Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (Russian: Леони́д Ильи́ч Бре́жнев; Ukrainian: Леоні́д Іллі́ч Бре́жнєв, 19 December 1906 10 November 1982) was a Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union as General Secretary of its Communist Party from 1964 to 1982, being the second-longest serving leader after only Josef Stalin, and together with U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon was responsible for the Soviet-American Détente.
Born to a working-class family in Kamenskoye (now Kamianske, Ukraine) in the then-Russian Empire, after the October Revolution resulted in the creation of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev joined the Communist Party's youth league in 1923 before becoming an official party member in 1929. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, he joined the Red Army as a commissar and rose rapidly through the ranks to become a major general during World War II. Following the war's end, Brezhnev was promoted to the party's Central Committee in 1952 and rose to become a full member of the Politburo by 1957.
Brezhnev had been the right-hand man of Nikita Khrushchev for a long time, and so when his boss was deposed by a motley mix of hardliners in 1964 (Brezhnev himself among them) he was well-positioned to take power. His early reign was a bit awkward as the government was dominated by hardliners, who had little tolerance for the 'softie' Brezhnev and his liberal-socialist sympathies. Accordingly the USSR reversed some of Khrushchev's "De-Stalinization" measures of the previous years—calling it a complete reversal, however, would be disingenuous: Brezhnev, more so than both his strong-willed predecessor, or his more open-minded successors like Mikhail Gorbachev, championed the idea of collective leadership, a direct rejection of the concentration of power that had happened under Josef Stalin up and during the Second World War.
Brezhnev, and those who held similar opinions, after all were veterans of the war—they suggested that complete and total authority of government in a single individual might have a place in a war where literally tens of millions of your countrymen are being exterminated, or simply by an unavoidable consequence if it were not already in place, but it did not have a place in a "Cold War", both from contemporaneous and from Marxist-Leninist standpoints. In fact, the roles of Premier and First Secretary had been previously split during Georgy Malenkov's brief and ill-fated spell as leader, only to be re-combined a few years into Khrushchev's regime. As such, while concentrating considerable power in his own office (most broadly, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, as Stalin had been), he strongly advocated a formal and practical distribution of powers across offices, not unlike that of Yugoslavia's Tito—this gave power to some of the country's most effective leaders, like Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin, Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko, and President Nikolay Podgorny.
On the other hand, Brezhnev's government did roll back some of the nuanced economic liberalism of Khrushchev, while simultaneously undoing the informal ban on "all things Stalin"—a move that might potentially cast him in a more positive light versus the prior decade's political rejection, but did open up the possibility of blaming some of Stalin's contemporaries, who bore at least some real responsibility, for the most grievous acts of the early decades (so long as it did not cast the current government in a negative light). Another rollback of Khrushchev's policies was the formal return of political power along lines of national delimitation, particularly along ethnic minority lines, wherein Khrushchev's government had concentrated said power in the hands of Moscow. The move towards conventional military investment was done so it wouldn't be forced to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an armed conflict as per Khrushchevian doctrine.
When the Prague Spring arose in 1968 Brezhnev was intensely sympathetic to their cause and spent months talking with his friends in the Czechoslovakian leadership, trying to work out a peaceable solution in which a prospective Socialist Democracy could co-exist with Communist Dictatorships and remain in the Warsaw Pact, but alas, that wasn't meant to be. Ultimately, the Czechoslovaks had taken it "too far" in the eyes of virtually the entire Soviet leadership by autumn and, to strengthen Brezhnev's resolve, head of the KGB Yuri Andropov fabricated reports that the country was on the verge of leaving the Warsaw Pact and joining NATO unless immediate action was taken. Brezhnev promptly called in Warsaw Pact forces to topple the regime, and seems not to have appreciated the deception when he learned of it.
