The Brezhnev era was later dubbed the "period of stagnation." as we all know,
but that does not mean that there was no economic growth under that leader.
On the contrary, there was considerable development, especially in the first
half of his reign. The Soviet Union was regularly beating the most advanced
countries of the world in terms of annual growth rate. Between 1964 and 1981,
production of steel in the Soviet Union increased from 85 million tonnes to
149 million, topping US output. Coal output beat the American production of
500 million tonnes a year by half as much again. In fifteen years, the Soviet
Union doubled its oil production, becoming the world's largest producer of
oil. There were similar developments in the other sectors, even in
agriculture, where increased investment and higher prices of agricultural
produce introduced by the 1965 Central Committee plenum made the Soviet Union
the world's biggest producer of wheat.
But all these beautiful figures were made meaningless by the simple fact that
the share of consumer goods in the overall production was constantly falling.
That meant that the system favored production for production's sake, its
capacity either channeled into the military sphere or simply wasted through the
system's internal defects like poor organization, lack of incentives for the
workers, rejection of scientific and technological innovations, etc. All those
silly pochins and "socialist competitions" could not obstruct the
inexorable working of economic laws: No consumer goods - no money for the
budget - no investment -no progress or growth - inevitable crisis as demand for
consumer goods grows and supply shrinks.
Apart from crises, the Soviet economy produced even more inflammable material -
the Soviet intelligentsia. The Party's avowed goal was still the Khrushchevian
motto - to catch up with the West in every sphere of "material and spiritual
production." and this could not be achieved without major breakthroughs in
science and education. So in the years of Brezhnevite "stagnation." the number
of people with a higher education more than doubled. The swelling
intelligentsia formed, in fact, a new class that bitterly resented its
designation in the official ideology as a prosloika, a rather
derogatory term meaning something like a "thin layer between two
masses", the masses in question being the urban and rural workers.
^ It was, of course, more than the mere designation that the intelligentsia
resented. First, it was only too well aware that it was grossly underpaid,
getting a mere fraction of what their counterparts in the West were earning.
Speaking for oneself, I was one of the very few best paid. top professional
translators in Moscow doing translations from Russian into English for about a
dozen publishing houses, but I calculated that I was being paid roughly the sum
that a typist in the United States was getting, page per page. And I lived
about ten times better than some m.n.s. or miadshiy nauchnyi
sotrudnik "junior research fellow" getting 105 rubles a month (the trouble
of course was that one couldn't correlate this sum with any known currency, as
the official $1=64 kopecks rate was patently something from beyond the
Second, the nature of the intelligentsia's occupations made it keenly sensitive
to the prevailing stringent curbs on the freedom of intellectual pursuits,
especially in the humanities, where any deviation, real or imaginary, from
neo-Stalinist ideological dogma was punished swiftly and ruthlessly. That was
why most talented people went into the natural sciences or mathematics, where
they could be as free-thinking as they wished in their quest for eternal
truths. This elicited a couple of puzzled lines from the Soviet poet Boris
Slutsky, which instantly became famous: Chto-to fiziki v pochyote,//Chto-to
liriki v zagone... "Curiously, physicists are in the limelight and
lyricists are eclipsed..." Sure they were eclipsed - who wanted to hear their
bravura lies or piteous whining?
There were, however, some "lyricists" whom everybody wanted to hear as they
expressed the intelligentsia's most hidden attitudes and aspirations. True,
they had to resort to Aesopean language, like the Strugatsky brothers: They
wrote ostensibly science fiction, but anyone with an ounce of intelligence
could see it for what it was - social criticism and social satire. You take
their novel "Monday Begins on Saturday": The split between mindless
bureaucracy and selfless intellectuals seeking for the truth just couldn't be
made more graphic, despite the book's paraphernalia of magic and time trips.
No wonder both "physicists" and "lyricists" literally fought in endless
queues at book-shops over those slim volumes.
Paradoxically, the "physicists" were on the whole better protected from some
of the iniquities of life under the Soviets precisely because of their role
in the military-industrial complex - which was the prime cause of those
The country's economy was geared, in accordance with the prevailing
ideological doctrine of isolationism and confrontation with "world
imperialism," to the production of ever more sophisticated weapons.
