Compared to such towering 20th century personalities as Mao Tse-tung, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, Churchill, de Gaulle, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev seemed destined for most of his career to be remembered as a secondary figure. For all the power he amassed at the helm of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Brezhnev remained fundamentally an apparatchik.
Yet he stayed on so long -- longer than any Soviet Communist Party chief except Joseph Stalin -- and played so important a role in the events of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, that Brezhnev eventually became a major presence on the international scene. Hardly the most innovative, visionary, domineering or compelling of modern Russian leaders, Brezhnev, nonetheless, achieved enormous stature, presiding at the Kremlin in a period when Russia's strength and influence around the globe reached the greatest point in its history.
In the vast corporate state the Soviet Union has become, Leonid Brezhnev rose to be Chairman of the Board, undisputedly the most formidable of the country's top executives, acclaimed by his closest associates as Vozhd (the Chief), a title even Vladimir Lenin himself never received until after his death. Still, Brezhnev was always more answerable to his Board -- or the Politburo as the Soviets call their ruling body -- than any of his principal predecessors.
Brezhnev long aspired to be prime minister, the highest government post, as well as head of the party, the way Nikita Khrushchev immediately before him had been. His elevation to First Secretary (later changed to the grander title of General Secretary) on Oct. 14, 1964, was truly the collective doing of his senior Kremlin comrades, a reaction against both the flamboyant style and erratic substance of Khrushchev's tenure. The conservatism reflected in that coup imposed restraint of lasting effect on Brezhnev's power.
Nonetheless Brezhnev accrued power with every passing year, despite his failing health, and in June 1977 maneuvered the ouster of President Nikolai Podgorny so that he could take that title himself. Brezhnev thus became the first leader in Soviet history to be the party's top man and the country's ceremonial chief of state. He gained that stature, however, by lobbying among his Politburo colleagues, not by bullying them.
As Brezhnev and other top Politburo members edged toward their seventies and beyond, they became even less inclined to countenance upheaval. Western Kremlinologists ever on the lookout for signs of significant change in the Soviet leadership found little to titillate them for years at a time. Stability prevailed to the point, some outsiders maintained, of immobility. Only toward the end as long-time associates such as Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin and ideologist Mikhail Suslov died did signs emerge of a struggle for Brezhnev's mantle.
While he lacked Lenin's revolutionary fervor and organizational brilliance, Stalin's demonic dynamism and Khrushchev's impulsive flexibility, Brezhnev plainly had political, tactical and managerial talents that served him extremely well personally and suited the needs of the Soviet Union as it developed into a full-fledged superpower.
The Soviet people will likely recall the Brezhnev years as the most peaceful since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, certainly by contrast to the turbulence so common in the decades of collectivization, police terror, war's devastation and reconstruction.
Industrial and agricultural reorganizations envisioned by Brezhnev and Kosygin during their first months in office changed relatively little. Indeed the vaunted plan for devolving more authority to factory managers -- a liberal concept known as Libermanism--was stymied early on a by a combination of bureaucratic and ideological caution. Reform simply was contrary to Brezhnev's character.
Overall, the economy, cumbersome and inefficient as it is, developed steadily. For all the failures in grain harvests and slower growth rates, the population of the Soviet Union today is in the main better housed, better dressed and better fed than ever before. As the state's top official, Leonid Brezhnev undoubtedly will be identified with those advances and the security of peacetime that made them possible.
Russia under Brezhnev remained as it always had been: a rigidly authoritarian society where expression is tightly controlled and political or cultural dissenters risk severe punishment. Yet Brezhnev's Kremlin was not Stalin's. Conservative as he and his colleagues were, as sensitive to any challenge to their absolute control, they long were unwilling or unable to silence every opposing voice. Even now with famed physicist Andrei Sakharov in internal exile and other leading dissenters languishing in prison, a few brave survivors churn out underground statements and protests.
