Icannot say that it has exemplified brilliant or spirited leadership. But my general assessment of it is nevertheless moderately positive. The majority of commentators on the current situation in the Soviet Union have a very short historical memory. It is necessary to compare the position today with the legacy left by earlier Soviet leaders. At Lenin’s death the country was in a prostrate condition, marked by economic collapse and widespread famine, after the devastation of the Civil War. When Stalin died in 1953, the Russian economy was technologically still very backward, the Cold War was at its height, the military pressure on the ussr was intense, and there was a political reign of terror within Societ society, in which all groups were frightened to say or do anything. Stalin’s heritage was a disastrous one in the early 50’s. Khruschev left the country in a better situation a decade later. The terror had been dismantled, and many reforms introduced. But by 1964, the administrative structure was failing to operate because of his successive ill-conceived schemes to reorganize it; the agricultural situation was deteriorating, while industrial production had reached a plateau far below his promises to the people; all kinds of censorship were being reintroduced in art and literature and Lysenko was reinstated in science—there was a general retreat from the more liberal trends of the earlier years of his rule; abroad the Cuban crisis had revealed the military vulnerability of the ussr. If we compare the situation today, as Brezhnev moves towards the finish of his epoch, the position of the Soviet Union is in most respects greatly improved. Economic stability is now more or less evident. The quality of industrial production is not as high as people want, and there are persistent troubles in the agricultural sector; but these are not of the unpredictable character that was typical in Khruschev’s time. The general level of consumption is now much higher. Administratively, the turmoil and instability of Khruschev’s rule has been succeeded by a system in which the bureaucracy is much more secure under Brezhnev. So far as human rights are concerned, there have been no dramatic changes like the release of millions of prisoners in the 50’s, but there has been no reversion to terror either. In a number of respects, contrary to the prevailing image abroad, there have been limited advances. It is during Brezhnev’s time that restrictions on the internal movement of the rural population within the ussr were lifted, and that a certain amount of emigration became possible. Under Khruschev it was very difficult to imagine that people could publish their books abroad if officials refused their publication at home. Under Brezhnev this became quite common—many works of socialist literature, and many other books of a quite different inspiration were published abroad, whose authors went on living in the Soviet Union. After the Sinyavsky and Daniel trial, no-one was ever straightforwardly prosecuted for this again. In some cases (Solzhenitsyn, Maximov, Nekrassov, Gorbanevskaya and others) deportation or forced exile—and, of course, expulsion from the Writers’ Union—were used instead of prison sentences. It has certainly not been a bright time for civil rights, but viewed in a historical perspective certain gains have been registered. Externally, meanwhile, the military strength of the ussr is much greater today than it was in the early 60’s, and has made possible a whole series of foreign policy successes in Asia and Africa in recent years. It has also permitted steps towards a detente in the arms race, as strategic equality with the usa has for the first time been more or less achieved.
Khruschev’s conduct of party affairs was impulsive and personal. He did not use terror or murder high officials, as Stalin—whose closest associates went in constant fear for their life—had done. But he did brusquely eliminate them from leading positions, if they either opposed him, or failed to implement his directives, or threatened to become too powerful. Their typical fate was to be consigned to obscure and minor posts in the provinces. For example, among those who opposed him in the Praesidium, Malenkov was demoted to director of a powerstation on the Volga, Bulganin to director of a state bank and then retired, while Molotov was sent as Ambassador to Mongolia and then pensioned off. Leaders whose performance disappointed him included Kirichenko, at the time second man in the Party after Khruschev himself, who was held responsible for the failure of the 1959 harvest—which should have been a good one—in the virgin lands: he was peremptorily lowered to the management of a sovkhoz in the Rostov region. Another case was Matskevich, Minister of Agriculture, who was reduced to a post in the Tselinograd ispolkom. Two men he regarded as potentially over-powerful, Zhukov—then Minister of Defence—and Serov, the kgb boss, received similar treatment. Zhukov was forced into retirement, and Serov was dispatched to be second secretary in an obkomfootnote2 in Kazakhstan. At the same time Khruschev often promoted people he liked to very high positions without intermediate steps. In 1957 he took a fancy to a state farm he was visiting in the Poltava region, which struck him as well organized. A week later, the chairman of the farm, one Volovchenko, was made Minister of Agriculture for the whole country. Khruschev was confident that a good farm director would make a good minister. The same approach was responsible for the rise of men like Polyansky or Voronov into the Praesidium—they owed their ascent to some local successes in agriculture in the regions where they had been obkom secretaries. In general, Khruschev would tour one or other oblast and if he found something not to his liking, he could dismiss the obkom secretary on the spot without any serious reasons. The result was that the turnover of leadership was high under Khruschev and the top party and state bureaucracy felt very insecure. This contributed greatly to Khruschev’s ultimate fall. In spite of the fact that most of the members of the Praesidium (with the exception of Suslov and Mikoyan) and of the Central Committee were his appointees by 1964, they voted massively to get him out.
