"Boundaries of History": Susanne Schattenberg on greatness and tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev
On May 30, 2019, at the seminar of the "Boundaries of history" prof. Dr. Susanne Schattenberg presented a report: “Leonid Brezhnev: The greatness and tragedy of man and the country ”, dedicated to the recently published book of hers. All her scientific works have been translated and published in Russian. At the University of Bremen, Susanne Schattenberg leads the Research Centre for East European, with which St. Petersburg Department of History has already established close scientific cooperation. In his opening remarks, the head of the department A.M. Semenov stressed that this research raises an important and rare topic about the boundary between history and non-history, the past and the modern. The lecture is devoted to the part of the 20th century that resonates current political situation.
After Stalin Leonid Brezhnev ruled the country the longest. He remained general secretary for the 18 years. In the West his image is mostly negative. He is known as the hawk of the cold war, the persecuter of dissidents and as the one who sent troops to Prague and to Kabul. But in reality this was different. Brezhnev repeatedly emphasized that the Stalinist terror should not be repeated, he agreed to the Prague spring and it was not he who wanted to send troops to Kabul. His main priority was lasting peace and rapprochement with the West.
Lecture by prof. Schattenberg presented to the audience each chapter of her book and dealt separately with foreign policy under Leonid Ilyich. Each part of the speech was accompanied by photographs and their interpretation, that is partly explained by the fact that there are no sources regarding childhood and adolescence of Brezhnev.
Brezhnev was born in 1906 in Kamenskoye. Contrary to the official point of view, the members of his family and himself were not Bolsheviks. His parents were workers who were determined to achieve prestige through education and not through revolution. The photo shows that they were striving for a bourgeois lifestyle. His mother dreamed that her son would become an engineer with his own home and a car. His father wanted Leonid to become a diplomat. Brezhnev himself dreamed of becoming an actor. In Kursk he played in a theatrical group, worked as a supernumerary, but nevertheless went to study at the Kamensky Metallurgical Technicum. When the university years came to an end nothing indicated either a career in the party or a post of general secretary, but the ascent in the party turned out to be initiated from above. His career began during incredibly difficult times of The Great Purge. However, unlike many, Brezhnev did not demand the exposure of enemies and did not succumb to general hysteria. In 1938 he had his first, but not the last meeting with Khrushchev, who would later become his main patron. Photos, many of which were not published after the 30s, show how much Brezhnev and Khrushchev sympathized with each other. Khrushchev called him to the Central Committee and at the beginning made the secretary responsible for the space program, and then the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.
Susanne Schattenberg argues that Brezhnev tried to overcome the consequences of the rule of Stalin and Khrushchev and tried to raise the standard of living in the country. Under Brezhnev none of the party officials should have been afraid of arrest or the end of their careers; many of the Politburo rituals that required the participation of all its members were resumed. Even when he had to remove his rivals from the post Brezhnev tried to ensure that all procedural issues were carried out. The main priority of the internal policy of that time was to improve the standard of living of the population. External - the prevention of a third world war, lasting peace, rapprochement with the West and a new security system in Europe. The question was how to achieve this during the Cold War?
Brezhnev decided by his own efforts to break through the general mistrust. He sought to be perceived as a partner of the Western type, an ordinary person of flesh and blood. In 1971 he took the first independent political action - invited Chancellor Willy Brandt for the weekend to the Crimea. There were neither ministers nor the chairman of the council of ministers during their meeting. It was a face-to-face meeting that is only available in photos. From a diplomatic point of view, the negotiations were an oddity. But from the historical it played its role. The heads of the two states not only gave up on ties and suits, but also appeared in swimming trunks: two men who had nothing to hide. Just 6 weeks after the meeting with Brandt, Leonid Ilyich went to his first state visit to the West to Pompidou. In 1972-1973 he met with US President Richard Nixon. During all state visits and meetings Brezhnev tried to prove that he was not a tough apparatchik, but an uninhibited politician of the Western type. Nevertheless, in his striving not to make an impression of dogmatist, Brezhnev could sometimes cross the border, violating the unwritten code of decency, proper to the head of state. His behavior more than once caused bewilderment, and these excesses were interpreted as "typically Russian."
The Soviet leader put trust first. What he created in 1969 as a channel connecting two leaders only with the help of a few trusted ones was a rarity in modern politics. However, success in just 3 months turned into defeat. In 1974 Pompidou unexpectedly dies and Brandt and Nixon resign. The signing of the Helsinki Act on the 1 of August 1975 would result in the beginning of a new period of mistrust. At the same time, Brezhnev would start to have health problems. During the second half of the 70s he offered his resignation to the politburo twice. But because they were as old and sick as he, they rejected it. Instead, they created the cult of Brezhnev. The older he became, the more he praised his party and the more ridiculous impression this staging made. Many of his associates would later say that if he retired in 1976, Brezhnev could have stayed in memory as a vigorous and successful fighter for peace and the welfare of the people, but, instead, he became the emblem of "stagnation" and remained in the mass consciousness as an old apparatchik, a character from anecdotes.