Sophisticated weapons could only be produced by sophisticated minds, as one
could easily see both in real life and in films like the famous 1960s hit
"Nine Days of One Year." in which nuclear physicists discussed exactly this
incongruity - that the scientific and technological progress was a byproduct
of the development of lethal weapons in the course of the arms race between
the imperialist and socialist "camps."
Those sophisticated minds could clearly see the obvious: That the country's
socioeconomic system was basically flawed. They even had a handy
methodological tool to describe the flaws: Marxism, Marxist Political
Economy included, was taught in every higher education establishment. Anyone
who had the least intellectual interest in these things and adequate
intellectual equipment could describe in Marxist terms what had gone wrong
with the slave-owning society, the feudal society, the bourgeois society:
They were "burst asunder" by internal contradictions between the "productive
forces" and "production relations" (especially those of property) (see esp.
Chapter 32 of Marx's "Capital").
It was all too easy to see that, under Soviet socialism, the socialist
"production relations" were simply waiting to "burst asunder." being, in
Marxist terms, "a fetter on the mode of production" (op.cit). The lines
from a popular song, Vsyo vokrug kolkhoznoye, vsyo vokrug moyo
"Everything around is the collective farm's, everything around is mine" were
often quoted, tongue in cheek, to justify common or garden stealing: Property
that wasn't anyone's was everyone's, it aroused in people the worst, most
predatory instincts, not those of a zealous owner eager to make that property
The intelligentsia could also see clearly, and discuss in nocturnal kitchen
debates, that, while it was the carrier of economic, scientific, and every
other kind of progress, it could do little to achieve that progress except
bash its head against the double wall of the workers-and-peasants' state: the
workers and peasants themselves, who couldn't care less about scientific,
social, etc. progress, and the bureaucracy professing to represent and care
for the interests of the workers and peasants but in actual fact caring for
nothing but its own well-being - progress of any kind was definitely not
among its priorities. "Stability" was, and under Brezhnev it had all the
"stability" it wanted. It practically wallowed in "stability."
This explains the fact that while self-avowed dissidents with a political
agenda, people who wrote for underground publications, staged puny
demonstrations and went to labor camps or mental homes for their sins were
few and far between, practically the whole of the intelligentsia was tarred
with the brush of dissent. Moreover, it wasn't just vague, general
discontent with things as they were but a clear realization of the
conditions under which the intelligentsia could play a role it wanted to play
- the conditions under which Western society operated. Unfortunately for
Russia and for itself, when the time for action came, the intelligentsia
wanted too much too soon, not least perhaps because its aspirations had been
thwarted for too long. It had eaten too much humble pie, listening to
harangues about the triumph of proletarian dictatorship in a "single,
separately taken country" and seeing the mess into which the country was
sinking under that dictatorship.
This last observation, however, is but parenthetic comment. What I'm really
trying to say here is this. Although the West mostly noticed and discussed the
actions of the more prominent dissidents of the Brezhnev era like Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, and others of that type, much
more important for the country's future development under Gorbachev and later
was the mood of the massive intelligentsia Fronde as described here. it could
not even be called a movement, for under Brezhnev there was no political
movement outside the Party that would be worth the name (just as there was no
political movement worth the name inside the Party). It was merely a
common mood. a common understanding of certain things, and a common readiness
to act in a certain way. given half a chance. It was this general mood and
intentions that would make the Gorbachev perestroika possible, not the
conspicuous dissidents of the Brezhnev era who were given a hero's welcome each
as they drifted one by one to the West.
The mood I'm describing here is that of shestidesyatniki "people of the
sixties." The term needs some explaining. Originally, it referred to Russia's
progressive social figures of the 1860s and then became the self-appellation of
the intelligentsia that took the Khrushchev Thaw and denunciation of the
"personality cult" to heart as promises of Soviet socialism's evolution toward
a more human form (the term was apparently first used in this sense by the
writer and critic Stanislav Rassadin).