There were, to be sure, many harsh crackdowns: Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were imprisoned in 1965 for sending manuscripts abroad; a number of intellectuals were exiled or jailed in the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; hundreds of Jews lost their jobs and were otherwise harassed starting in the early 1970s for seeking to emigrate; and the organizers of an unofficial group to monitor Soviet compliance with the human-rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 were rounded up in the late 70s. Contacts with foreigners for most Russians were discouraged. Travel to the West remained a privilege accorded only the most reliable. The KGB security police thrived.
But given the scale of repressive measures that a police state like the Soviet Union has at its disposal, these might well have been bloodier. Brezhnev chose to expel many of the most celebrated dissidents -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Amalrik, Vladimir Bukovsky -- whereas Stalin, at least, would surely have had them executed. Well over 100,000 ethnic Germans and other minorities were permitted to emigrate during the 1970s. Publication of books abroad did not mean automatic imprisonment for Soviet authors.
For all the mind-numbing censorship that is imposed on talented writers, actors, artists, filmmakers, musicians and dancers, Russia's cultural heritage somehow hung on. The phenomenon owed nothing to Brezhnev but persisted in spite of the restrictiveness of the party bureaucracy he directed.
Old stereotypes and cliches about political purges in Soviet party ranks did not apply in the Brezhnev era either. Officials who fell out of favor were almost never jailed (except in the rare cases where they were accused of flagrant corruption). Instead, they were demoted, shunted aside or sacked and therefore deprived of the perquisites of political stature in the Soviet Union--access to the material benefits that the state accords its elite.
"Stalin would have his opponents shot," a Soviet historian observed some years ago after Alexander Shelepin, once considered a rival for power to Brezhnev, was dropped from the Politburo, "Khrushchev liked to humiliate them. Brezhnev is more subtle. He just neutralizes them. It takes longer, but the effect is the same." At last report Shelepin was working as a deputy minister in a minor education ministry.
On all internal matters, Brezhnev's objective -- a reaction as so much else in his career to the excesses of his predecessors -- was to portray at home and abroad a mature society, a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics where all ran smoothly and in conformity to The Plan. Whereas the essence of Mao Tse-tung's philosophy of communism, for instance, was to exploit turmoil as a means of regenerating the revolutionary spirit, Brezhnev's efforts were directed at keeping the lid tightly on. Neither he nor the gerontocratic leadership that he symbolized was disposed to take risks. In foreign policy, however, Brezhnev was far bolder, and it is on that score that history will judge him most.
Brezhnev's strategy -- more precisely the expression of collective sentiment in the Kremlin that he molded rather than dictated -- could be divided into four basic parts. Underlying all was the fundamental belief that only maximum military strength could assure the success of Soviet policies abroad. Increasingly over the years Brezhnev himself took charge of the vast Soviet military establishment -- he was made a marshal, the same rank that Stalin had -- and strongly supported defense and weapons buildups.
Everything else can be broken down this way: relations with the First World, principally the United States, but also including Western Europe and Japan; relations with the Second World, meaning China and the rest of the communist states of East and West; finally, the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The Soviet Union was already a military superpower when Brezhnev took over in 1964, but it was not until the signing of the first strategic arms limitation agreement with the United States in 1972 that the Kremlin achieved the principle of nuclear parity with the United States -- that is, a perception by all nations that these two great adversaries have an essentially equal capacity to annihilate each other: a mutual deterrent.
If one assumes, as so many Western analysts do, that traditional Russian aggressiveness -- indeed, much of the internal repressiveness as well -- is motivated by an abiding sense of national insecurity, then Brezhnev's success in asserting full Soviet equality with the United States in nuclear armaments and military superiority over everyone else may have been his most important accomplishment.
There is some evidence, however, that Brezhnev would have preferred his legacy to be cast in terms of his contribution to peace. Notwithstanding the massing of a war machine among the most awesome known to mankind, Brezhnev maintained at every occasion that his aims were peaceful. Beginning in the late 1960s, his pride was the policy of detente, Razryadki naprezhonisti, the relaxation of tensions as it is known in Russian, which formed the core of Soviet relations with the West.
