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Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

The Brezhnev Era

In a well-prepared and bloodless move by CPSU leaders, Khrushchev was ousted from his positions of power Oct. 14–15, 1964. He was replaced as first secretary of the CPSU by Leonid I. Brezhnev (who in 1960 had become chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet) and as premier by Alexei N. Kosygin. The official reasons given for Khrushchev's ouster were his advanced age (70) and his declining health. The real reason was dissatisfaction with the policies and style of his government. Specifically, Khrushchev was criticized for the inadequate performance of the economy, especially the agricultural sector (there had been a bad harvest in 1963); for the humiliation of the USSR in the Cuban Missile Crisis; for the widening rift with China; and for his flamboyant personal style, which it was said created a "cult of personality." Several persons closely associated with Khrushchev also lost their posts; they included his son-in-law Alexei I. Adzhubei, the editor of the government newspaper Izvestia.

In July, 1964, Anastas I. Mikoyan succeeded Brezhnev as chairman of the presidium; Mikoyan was replaced in Dec., 1965, by Nikolai V. Podgorny. The new leaders stressed collective leadership (as opposed to Khrushchev's one-man rule), but because of his position at the head of the CPSU Brezhnev held an advantage and by 1970 was clearly the most powerful person in the country, followed at a considerable distance by Kosygin. In 1966 the position of first secretary of the CPSU again was called general secretary (as it had been until 1952), and the presidium of the supreme soviet reverted to the name politburo (short for political bureau). In the later 1960s the official attitude toward Stalin became somewhat less hostile. In internal affairs the new leaders stressed economic development, and in foreign affairs they generally pursued peaceful coexistence with the West (although there were several major indirect confrontations).

Domestic Policy under Brezhnev

Claiming that Khrushchev's policy of decentralizing administration had been ill advised, his successors reestablished 28 national ministries in 1965. However, at the same time a major program to decentralize decision-making in industry was begun. Under the system devised by Yevsei Liberman, an economist, individual firms made their own decisions on levels of production based on prevailing prices, and their efficiency was judged individually on the amount of profit they made. By the early 1970s the vast majority of industrial firms were operating on this basis. The new system allowed much more latitude to the individual firms, but they still had to operate within the constraints of the overall Five-Year Plans, which established the basic course of the Soviet economy, and of the annual national government budget.

Industrial production (and the productivity of individual workers) increased steadily after 1964, but not as rapidly as the leadership desired. To make up for a growing deficiency of technology, a number of major contracts were signed (beginning in the late 1960s) with Western firms to build factories and other installations in the USSR. With the exception of a bad harvest in 1972, agricultural production increased dramatically. The dramatic world oil price rises in 1973–74 and 1979 buoyed the economy, and the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Germany promised further economic expansion.

During the Brezhnev era leading writers, scientists, and intellectuals protested certain aspects of Soviet life, especially curbs on the free flow of ideas, corruption in government, and inefficiency. Although the dissidents were small in number and had little popular support, they were treated harshly by the government, many being sentenced to terms in prison or being forced into exile. The leading dissidents included the writers Andrei Sinyavsky (whose pen name was Abram Tertz), Yuri Daniel (whose pen name was Nikolai Arzhak), Anatoly V. Kuznetsov (who defected to Great Britain in 1969), Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (a Nobel Prize winner for Literature who was forced to leave the country in early 1974), Aleksandr Ginzburg, Yuri Galanskov, and Andrei Amalrik; the editor Aleksandr Tvardovski; the Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist Andrei D. Sakharov; the geneticist Zhores A. Medvedev (who left the country in 1973 and was not allowed to return); the economist Viktor Krasin; retired general Petro Grigorenko; and the historian Pyotr Yakir. Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, defected to the West in 1967 and took up residence in the United States.

