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Monday, December 19, 2016
Soviet leader Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev is best known for his eyebrows, presiding over the era of Stagnation, and, well, that pretty much sums it up. But there are a lot of paradoxes beneath the brows. For one, Brezhnev’s reign is associated with economic slowdown and social rigidity, but also with relative stability – which means that today, many older folks look back to that period with nostalgia.
In honor of his 110th birthday, here’s a smattering of surprising facts about General Secretary Brezhnev.
1. He’s the most beloved Soviet leader today.
A 2013 poll deemed Brezhnev the most popular twentieth-century Russian leader. The relatively higher standard of living and lower levels of repression and crime intensify the successes of the period of Brezhnev’s rule, explaining why 56% of Russians polled had a positive view of his leadership.
2. He got chest expansion surgery.
Okay, not really. But he did decorate himself with enough medals to spawn this popular joke:
"Leonid Ilyich is in surgery."
"His heart again?"
"No, chest expansion surgery, to make room for one more Gold Star medal."
After all, if one chest isn’t wide enough for over 100 medals, it’s only logical to stretch it out.
3. He was a celebrated author.
A trilogy penned by Brezhnev – or more likely, by ghost writers in his administration – was a bestseller in the late 1970s and even won the Lenin Prize for Literature, the Soviet Union’s top literary award. As for its bestseller status, some folks recall booksellers insisting they purchase a copy of Brezhnev’s memoirs along with less political reading fare like the abridged Master and Margarita. In another joke, Brezhnev overhears so many people talking about the books that he thinks to himself:
“If they’re so popular, maybe I should read them, too.”
4. He was a good kisser.
The “socialist fraternal kiss” was a symbol of the deep connection between socialist states, and Brezhnev endowed such an embrace on a number of his peers. The image took on new meaning when artist Dmitri Vrubel painted the image on the Berlin Wall in 1991 with the title, “My God, Help Me Survive This Deadly Love.” The mural became a symbol of the changing times and remains iconic today. Read an interview with the artist.
5. He had a thing for cars.
When US-Russia relations were on the rise, President Nixon even gave Brezhnev a Cadillac. It joined his Rolls Royce, Mazerati, and many others. Speaking of Brezhnev’s impressive car collection, here's another joke:
Brezhnev’s mother pays him a visit. He gives her a tour of his estate and shows her his garage full of fancy foreign cars. Her response: “But Lyonya, what will you do if the Communists come back?”
6. He was very modest
After Khrushchev’s ouster in 1964 – largely orchestrated by Brezhnev – he took for himself the position of First Secretary, but left Khrushchev’s top spot as Chairman of the Council of Ministers to his rival, Alexei Kosygin. This was part of the bargain he struck in arranging the coup against Khrushchev that shook up the government and ultimately propelled him to the top spot.
7. The sole surviving statue to Brezhnev in Russia is in Novorossiysk.
With his coat tossed casually over his shoulder, how can you see all the medals? Jokes aside, the statue depicts a young Brezhnev out on a stroll. Brezhnev was stationed in Novorossiysk for part of World War II, and the city erected the monument to his memory in 2004. You can read more about it in Driving Down Russia’s Spine.
8. Health was not his forte.
The General Secretary suffered several strokes and heart attacks for the last ten years of his life, and was also addicted to sleeping pills and rumored to have other health problems as well.
He rarely appeared in public in the last two years of his life, but senior officials kept him around as a figurehead, rather than allowing him to retire, because they were worried about unrest that might result from his death. The fact that he was rarely seen led to speculations (and jokes) that he was already dead.
A man goes to a kiosk every morning and looks at the first page of Pravda, but then puts it back. One day, the vendor asks what he’s looking for. The man says: an obituary. The vendor tells him that obituaries are at the back. The man replies: “The obituary I’m looking for will be on the front page!”
9. There was a city called “Brezhnev.”
Naberezhnye Chelny, the second largest city in Tatarstan, was rechristened “Brezhnev” in honor of the Soviet leader in 1982. The original name was restored in 1988, as Perestroika was sweeping Russia and reforms were under way – including forms of de-glorifying the Soviet past.
10. One last joke. This one takes on Soviet leadership as a whole.
Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev are on a train, which comes to a sudden stop. They debate what to do:
Stalin says, “Shoot the conductor.”
Khrushchev says, “No, we should rehabilitate the conductor and reform the train staff.”
Brezhnev says, “Let’s cover the windows with curtains and pretend that the train is moving.”
And Gorbachev says, “No, comrades, we should all get out and push!”
The butt of the joke is Gorbachev, whose futile attempt to push a frozen train lead nowhere good – namely, the end of the Soviet Union. But the dig at Brezhnev for pretending the train is moving is an apt metaphor for what is often ridiculed as his doddering leadership over a period of political rigidity and economic stagnation.
But the fact that he is remembered fondly by many Russians – not only for the jokes he inspired, but for the period of stability he oversaw – demonstrates the positive side of his mixed legacy. He didn’t pilot the locomotive of Soviet history with great momentum toward a brighter future, but he did ensure that the ride, in large part, was a comfortable one.
The body of Joseph Stalin was removed from the mausoleum on Red Square on October 31, 1961. It may not be as spooky as Halloween, but the former leader still haunts Russia today.
St. Petersburg is now 25: citizens voted to rename Leningrad as St. Petersburg on June 12, 1991. Lenin’s legacy was at the center of the change, and remains a hot topic 25 years later.