"Detente," Brezhnev declared in an important speech on the eve of Jimmy Carter's inauguration, "means first of all the overcoming of the 'Cold War' and transition to normal, stable relations among states; detente means willingness to resolve differences and disputes not by force, not by threats and saber-rattling, but by peaceful means at the conference table. Detente means a certain trust and ability to take into consideration each other's legitimate interests.' "
For Brezhnev and his comrades the imperatives were plainly economic as well as political. Good relations with the West meant access to technology and finished goods that the Soviets so badly need.
But some credit has also to be given to Brezhnev's interest in reducing the risks of confrontation. Perhaps the most significant results of that policy, aside from the dialogue with the United States in the nuclear field, were the agreements of the early 1970s with West Germany and the World War II allies on Berlin that effectively defused Europe's most explosive issue.
The relative ease of early progress led to a period of overoptimism. At his last summit meeting with Richard Nixon in June 1974 Brezhnev effusively predicted that detente could be made irreversible. He was wrong. East-West relations, time showed, have natural limitations arising from ideological differences that are hard to reconcile.
So long as the Soviet Union and the United States are evangelistic, promoting their own systems and ways of life, conflicts seem unavoidable. Increasingly, Brezhnev found it necessary to postpone meetings with American presidents and other Western leaders because the spirit of accord supposedly symbolized in documents like the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, signed in Helsinki in August 1975, was lacking.
Soviet relations with the United States in the Carter era were subject to much mutual recrimination and frustration. Differences over human rights and Third World policies overshadowed limited progress in arms control. In late 1979, U.S.-Soviet detente collapsed under the weight of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter administration stopped pressing the Senate for passage of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, it imposed a grain embargo and the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, superpower ties reached new highs of rhetorical vituperation. While little was already left of the structure of accords, relations still managed to deteriorate. Guerrilla insurgencies in Central America, martial law in Poland, a nuclear balance tilting toward Moscow--all were portrayed by the Reagan administration as part of a Brezhnev-led, Soviet grand design. In his last speeches Brezhnev adopted a tone of belligerency toward the United States, indicating he no longer expected improved relations with Washington in his lifetime.
Brezhnev managed to retain a framework for detente with some West European interlocutors who resisted American pressure to scale down their contacts with the Kremlin. In fact, European willingness to continue extensive commercial and political contacts with the Soviets imposed significant strains on the Western alliance. Yet the collapse of detente with the United States represented a major failure of the Brezhnev era.
Brezhnev's relations with other Communist countries were dominated by two factors. There was the continuing feud with China, which heated to the point of border bloodshed in 1969 and endured past the death of Mao. Only in recent weeks did the Chinese show interest in making headway with the Soviet Union on the issues that divide them. And there were tensions within the Warsaw Pact, symbolized by the suppression of Solidarity, the Polish free trade union, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Czechoslovakia was almost certainly Brezhnev's darkest hour. He and his Warsaw Pact partners trampled on the popular will of an ally.
The Sino-Soviet rift was inherited from Khrushchev but Brezhnev proved incapable of ending it despite periodic overtures to the Chinese that continued until his death. At bottom were always such questions as Russian determination to be supreme in the communist world and deep-seated racial, territorial and philosophical differences that defy any but the most tenuous resolution. After the flare-up on the Ussuri River and serious consideration in the Kremlin to a pre-emptive strike on Chinese nuclear installations, matters cooled.
