recite the poets Yesenin and Mayakovsky by heart, but his taste in reading was much more limited than his predecessors and successors, with the exception of Khrushchev.
His recreations were hunting, fast cars, and pretty women, especially nurses, Bolshoi Theatre singers, Aeroflot hostesses. One of the last of these he took to bed with him at Camp David, when he was the guest of President Richard Nixon in June 1973; Nixon told the woman to “take good care of him”; Brezhnev was 67 at the time. Schattenberg explains why Brezhnev let the American secret service in on his sex life.
An English translation from the German of Schattenberg’s book was published by Bloomsbury several weeks ago; it can be read here.
Left: Suzanne Schattenberg in Bremen. Centre: the cover of the German edition, published by Bohlau in 2017, shows Brezhnev as a young Red Army officer in a photograph he arranged of himself. Right: the English edition cover shows the ailing Brezhnev in 1979, three years before his death. The book has not yet been reviewed in Russian. An interview with Schattenberg appeared in 2018 in the Russian-language version of the state propaganda agency Deutsche Welle. She acknowledged her “sympathy” for Brezhnev in order to attack President Vladimir Putin: “I have the impression that social reforms and the well-being of the population were very important for Brezhnev, which I do not see at all under Putin. And although Brezhnev was remembered for persecuting dissidents, in the long run he still wanted to experiment with democracy. They say, let's feed people first, and then let ourselves have what we have in the West. Putin has led the country away from a fairly broad democracy and a strong public towards restricting freedoms. The difference is also that Brezhnev was delighted with the United States, wanted to cooperate with Washington, which is not at all true of Putin.” Schattenberg has yet to publish evidence to substantiate this claim.
Left: Brezhnev with his wife Viktoria at Kamenskoye 1935; right, with Khrushchev, June 1942. Brezhnev’s military training was in a tank unit in 1935-36. He first met Khrushchev at Dnepropetrovsk in 1938. During the war, he served principally as a unit commissar responsible for propaganda and morale. By 1945 he had been promoted to general rank.
Left, with his wartime lover in 1943, Tamara Levchenko, an army nurse from Dniepropetrovsk. Right: Brezhnev with Col-Gen Kirill Moskalenko; right, Lt-Gen Andrei Bondarev, at the Victory Parade on Red Square, 24 June 1945.
The career reputation Brezhnev earned during his rise, initially under Stalin and then under his successors, was that of a consensus builder opposed to intimidation, terror, bullying. As a senior Kazakh official said of Brezhnev’s performance in the republic in 1955, “he was a balanced, calm character and was benevolent towards his comrades…when criticizing mistakes that had been made, he never injured people’s dignity.” His record during the decision-making which led to Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 showed this; it was his judgement then that the rebellion in Budapest was part of the French, British and US plot to seize the Suez Canal, kill Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and change regime in Cairo; this strategic context was his deciding factor. The same sequence would recur in Brezhnev’s decision-making for military intervention in Prague in 1967 and in Kabul in 1979.
In these crucial episodes, Schattenberg declares herself on the side of the US and NATO allies, and of Germany foremost. But she reveals enough of the Russian evidence to understand what Brezhnev was thinking and how he decided. Schattenberg ignores the corroborating US archive evidence in order to display her personal prejudice towards Putin: “[Brezhnev] spent his entire life fighting for coexistence, détente with the West and disarmament; Putin’s anti-American, isolationist rhetoric would probably have him turning in his grave. Invading another country was no source of pride and greatness to him, but as a last resort that weighed heavily on his conscience”.
Between the 2017 year of Schattenberg’s German version of the book and the very recent English edition, several Polish and German government-funded agencies have been the paymasters for Schattenberg and the research she has directed in Bremen. Click to identify them. When Warsaw pays Bremen to lobby for a German alliance with Poland against Russia, this has been understood from Peter I and Catherine II to Brezhnev and Putin to lead inevitably to war. Brezhnev admitted to that realisation when first Chancellor Willy Brandt, then Helmut Schmidt, changed their line towards him. Putin has learned the same from Olaf Scholz. For Schattenberg to tell her story pretending otherwise is deceit – and a German folly Brezhnev and Putin both believed the Germans should have learned.
