MOSCOW, SEPT. 29 -- When Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, Soviet officials made a meticulous inventory of his medals. There were 114, including five gold stars of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor in the land. Today, there are only 113. In what is probably the most wounding slight to date to the late leader, the Soviet Union's highest state body, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet legislature, has voted to deprive Brezhnev of one of his most cherished awards: the Order of Victory. Over the last year, the Kremlin has taken numerous steps to destroy the pedestal Brezhnev erected for himself. A city renamed in honor of the man who led the Soviet Union for 20 years was given back its original name. The name of Brezhnev has also been stripped from a cement factory, a metallurgical factory, several collective farms and countless squares and streets. But the medals were left intact. Soviet newspapers today carried a decree, signed by President Mikhail Gorbachev, stripping the former leader of the Order of Victory on the grounds that it had been improperly earned. As the Soviet Union's highest military award, the Order of Victory is meant to be reserved for commanding officers who, by their actions on the field of battle, "radically change the situation in favor of the Red Army." The government newspaper Izvestia noted this evening that it was "quite obvious that L.I. Brezhnev did not deserve such an award." Providing the first detailed list of Brezhnev's awards and decorations, Izvestia said they included two marshal stars with jewels, 16 state orders and 18 high Soviet medals. Foreign awards included three Heroes of Bulgaria, two Hungarian Orders of the Banner, one Vietnamese Gold Star, one East German Friendship of the Peoples medal and three Heroes of Czechoslovakia. Aware that Brezhnev had played a relatively modest part in World War II, many Soviets regarded his receipt of the medal in 1978 as an insult to the millions of Red Army soldiers who risked their lives for their country. Brezhnev served as a political officer, ultimately reaching the rank of lieutenant general. At the time, nobody paid any attention to his exploits. But later, after he became Communist Party leader, the history books were rewritten to highlight Brezhnev's role. Brezhnev's own wartime memoirs -- "Little Land" -- were widely acclaimed as a literary masterpiece by Soviet critics. Printed in millions of copies, they earned him yet another award: the Lenin Prize for Literature, the country's highest literary award. Now that he is buried in Red Square, Brezhnev is reviled as a clown and buffoon by many Soviets, including some who heaped praise on him while he was alive. Posters depicting his marshal's torso replete with medals -- but otherwise headless, armless and legless -- have become a kind of popular commentary on his narcissism. Izvestia tonight revealed that Brezhnev ordered 21 gold Hero of the Soviet Union medals and 13 Hammer and Sickle medals to save him trouble while changing from one suit to another. The former Soviet president and Communist Party chief rarely appeared in public without his five gold stars. The lesson that officially inspired personality cults provide only fleeting glory has not been lost on the present Soviet leader. Gorbachev rarely wears any medals, appearing only with a discreet emblem of the Soviet flag on his lapel to show that he is a member of the Congress of People's Deputies. The custom when Soviet leaders die is for the state to look after their medals, occasionally lending them to museums for special exhibits. Izvestia reported that the medals of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev are much in demand but not a single Soviet museum has yet shown any interest in Brezhnev's.
Michael Dobbs Michael Dobbs is a former foreign correspondent and State Department reporter for The Washington Post. His latest book, “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy,” will be published this month.