In Eastern Europe the impact of the Czechoslovak tragedy reverberated for years. It gave rise to what is unofficially known as the "Brezhnev Doctrine" -- one of the very few such doctrinal pronouncements with which his name is likely to be identified. As enunciated by Brezhnev in a speech in Warsaw a few weeks after the invasion, this is the Kremlin view of what Brezhnev also called the "qualified sovereignty" of other Communist states:
"There is no doubt," he said, "that the peoples of the socialist countries and the Communist parties have and must have freedom to determine their country's path of development. However, any decision of theirs must damage neither socialism in their own country nor the fundamental interests of other socialist countries, nor the worldwide workers' movement . . . this means that every Communist Party is responsible not only to its own people but also to all the socialist countries and to the entire Communist movement. . ."
Hence Czechoslovakia long stood as the unhappy model for what Brezhnev was capable of when he perceived a danger to Kremlin hegemony.
The rise of Solidarity in Poland provided another test of Brezhnev's tolerance -- and again he failed. The radical political and social changes in Moscow's largest ally were too much for the Soviets to accept. After 16 months, Brezhnev and his associates countenanced if not sponsored the imposition of martial law in Poland, the arrest of thousands of Solidarity activists and a tough reassertion of central authority.
Within narrow limits Brezhnev did permit the satellites some latitude. Hungarians and Poles (before martial law) found it relatively easy to travel abroad. East Germany and Czechoslovakia maintained a standard of living far higher than that of Russians. Romania pursued its own cautiously independent foreign policy. But the Soviet Bloc remained fundamentally an empire.
Brezhnev actively sought but was never able to enforce Soviet discipline on the whole of the international Communist movement. When he finally managed to convene a world Communist conference in 1969 (for the unsuccessful purpose of expelling China from the ranks), only 75 of the world's 111 parties showed up. And only 61 agreed without reservations to a document that had already been heavily watered down.
The same pattern was repeated in June 1976 when after two years of wrangling a European party conference was organized in East Berlin. Brezhnev was forced there to accept the concept that each party is entitled to pursue its own national course -- which in the case of the Euro-Communists of Italy and Spain means political pluralism and a commitment to democratic freedoms. The Brezhnev Doctrine, like his concept of detente, is on the books but in practice has had to be modified.
The Kremlin clearly stood to gain from the Communist victories in Indochina. Brezhnev personally, however, sacrificed solidarity with those countries when he consented to meet with Nixon in May 1972 only a few weeks after the United States mined Haiphong Harbor and as the United States was carrying out its heaviest bombing campaign of the war.
Soviet influence in the Third World during the Brezhnev era has been as erratic as the shifting alliances of those newer and less developed nations. On balance, though, the Kremlin has fared well in identifying itself with the policies and objectives of the countries that hold a voting majority in the United Nations.
One of Brezhnev's greatest setbacks came in Egypt. What had been a staunch ally and client for Moscow in the Middle East in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser was lost as President Sadat courted the West following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. After Sadat's death the Soviets again sought better ties with Egypt, apparently with no success. In fact, Soviet diplomacy in the region was stymied as the Reagan administration pressed initiatives to resolve the Palestinian question.
Elsewhere, the end of colonialism in black Africa benefited the Russians as many countries sought a patron not associated with their previous subjugation. Calling themselves socialists of one kind or another, they found common ideological language with Moscow. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Brezhnev era on this score was the victory of a Soviet -- backed faction in the Angolan civil war in the winter of 1976, using troops supplied by Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Associating themselves then with the black nationalist efforts to oust the white minority regimes of southern Africa, Brezhnev and his comrades made greater strides in a matter of months than they had in all the years before. The cost, however, was high: Brezhnev's avowed readiness to aid national liberation struggles such as the one in Angola only increased the skepticism in the West about his sincerity on detente. Soviet-Cuban intervention in Ethiopia reinforced that notion.
In was Brezhnev's increasing involvement with international affairs that made outsiders fully aware that he was first among equals in the post-Khrushchev leadership.
A revealing insight to the prevailing misconceptions of the first few years is that the American editors of Michel Tatu's classic study of the Khrushchev era called it "Power in the Kremlin: From Khrushchev to Kosygin." The mistake was the editors' and not Tatu's. But it was, after all, Kosygin who seemed most active. He negotiated between India and Pakistan at Tashkent in 1965. He traveled to England in 1967 and to the United States for a meeting with Lyndon Johnson later that year.