Brezhnev’s reward for backing Khrushchev in seeing off the first attempt at removing him was his appointment to direct the nuclear industry, strategic missile and warhead testing programmes. In expertise on warfighting and nuclear weapons strategy, Brezhnev dwarfed the two Soviet successors, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
But he did not turn against Khrushchev in October 1964 on account of disagreement on military or foreign strategy, and certainly not because of Khrushchev’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis two years earlier, in October 1962. The turn came when Brezhnev was persuaded that the consensus of the entire Ukrainian faction of Khrushchev loyalists on the Politburo was that their old patron was “clearly turning into a tyrant… They were principally angered by his tendency to decide everything by himself and ride roughshod over the principle of collective leadership. In a word [Schattenberg’s word], the plotters were not old Stalinists who wanted to turn back the clock.”
In the history of Russia’s rulers there have only been two exercise swimmers – Putin and Brezhnev. Schattenberg gives Brezhnev sole credit – not only for taking German Chancellor Willy Brandt swimming at Crimea, but for assiduous note-taking of his daily swim and fitness regime:
Left, Brezhnev (65) and Brandt, Crimea, August 1971; Putin (57), Siberia, August 2009.
Schattenberg presents official archive and personal diary records to show that Brezhnev’s policy towards domestic dissidents, whether they were writers like Andrei Sinyavsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn or scientists like Andrei Sahkarov, was not what they said, published, or did. Instead, it was the role the US and NATO warfighters played to promote them as part of what Brezhnev and the Politburo interpreted as a deliberate tactic to sabotage Soviet proposals for strategic arms control and negotiated conclusions to proxy wars against the Arabs in the Middle East and against the Vietnamese.
Brezhnev had known, respected and liked Sakharov during his time in charge of the nuclear weapons portfolio; there was reciprocal goodwill from Sakharov. But by January 1980, when Brezhnev was convinced Sakharov had allowed himself (and his wife Yelena Bonner) to become an instrument of damage to Soviet international security and foreign policy priorities, he agreed to Sakharov’s arrest and exile to Gorky. The tipping point was Sakharov’s statements broadcast on US propaganda radios in support of the boycott of the Moscow Olympics of 1980 and against the intervention in Afghanistan.
On the record Schattenberg publishes, Brezhnev’s “middle ground” in forming the consensus of his Politburo colleagues wasn’t bewilderment, vacillation or lack of conviction. His decision was that there were higher priorities, and that the relations between the Great Powers – the US, Germany, France – should dictate the line. He was also convinced by what US and German officials, including then-Senator Joseph Biden, told the Soviets in private, that this was also the US and NATO line. Their remarks convinced Brezhnev the “human rights” issue was not a priority policy interest but a smear and sabotage tactic by pro-war factions in Washington, Bonn and Paris.
What changed this interpretation of Brezhnev’s was the conduct Preident Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski displayed from 1979. “He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon — ”, Brezhnev had said in the Politburo record, in 1972 when he was negotiating with Nixon and Kissinger. “Strength – that’s exactly the language the American imperialists understand best.”
Brezhnev’s long-spoon tactic required direct personal communication between the heads of state through trusted intermediaries. This was effective in France and Germany. In Washington, Kissinger interpreted the tactic as a sign of Brezhnev’s personal craving for respect and of strategic weakness – he decided to provoke it if he could.
At the same time, according to Schattenberg, “Brezhnev declared he wanted to weaken NATO: his course sought to support France and other countries that acted indpendently within NATO were also to be supported.” In 1973 he was succeeding with Georges Pompidou, the French President; with Brandt; and with Nixon also. A year later, in 1974, Pompidou was dead; Brandt and Nixon had resigned. By the end of that year too, Brezhnev had become so heavily dependent on sedatives, he was liable to fall asleep without warning during the business day. This produced protocol delays, meeting postponements, and other mishaps allowing the US and European press to make a mockery.
Brzezinski, whom Schattenberg forgets to identify as Polish by origin, religion and mentality, persuaded Carter to do the same, adding false intelligence about the nature of Brezhnev’s medical condition. In 1979 Brezhnev wrote privately about Carter to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Pompidou’s successor in Paris:
By the time Carter entered the White House in January 1977, and notwithstanding Brezhnev’s self-acknowledged medical incapacity, the provocations Carter and Brzezinski devised and then implemented over the next two years destroyed what Brezhnev believed he had negotiated with Nixon, the French and Germans. Carter and Brzezinski also consolidated the consensus of the Politburo – in which Brezhnev actively concurred – that the Americans meant war against Russia on as many fronts as they could contrive.