Brezhnev's move made big waves within the Warsaw Pact. Although Khrushchev, another "liberal" (by Soviet standards), had crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in much the same way, the Soviet government saw fit to formally justify the ending of the Prague Spring with what became known as the "Brezhnev doctrine". The Brezhnev doctrine stated that communist countries which started to get crazy ideas about flirting with socialism (there are big differences) or semi-democratic representative institutions or whatnot needed to be put back on course.
The most important long-term consequence of this was that Soviet hardliners suddenly began singing Brezhnev's praises, seeing him as 'one of them' (an impression he encouraged). In one fell swoop he had gained the anti-capitalist credentials he needed to negotiate with capitalists without looking weak. This set the stage for the demonstrably anti-capitalist Brezhnev and his contemporary the U.S. President Gerald Ford (an anti-communist) to negotiate Détente with one another. Ford and Brezhnev's easygoing and eager-to-please natures enabled them to ease mutual tensions and effectively put the Cold War on-hold from 1969 until 1979 at the latest. A memorable occasion was when Ford, visiting Vladivostok, noticed Brezhnev's admiration of his fur coat and spontaneously gifted it to him. Making Nuclear Holocaust less likely has never been so amiable.
Brezhnev's eighteen-year reign coincided with most of the 1960s, the entirety of the 1970s, and the beginning of the 1980s. Brezhnev oversaw a period of stability in the Soviet Union, but also stagnation. Russians rank him as their favorite leader of the twentieth century, thinking of him as the "good old man" who presided over a golden age, there's also those who remember him as a stodgy old bureaucrat with senility problems. Internationally, the 1970s was the period of greatest communist success in the Cold War. The communist side won The Vietnam War. Neighboring Laos and Cambodia also went communist. So did Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, and Benin. Meanwhile, the West was reeling from an oil crisis and the American economy was suffering from stagflation. It was a great time to be a commie!
Then (already ailing and senile) Brezhnev got the brilliant idea to invade Afghanistannote in order to put down an anti-communist rebellion there. This would prove to be the greatest (and last) test for the Brezhnev doctrine. By then, his health started to take a turn for the worst and he would die in 1982.
Also, there was that time he kissed East German dictator Erich Honecker openly on the mouth. (Something actually quite common between socialist leaders, but that didn't stop a mural depicting it to be painted on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, with the quite-suggestive title "My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love".)
Brezhnev in popular culture:
- Appears in Oliver Stone's Nixon meeting the President about the SALT II treaty.
- The unnamed Soviet Chairman in the James Bond film Octopussy was probably intended to be Brezhnev, who died before the film's premiere.
- He briefly appears in The Death of Stalin, participating in the coup to remove Beria from power (which he did in real life). In the final scene, he is in the background keenly looking in Khrushchev's direction.
- Robert Davi portrays him in 2022's Reagan.
- In Spitting Image Brezhnev was often used as an extra, often in scenes with Russian settings. Since the show debuted in 1984 Brezhnev himself had already been dead for two years and was never featured as himself on the show.
- He is mentioned in Pink Floyd's song "The Fletcher Memorial Home" from the album The Final Cut, as one of the "overgrown infants" and "incurable tyrants" who ought to be sent to a rest home.
- He is one of the many people with the initials "LB" in the verse of "It's the End of the World As We Know It" that named the trope Something Something Leonard Bernstein.
- In The New Order Last Days Of Europe, Brezhnev never enters politics thanks to the USSR's total collapse by Nazi Germany's hands following Barbarossa, instead being among the soldiers under Aleksander Vasilevsky's command during World War II, and would end up fleeing all the way to Tannu Tuva. By the game's start in 1962, Brezhnev is one of several generals aligned with the People's Revolutionary Council, able to command troops in the PRC's bid to reunite Russia (or fall under the command of other communist warlords or Kemerovo should they unite with another warlord or be pardoned respectively), but cannot assume leadership of a reunited Russia.
- He appeared in an Alternate History episode of American Dad!, in which Walter Mondale won the 1984 election and so surrendered America to the USSR after only a few weeks in office. This can be considered an anachronism, since Brezhnev died in 1982, but it can also be Hand Waved as part of the Butterfly Effect.