Although from the outset Brezhnev held the country's top job as head of the Communist Party, his reputation based on an assessment of his career previously was that he was uninspired and politically orthodox. Kosygin was regarded as a technocrat with a pragmatic and therefore reasonable approach to foreign affairs, Mister Outside, to Brezhnev's less interesting Mister Inside.
The impression of Brezhnev as a burly, beetlebrowed hard-liner was reinforced by his leading role in the Czechoslovak crisis. Not until the early 1970s when he clearly emerged as the most authoritative Soviet voice on all subjects did he receive careful scrutiny abroad.
His trips to Paris, Bonn and Washington showed Westerners an unexpected side of Brezhnev: an exuberant guest eager to make headway on sensitive issues, a tough negotiator with a firm grasp of complexities. Brezhnev's rapport with people like Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, even Richard Nixon was an important element in the turn-about in East-West relations of those years.
Brezhnev's fascination with fancy cars -- his stable of Rolls Royces, Mercedes Benzes and Cadillacs -- his long struggle to quit smoking, his hail-fellow-well-met Kremlin talks with visiting American senators and astronauts, gave him a more human image among foreigners.
What little is known about Brezhnev's family life is unspectacular. He and his wife Viktoria, who rarely appeared in public, for many years lived in the same comfortable five-room apartment on Kutuzkovsky Prospekt (his neighbors were KGB head Yuri Andropov and Minister of Internal Affairs Nikolai Shchelokov) with his mother, who died in 1975 at the age of 88, and a teen-aged grandaughter. He had a least three dachas also: one only a half-hour's ride from the Kremlin, a hunting lodge further out and a summer residence at Pitsunda on the Crimea.
His children were linked to minor scandals involving drinking and love affairs. One son was a senior foreign trade specialist. His daughter, who is said to have been married once briefly to a circus juggler, worked at last report for a government press agency. Another granddaughter is married to a young actor-director and the couple live in a two-room flat on the southwestern edge of Moscow with their child Galya, Brezhnev's great-granddaughter and -- judging from photographs that are occasionally released -- his special favorite.
Wholly reliable details on Brezhnev's life aside from those on the public record are not readily available. Some information is contained in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Some can be culled from occasional laudatory acticles in the Soviet press. For Brezhnev's 70th birthday in 1976, a "Short Biography" was published in the foreign-language weekly Moscow News. Probably the most complete account is contained in a book called "Brezhnev" by John Dornberg, a former Newsweek correspondent. Much of what follows is drawn from it.
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born Dec. 19, 1906, to a steelworker and his wife in the Ukrainian town of Kamsenskoye, a respectable proletarian beginning for a future Communist leader. He went to a school supported by the factory where his father worked, an indication that his family had high hopes for their son. Tuition at the school equalled a month's salary for his father despite the subsidy.
Kamenskoye later became Dneprodzerzhinsk. Throughout his life, Brezhnev surrounded himself with men identified with the region.
In the confused and difficult years of World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed, young Brezhnev managed to get a semblance of education. He survived a typhus epidemic and in 1923 was studying at a "metallurgical vocations school" when he took his first step toward power: Brezhnev joined the Young Communist League, the Komsomol.
The same year he went to Kursk, a Russian town from which his family long ago had traveled west to the Ukraine. There he studied at a technical school for land utilization and reclamation, which prepared him for a series of provincial posts as an agricultural official. On one of those early jobs he met and married Viktoria, a nurse.
He returned to Kamenskoye in a puzzling turnabout that had him studying metallurgy again and working in a factory despite his promising start as an agricultural administrator. What may have happened is that he was tapped as a political comer and brought home to take charge of organizing at the metallurgical institute there. In 1931, he became a full member of the Communist Party.