The first of the two final straws was the decision in Moscow to send the army into Afghanistan in December 1979. Scattenberg dismisses as wrong on the records that the decision to intervene was taken without Brezhnev’s participation or cognizance. She concludes that present though he was at the crucial briefing discussions, he was no longer capable of following as closely as he had always done, and no longer persuasive enough with his colleagues to find a “middle road”. Between March and December of 1979 the Politburo had refused twenty-one requests from the Afghan leader Nur Mohammed Taraki for Soviet military intervention; they stuck instead to food aid and arms supplies.
However, after Taraki was assassinated in October 1979, replaced by his deputy Hafisullah Amin, the KGB learned that Amin was plotting with the CIA; this made inevitable the intervention decision on December 12, 1979. Just how involved Brzezinski and Carter were in that plotting can be read from the US sources Schattenberg is ignorant of. Click here.
The second of the final straws was what was called at the time the NATO Double-Track Decision, which was announced on December 12, 1979 – the same day of the Politburo’s decision on Afghanistan. This provided for the deployment of Pershing II and other nuclear armed missiles in Germany within short flying-time range of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was this change of strategic threat to the Soviet Union which convinced Brezhnev and the Politburo that US oral assurances were worthless and treaty signatures unreliable.
Brezhnev’s “middle road” or consensus line had come to a full stop. And so had he. However, as Schattenberg has pulled out of the official records, diaries and reminiscences, there was no stable replacement or form of succession on which the party factions and the Politburo could agree. Instead, Brezhnev’s vanity triggered an exaggerated personality cult, and also the torrent of Russian anecdotes making fun of it and him. The success of the Kremlin doctors in keeping Brezhnev alive proved to be longer lasting than the Politburo, the Central Committee, the KGB and the military were able to agree on whom to replace him with, and how.
As Brezhnev sank into irrationality, did he take the Politburo down with him, as the country laughed at them all? Not exactly. The political calculation by the Politbuo members and their staffs was that it was better that the country laugh at them all, especially at Brezhnev, than that they should start to fight each other. Schattenberg reports: “It was clear to [Yury] Andropov [died February 1984, aged 69] and [Mikhail] Suslov (died January 1982, aged 79] that they had to get Brezhnev back in action as soon as possible to avoid a vacuum and a battle for power.”
It was an exceptional situation which the Reagan Administration exploited. Not so exceptional, however, if the succession vacuum and battle for power currently under way in the Biden Administration is compared.
But in Moscow that’s how it ended for Brezhnev, whose death came on November 10, 1982. Before then, though, Schattenberg reveals an impressive amount of detail in German intelligence reports on Brezhnev’s ailments. None of them, nothing in German intelligence nor in US intelligence, revealed they knew of Brezhnev’s drug addiction.
There’s an even more telling omission. Searching Schattenberg’s 472 pages, there is almost no mention of the United Kingdom or the British in the entire book. Harold Wilson (prime minister in 1964-70 and 1974-76) is mentioned in passing once; nothing that happened in England or in Anglo-American politics was significant enough to have been considered by Brezhnev in his private diaries or the official archives which Schattenberg has searched and studied. London is mentioned but only in the footnotes as the place of publication for Schattenberg’s academic sources.
In other words, the much vaunted “special relationship” between British intelligence and the US, between MI6 and CIA, between prime ministers and presidents, didn’t count in Kremlin calculations. Compared to the French and Germans, the British weren’t considered significant in Brezhnev’s personal decision-making or in the Soviet strategy of his time.
[*] To Russians, Slezkine’s name, without the Frenchified ending he added himself in English, means the verb “to step down”, the noun for “sleaze”, and the verb “to cry”. Little wonder Slezkine fled the country in 1982, and went on to make his living from Texas to California taking his revenge on what was left behind. He also had this to tell a Ukrainian interviewer in 2013: “for me, there is no doubt that, on that count, the United States is an aggressive, powerful, pretty uncompromising empire in terms of staking its claims and advancing them. Its interests by definition encompass the entire world.”
Lead photos show (left to right): Boar hunt at Zavidovo, near Moscow, in May 1973 -- Brezhnev with knife, Henry Kissinger, Victor Sukhodrev interpreting; Brezhnev accepts Colt-45 gift from “Rifleman” television series actor Chuck Connors in Washington, June 1973; and Brezhnev hunting at Zalesye, 40 kilometres south of Lugansk city, November 1973.