The shestidesyatniki matured in ideological battles between the liberal
"stout monthly" Novy mir (New World) and the weekly Literaturnaya
gazeta (Literary Gazette), on the one hand, and the conservative, or
neo-Stalinist "fatty" Oktyabr (October) and the Soviet excuse for a
glossy magazine Ogonyok (Little Light), on the other. Of course, the
battles were fought entirely within the socialist ideological framework and in
such language that most of the liberal message had to be extracted from between
the lines. Besides, the liberals' main antagonist was not the hard-line
Stalin-ists on the other side of the barricades but the censor, and in 1970
this arch-enemy won a decisive victory:
Novy mir's editor-in-chief, the poet Alexander Tvardovsky, was fired;
with him went the people who had made the monthly a bastion of liberal thought,
or what then passed for liberal thought.
After that, in 1974, Novy mir published a novel by one of Moscow's most
reclusive writers, Vladimir Bogomotov, "tn August '44." an obvious counterpoint
to Solzhenitsyn's "August '14." It was excellent Russian prose -1 really
enjoyed translating chapters from it for Books and Arts - but the
Moscow intelligentsia reacted rather hysterically to its subject matter - the
heroic deeds of the dreaded SMERSH, an acronym for smert shpionam
"death to the spies" designating Soviet wartime counterintelligence units. In
terms of social impact, the situation was the mirror likeness of what happened
in 1962, when Novy mir published Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of
Ivan Denisov-ich": At the time the event held promise of a future swing toward
liberalization, while Bogomolov's book was seen as a portent of dire things to
come, like vindication of Stalin, Beria, 1937, the Gulag, etc. etc. Silly, but
quite in the jittery spirit of the times.
Afterwards, Novy mir, as the country's premier literary journal, was
chosen as the vehicle for the publication of Leonid Brezhnev's notorious
trilogy I have already mentioned in a previQus installment. They say that. as
fiction goes, It wasn't all thai bad, but t still take pride in never
having read any of it, except for the inevitable quotes in the papers.
But the real literary events in that era occurred not on the surface, not in
books and magazines, but in the underground, and I do not even primarily mean
here the so-calted samizdat "self-made publications," although it was
an important part of the spiritual life of the intelligentsia's Fronde.
Brezhnev's era was the time of incredible efflorescence of the underground
"political" joke, or anekdot. In good company, one could spend
literally hours listening to guys versed in the art, the so-called
anekdotisty. Here's a couple of my favorites - a suitable ending. I believe,
to this section on Brezhnevism.
Brezhnev, as all the world knows, was fond of hunting, and on one of his
hunting excursions he fell into a deep hole, where he was eventually
discovered by a bright youngster. Brezhnev told the boy, "Pull me out of
here. boy, and I'll confer on you the title of Hero of the Soviet Union." The
little chap ran home to get a rope, but when he returned, he had a rather
unusual. tearful request to make. "Uncle Brezhnev," he said, "could you
confer it on me posthumously?" "Sure I can. Why?" asked Brezhnev. "Father
says, if I pull you out, he*ll kill me!"
The other one is a particular favorite of mine. as I helped in the making of
it. The Umpteenth Congress of the Communist Party is in progress, and Comrade
Brezhnev is mumbling through his speech. In the gallery, some people are
craning their necks to see the speaker better. One guy asks the man in front,
"Could you move slightly to the right? Thanks. Now could you bend forward a
bit? Thanks. No, that's too much..." The guy in front asks in irritation,
without turning, "Should I give you my field glasses, perhaps?" "No thanks,
I've got my telescopic sight!" End of this story, but there's a sequel. The
guy in the back row shoots, misses, is duly apprehended and taken to the KGB
for interrogation. There follows the regular KGB routine:
strong light in the victim's face, rubber truncheons, who are your
accomplices, the works. This goes on round the clock, and in an unguarded
moment in the wee hours of the morning the KGB interrogator asks something
straight from the heart: "Look, you asshole. how could you miss, with your
teiescopic sight and all?" This really hurts. "You try rt yourself, with
everybody shoving and pushing, "Let me have a go, no, tet me...'*'
This said more about the people's real attitude toward the "leader of the
Leninist type" than an annual - subscription to Now mir ever could.