Brezhnev was thus in all likelihood involved with Stalin's brutal drive in the early 1930s to wipe out the kulak class of prosperous peasants and to collectivize agriculture. Komsomol activists like him were organized into brigades with orders to strip the farms of food, creating a deliberate famine in the countryside intended to break the peasants' will. The drive succeeded. Looking back decades later, many leading Communists condemned the force they had used, but said that it seemed necessary at the time.
It was the onset of the great Stalinist purges in the later 1930s that gave Brezhnev his boost into the Party Nomenclature, the hierarchy. In 1937, after the recall and disappearance of Pavel Postyshev, the Ukrainian party boss, scores, then hundreds, eventually thousands of local officials were ousted. The Ukraine was subjected to particularly harsh measures, because so many of its people were suspected of nationalist sympathies.
Brezhnev, 30, was made vice chairman of the civil Soviet in Dneproderzhinsk, in effect the deputy mayor.
In January 1938, a new party chief for the Ukraine was named: Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, beginning an association with Brezhnev that ended 26 years later with Khrushchev's ouster. A few months later, Brezhnev received another promotion: he was made the fifth-ranking party official in the second largest and economically most important territory of the Ukraine.
"Officials came and went so quickly in those months," a resident of the region in that time told Dornberg, "that the successors of successors were arrested before the names on the office doors had been changed. No one knew who would be next. Today's heroic new leader was likely to be tomorrow's new enemy of the people. The main objective was to avoid arrest and the safest policy was either to keep an invisible profile or endear yourself to the NKVD, the secret police, as a collaborator denouncing others."
Just how Brezhnev managed to survive is not known. But he must have been a shrewd, unsentimental and very lucky political infighter.
In April 1940, as the war in Europe gathered force, special party secretaries for defense were appointed. Brezhnev received the appointment in his district, yet another indication of his rising status. A little more than a year later Hitler's armies overran the Dnieper region. By then Brezhnev had joined the Red Army as a lieutenant colonel, deputy chief of the political administration of the Southern Army Group.
Brezhnev's war record was, from all accounts, distinguished. He reached the rank of major general (working closely with Khrushchev) and was honored with a place in the victory parade across Red Square. It is not possible to say, however, whether his valor was as great and his leadership as brilliant as the reams of testimonials to Brezhnev the soldier that came after his assumption of the top political post in Moscow.
But Brezhnev did apparently gain the respect of the career military, a notable achievement, particularly since they tended to disdain purely political officers like him. Those links to the armed forces helped him consolidate his Kremlin authority years after the war. On his 70th birthday, Brezhnev was awarded a saber -- an "Arms of Honor," the ultimate Soviet military accolade.
After the war General Brezhnev was named political commissar in an area made up of Ruthenia, ceded by Czechoslovakia in 1945 and Northern Bukovina, seized from Romania. The job involved him in the imposition of Soviet authority on often resistant peoples, recalling his experience in the forced collectivizations a decade earlier.
The resumption of the prewar party purges in the Ukraine again benefitted Brezhnev. Khrushchev, whose own position seemed endangered at times by ideological and policy disputes with rivals in Stalin's entourage, found in Brezhnev a supporter with a record that could not be faulted. He made Brezhnev the chief of the Zaporozhe and Dnepropetrovsk regional party organizations and then, when Khrushchev went to Moscow, summoned him there to work at the Central Committee.
Next, Brezhnev was named the head of the party in Moldavia, an important promotion because it put him in charge of a constituent Soviet republic, nominally equal to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and the rest. Moldavia had been under Romanian rule since World War I. Brezhnev's job -- once more -- was to make it Soviet.
The task was not easy because Moldavians have a strong affinity with Romania -- the language is virtually the same -- and Russification was bound to be bitterly resented. In two years, though, Brezhnev could proudly declare that the kulaks had been abolished as a class and that Soviet discipline prevailed. "Brezhnev's reign," Dornberg concluded after studying the few available sources, "was Draconian and represents one of the darkest periods of his career."
