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 looking-glass).
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
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
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
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.