The Unbearable Brezhnevianess of Putin

Picture the following scenario: a leader of Russia has been in situ for circa two decades.  He is credited with leveraging higher oil prices into increased living standards for his people.  This leader has clamped down, stamping out any green shoots of dissent.  Critics of the regime are forced to go abroad or languish in the prison system.  Politics are ossified; this is presented as stability.  An American observer likens this leader’s regime to Tammany Hall and refers to the system he has built as “boss-ism” with the leader at the apex of the pyramid. 

America has been shaken by internal dissension after a Republican President left office under a cloud. A long-term conflict has ended in what has been perceived as a defeat. A recently elected Democrat President is viewed as somewhat weak.  It’s a time of high inflation.  This Russian leader thinks he and his ideology is winning.  At this moment, the Russian leader in question decides to institute regime change in a neighbour to make it more to his liking. What follows is a war that earns international opprobrium and begins an unwinnable conflict against a foe whose populace hates the Russians with a passion.

These events, which so well align to the present day, describes the position of the Soviet Union during the 1970s under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev.

A Forgotten Time

The Brezhnev epoch may be the most under-studied episode in Russian history.  It’s relatively straightforward to get biographies of Lenin.  Works about Stalin exist in abundance.  Khrushchev was the subject of a magisterial biography by William Taubman.  Gorbachev is also well represented.  However, given that Brezhnev oversaw the USSR for 18 years, it seems odd that there is so little published about him.  The comparison of Brezhnev to Tammany Hall politicians came from the American writer John Dornberg in his 1974 tome.  Another prominent biography of the man in English (“Brezhnev: the Making of a Statesman”) wasn’t released until 2021.

Perhaps scholars are repelled by the man’s pomposity: he awarded himself the Hero of the Soviet Union medal four times.  He was similarly generous towards himself with awards of the Order of Lenin and the Order of the October Revolution. In total, he had 114 medals.

Perhaps he has been dismissed because he represented a time of ossification: few things symbolised this “set in aspic” quality better than the Lada car.  Based on the Fiat 124, which was first introduced in 1966, the Lada changed only marginally over time.  A 1980’s Muscovite was forced to drive a vehicle that belonged to two decades before.

Perhaps he also has been forgotten because of his policy failures: he set in train the war in Afghanistan, which shed the blood of Soviet youth for no good end.  It should have embedded a lesson in Russia’s collective consciousness: don’t invade a country full of people who hate you, no matter how small and less powerful they may seem.

Maybe he also has been memory-holed because he and his regime created a culture that led to catastrophes like the Chernobyl disaster: it was a nervous, fragile order that prioritised comfortable lies, such as about the safety of RBMK nuclear reactors, over difficult truths.  Yes, there were problems with the design of the reactor at Chernobyl, the targets of the Five-Year Plan were a nonsense, and falsehoods had become endemic.  Trying to untangle the lies, as Gorbachev did, was a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

And now Putin

If we look at Putin today, it’s not difficult to see how he has emulated Brezhnev, though this is likely unconscious on his part.  He too is afflicted with self-love to an unhealthy degree: witness his willingness to be pictured with his shirt off.  Under his reign, the pop group “Poyushchie vmeste” released a song called “A Man like Putin”, a shameless cult-of-personality work.

Putin let Russia ossify, perhaps on purpose.  For example, despite Russia having many fine scientific minds, he has not been able to leverage brainpower into wealth.  There is no Russian equivalent to IBM or Apple.  Its closest equivalent to Facebook, VK, was taken over by the state in December 2021 and its CEO was forced to step down.

Putin may regard creativity as dangerous: it says much that the recent wave of Russians that have left the country are likely among its most skilled.  The BBC reported on March 13 that some 200,000 have fled, including “tech industry professionals who can work remotely”.  Creativity, however, is the main means by which developed countries create growth.

Furthermore, the Ukraine invasion has shown up the comfortable lies that presently surround him: he believed that it would be a blitzkrieg and Ukraine, led by a “comedian” president would crumble.  However, Putin’s army was less strong than it appeared: it has been reported the Russian Army’s vehicles are not well maintained, conscripts were sent into battle without knowing why, the column outside Kyiv stalled, then was strafed, and punished by the superior technology given to the Ukrainians.  The “comedian” president turned out to be, as one Ukrainian social media video stated, an “Iron Joker”.

Look at Putin again: see him seated at his overly large tables, his face puffed out for reasons which can only be speculated (Botox? Steroids?), his fearful cabinet, hesitant and frightened to contradict him.  Like Brezhnev, Putin’s kingdom rests on brittle glass.  Like Brezhnev, he has miscalculated, and he may be suffering from a lack of accurate information. The supply of falsehoods may buy the advisors another day out of prison, but only prolongs the agony.

The End

Brezhnev’s term ended because his body failed him: by the end of the 1970’s, it was clear he had suffered a series of strokes.  According to the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, resuscitation equipment was kept with him to keep him going perhaps longer than he would have otherwise.

How will Putin fall?  There is speculation that he has Parkinson’s; however, this is mere conjecture.  Perhaps he will be “retired” in much the same way Khrushchev was in 1964: the Politburo in effect fired him, and Khrushchev was subsequently kept out of the public eye, dying in 1971. 

Perhaps Putin’s departure from office will be more dramatic; like Brezhnev, he has set in motion the same elements that eventually caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Perhaps the most vital presage of eventual ruin is the lack of truth: a well-informed regime would attack neither Afghanistan nor Ukraine, it would not prioritise lies.  Lies have a way of collapsing in a dramatic fashion, as they did at the end of the Soviet period.  It is merely a question of when they crumble, not if.

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