During the last two years of his life, Stalin, beset by paranoia, conceived a complex plot to do away with many of his oldest associates -- Molotov, Beria, Mikoyan and perhaps others. He set the plan in motion at the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in October 1952 by substantially enlarging the party Politburo, and the extremely powerful Party Secretariat. Brezhnev was named a candidate member of the Politburo and a Central Committee Secretary. He had joined "the Center."
Stalin died before he could carry out his last demented purge and Brezhnev paid a price for having been a gainer so close to the end. He was dropped from both the Politburo and the Secretariat and sent back to the Army as a lieutenant general, first deputy head of the chief political administration.
Brezhnev took advantage of the setback, though, instead of succumbing to it. He cultivated such other senior generals as Marshal Andrei Grechko, later Brezhnev's minister of defense, and Adm. Sergei Gorshkov, the brilliant commander in chief of the Soviet Navy. Combined with the political cronies and supporters he gradually placed in key positions in Moscow and around the country, Brezhnev assured himself that he would have friends when -- as eventually happened a decade afterward -- he needed them to make his power unassailable.
The eclipse was short. Khrushchev, then the party first secretary and locked in a struggle for decisive influence with Premier Georgi Malenkov and KGB chief Lavrenti Beria, chose Brezhnev to carry out one of the most ambitious projects in Soviet history: the transformation of rough but arable plains in Kazakhstan and southwestern Siberia into a vast new agricultural region, an area equal to the size of England. The plan was grandiose and fell far short of Khrushchev's vision, but Brezhnev's performance was creditable enough to thrust him again into the front ranks of leadership.
In 1956, just as one of the most dramatic epochs of the postwar era was beginning, Brezhnev was again called to Moscow and made a Central Committee secretary and a candidate member of the Politburo -- the same jobs he had lost only three years earlier. So it was that Brezhnev was on hand and to one degree or another had a part in such developments as Khrushchev's attack on Stalin at the 20th Party Congress, the Hungarian revolution and the crisis in Poland. Years later, it emerged that Brezhnev devoted much of his time in that period to the Soviet space and missile program, which perhaps more than anything else added to Kremlin stature in the late 1950s. The glory helped him.
Brezhnev played an apparently passive supporting role in Khrushchev's showdown with what became known as the Anti-Party Group in 1957. An effort by such former intimates of Stalin as Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov and Lazar Kaganovich to oust Khrushchev failed when the Central Committee lined up behind the party leaders. Once again Brezhnev benefited from political bloodletting. By 1960 he was generally regarded as the party's No. 2.
Yet the vagaries of Kremlin politics at that moment -- just after the shooting-down of the U2 and the resulting plunge in Soviet-American relations -- meant a weakening of Khrushchev's position. His rivals in the Politburo moved to curb his power by maneuvering to have Brezhnev named Soviet president, an honorary position that shifted him away from key decision-making. But Brezhnev was actually fortunate in being separated from Khrushchev's immediate entourage as the party leader's career entered the decline which, within four years, led to his ouster.
From all accounts, Brezhnev was not one of the key plotters against Khrushchev, although he certainly did nothing to block the drive against him led by party ideologist Mikhail Suslov. That calculated caution so characteristic of his whole career had assured Brezhnev of a broader range of support in the succession crisis than anyone else in the Politburo. He became the consensus figure. Brezhnev was named first secretary and Alexei Kosygin was made premier.
In the internecine jockeying that went on in the next few years while Brezhnev sought to define the scope of his power, he used all the skills he had acquired as a party man in the provinces, in the military and the Kremlin itself. He made his principal competitors -- Kosygin and President Nikolai Podgorny -- beholden to him for their jobs. Other senior officials were drawn from his Dnieper days. None provided an alternative for power as Brezhnev was to Khrushchev. Brezhnev made it clear to all that he was the chief. That is why in the annals of Soviet and world history the years 1964-1982 in the Soviet Union belong to Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev.