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The Brezhnev Factor

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev hunting in Ukraine in November 1973.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev hunting in Ukraine in November 1973.
A new leader comes to the Kremlin in a time of chaos, replacing a bumbling and erratic predecessor. He loves to hunt and drive fast cars. He ushers in an era of stability and relative prosperity, thanks largely to high oil prices. People see the first decade or so of his rule as a golden age.

This could easily be a description of Vladimir Putin. But it also applies to another Russian leader -- Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982.

In a thought provoking commentary in this week, Sergey Shelin draws a compelling comparison between Brezhnev and Putin that is highly relevant to where Russia is today and where it might be going:

What was the real Brezhnev like, not the Brezhnev of the jokes? He was a person not without charm, he liked to joke, to shoot, to race cars, to chat with the people (with hunters from the hunting establishments). But the most important thing is not the resemblance to Putin in terms of taste, although it is greater than one would like to think. Every leader brings his own political product to the people, offers his own unique range of services. And as long as this product is selling like hot cakes the leader's career continues to rise, but when his product mix becomes obsolete and consumers get tired of the services, the leader turns into a walking anachronism.

The early Brezhnev's political product mix included stability, sensible governance, a growth in the people's well-being, and other nice things. It would be stupid to deny today that people liked this, and if the science of opinion polling in those days had known how to measure ratings, they would have been excellent. But then Brezhnev grew old. And the fact that he grew old physically somehow concealed the fact that he had also become obsolete, that the people's demand for his services had declined. By the mid-1970s even Brezhnev's most benevolent appreciators were already looking at him with a kind of thoughtful sorrow.

Shelin notes that Putin is now in his 12th year in power. On the Brezhnev timeline, this places us roughly in 1976:

Seemingly a successful time for Leonid Ilich: He became Marshal of the Soviet Union, he received a third Hero [of the Soviet Union] star on his jacket -- but they say that it was in that year that he firs t asked to resign. The command would not let him go, but he was not asking for no reason. He understood that he had completed his program and would not add to his glory anymore.

And he was right. The remaining six years of Brezhnev's reign was marked by economic stagnation, declining living standards, rampant alcoholism, and an increasingly cynical public.

But there is an important difference. Brezhnev was nearly 70 years old in 1976. Putin is 58, which Shelin sees as a problem:

Brezhnev simply could not plan the continuation of his leadership activities for another couple of decades to come. Putin can, if he wants to. And the country has not tried such a thing before. A leader for whom everything is stuck in the past -- ideas, formulas, illusions. In the past -- literally everything. Except the enormous power.

This is where I begin to disagree with Shelin's analysis.

As I wrote in my last post, Putin understands the lessons of the Brezhnev period all too well: a stagnant economy and moribund political system can sink a superpower. But he also learned the lessons of Perestroika: unmanaged or poorly managed economic and political reform can easily spin out of the Kremlin's control.

Putin's plan, I believe, has always been to enact the kind of authoritarian modernization -- economic reform with a tightly controlled political system -- that his hero, Yury Andropov, sought to carry out before his death.

But Putin is nothing if not pragmatic, and the 21st century is not the 1980s. Andropov didn't need to worry about the Internet, You Tube, Live Journal, Twitter, Facebook, 24-hour satellite television, and cell phones with video cameras. Putin has been seeking a more creative way to thread this needle -- to modernize Russia while not allowing the politics to spin out of his control.

As I have blogged on numerous occasions, I think his plan is to set himself up as Russia's supreme leader, possibly as general-secretary of United Russia. This would allow him to bless President Dmitry Medvedev's re-election bid so he can carry out his political and economic modernization program -- albeit under Putin's watchful eye.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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