Brezhnev’s style has differed sharply. He is not impulsive and does not try to make immediate personal decisions. The pattern of promotion under Brezhnev has tended to be a regular course through all the stages of the system. Actual performance was less important than loyalty. Although Brezhnev was well aware that some members of the Politbureau would have liked to get rid of him as General Secretary, he did not try to remove them from their positions until they openly expressed opposition towards his policies. At the same time the top officials whom he did eliminate from the decision-making leadership have remained within the higher ranks of the elite, but deprived of any power. For example, in 1967 the Moscow City Secretary Yegorychev criticized Brezhnev strongly for his refusal to send troops to aid the Arab countries in the Six-Day War in the Middle East: he was promptly dismissed, but was later appointed Ambassador to Denmark. Similarly, the Leningrad Party Secretary Tolstikov was evicted on charges of corruption and abuse of power, but ended up Ambassador to China. After Alleluyeva—Stalin’s daughter—escaped to the West, the kgb chief Semichastny made the grave error of exposing important agents in Europe in an attempt to kidnap her; he lost his job, but was still made Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukraine. Ilyichev, the main ideologist under Khruschev, was removed from the Secretariat of the Central Committee after 1964, but appointed Deputy Foreign Minister and chief negotiator with China over the Sino-Soviet border conflict. There are many other examples, and few exceptions. The Georgian Party boss Mzhavanadze was dismissed on a mere pension, but he was involved in criminal corruption and was too compromised: he was also 70 years old. The difference of regime under Brezhnev was felt at less exalted rungs of the apparat as well. In general, senior officials might lose their positions of power or top posts, but they continued to enjoy the same material privileges (dachas, cars with drivers, membership in republican central committees, etc.) and did not suffer much change in their style of life or work. The result was to create a new psychology of stability within the party elite, in which many grave mistakes, instances of corruption and mismanagement were covered up. Brezhnev has tried to avoid any change at the top being publicly related to actual conflicts within the ruling circle—whether power struggles or policy disagreements. His style is very guarded: so-called open meetings of the Central Committee have been abolished, all top-level discussions are kept secret and only final decisions are revealed. Khruschev’s style was more personalist, but also more open; he often appealed for support to the general public. Brezhnev makes his decisions after more consultations with his colleagues, but in a much more closed circle.
The most serious of these were the cases of Shelest, Shelepin and Podgorny, each of whom fell for different reasons. Shelest was a strong personality and a hard-liner. His differences with Brezhnev started in 1968 when Brezhnev was still hesitating to use troops to put down the Dubček regime in Czechoslovakia: Shelest was strongly in favour of a ‘military solution’ and organized the army leadership against the doves in the Politbureau. Later Shelest was against the nomination of Ustinov as Minister of Defence, backing the candidature of Marshal Grechko. The combination Grechko–Shelest gave Shelest too much influence and in 1972 he openly challenged detente policy and made it clear that if Nixon were invited to the ussr he would receive no welcome in Kiev. This was a direct split and Shelest was dismissed on the spot at the Politbureau meeting—a decision rapidly confirmed by the Central Committee, most of whose members were afraid of too obvious hard-liners. Shelepin, on the other hand, was the main figure involved in the plot against Khruschev in 1964 and sought the Party leadership for himself. His close connections with the kgb, intransigent policies and personal energy made him very influential in 1965–6. Brezhnev regarded him as a dangerous rival, with justice. So he was made head of the Trade Unions—a modest position for a prominent member of the Politbureau. The circumstances of his later removal were fortuitous. After the fiasco of his trip to Britain some years ago, he demanded a strong diplomatic note from the Soviet government protesting against the ill-treatment of a major Soviet leader in the UK. He threatened to resign if such a note was not approved. However, it happened that nobody liked him in the Politbureau and his resignation was immediately accepted. Something similar occurred in the case of Podgorny. By 1978 it was clear that Brezhnev was de facto Head of State as well as of the Party. Yet as General Secretary he lacked the diplomatic or titular status to sign major international treaties, travel abroad or negotiate with other heads of state. For these purposes, Khruschev had assumed for himself the position of Prime Minister. Brezhnev could not do this for several reasons. Firstly, it was decided in 1964 that the highest posts in Party and Government should be divided, to prevent too much power being concentrated in the hands of one person. Secondly, the Premiership involves a very demanding work-load and Brezhnev was already in poor health. It therefore seemed a reasonable solution to give him the position of President—which was never of much importance in power terms, but was in terms of diplomatic protocol. Podgorny was offered the position of First Deputy President with all his other duties preserved. Unexpectedly, however, he felt insulted and strongly objected to the technical demotion. A dispute developed during a meeting of the cc, which ended with Podgorny’s summary retirement.
The other two men you mentioned represent quite different cases. Polyansky and Voronov were never strong or competent leaders. Khruschev appointed them to the Politbureau in the early 60’s, as I’ve said, because the regions where they were obkom secretaries at the time had overfulfilled grain and other targets. They owed their rise to these achievements—later found accidental. These were typical impulsive promotions in the Khruschev manner. Once in the Politbureau, Polyansky and Voronov failed to prove their agricultural expertise and were dropped when the opportunity arose—with setbacks in the countryside. The two men were incompetents, whose ascent to high positions was not justified by their previous records.