From the later 1960s many Jews asked to leave the country, mainly in order to settle in Israel. For a time the government made emigration for them exceptionally difficult (for instance, by charging a high "emigration tax" allegedly to cover the cost of the person's education in the USSR), but in the early 1970s considerable numbers of Jews were able to emigrate (partly because the emigration tax was suspended). In 1974 the USSR agreed to ease its emigration policy in return for favored-nation trade status with the United States. Contributing to disquiet in the country were the members of several ethnic groups (notably the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Tatars) who vociferously demanded increased autonomy for their people.

Foreign Relations under Brezhnev

Formal Soviet-U.S. relations continued to be good after 1964, but there was a serious indirect conflict in Vietnam (where the USSR gave North Vietnam much material aid, but did not send troops, to oppose U.S. forces active in South Vietnam). Other indirect conflicts included the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (where the Soviet Union backed the Arabs rhetorically but gave them little material assistance), the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 (when the USSR aided India and the United States backed Pakistan), the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (when U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, believing that the Soviet Union was about to send troops to back the Arab side, instituted a worldwide precautionary alert of U.S. forces), the Angolan, Mozambican, and Ethiopian civil wars (where the U.S. backed rebellions against Soviet-backed governments), and the Contra war in Nicaragua.

In 1968, Soviet relations with the Communist nations of Eastern Europe reached a critical stage when Soviet troops (and forces of some of the other Warsaw Treaty Organization members) invaded (Aug. 21) Czechoslovakia in a successful effort to curb the trend toward liberalization there (and indirectly to reduce Czechoslovakia's increasing contact with Western European nations). Brezhnev declared (in what became known as the "Brezhnev doctrine") that Communist countries had the right to intervene in other Communist nations whose actions threatened the international Communist movement. Romania and Yugoslavia explicitly denounced the Brezhnev doctrine.

The Sino-Soviet conflict worsened after 1964. In 1969 there were numerous border clashes, including a major one over control of Damansky Island in the Ussuri River. Both countries enlarged their border forces and maintained them in the early 1970s despite somewhat less tense relations.

The Era of Détente

In 1969, the USSR, the United States, and about 100 other nations signed a treaty banning the spread of nuclear weapons to countries not possessing them. Strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States began in 1969, and they were continuing in 1974. When President Nixon visited Moscow in 1972, an agreement partially limiting strategic arms was signed (an agreement that was renewed during Nixon's 1974 visit to the USSR), along with accords on cooperation in space exploration, environmental matters, and trade. By this time Soviet-U.S. relations were described as having entered an era of détente, and the cold war was said to have ended. In 1973, Brezhnev toured the United States and met with Nixon.

A major objective of Soviet foreign policy in the early 1970s was to gain official recognition of the post–World War II settlement in Europe. In 1970 a landmark treaty with West Germany was signed (ratified in 1972) confirming existing boundaries in Europe (notably the eastern border of East Germany) and also renouncing the use of force to settle disputes. In 1972 the USSR, the United States, Great Britain, and France signed an accord regularizing the position of Berlin.

In 1973 a European security conference, which the USSR hoped would also help make permanent the status quo in Europe, formally opened. A second phase of SALT talks began, as well as negotiations for a mutual and balanced reduction of forces in Europe. The USSR gave considerable assistance to underdeveloped countries during the Brezhnev era. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War the Soviet Union played a major role in equipping both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. At Tashkent in 1966, Kosygin mediated a dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

In the early 1970s there was a notable increase in both the size and quality of the Soviet military, especially the navy. In the "space race" with the United States, the USSR did not place a man on the moon (as the United States did in 1969) but made other important, but less spectacular, exploratory probes of space. In 1975 a symbolic linkup in space between Soviet and U.S. spacecraft capped the era of détente.

In 1975 the USSR signed the Helsinki Accords, which declared the postwar European boundaries inviolable and subject to change only by peaceful means. The Accords also contained provisions on human rights, and the Soviet government drew international criticism for harassing or imprisoning citizens who tried to monitor Soviet compliance with the Accords. A new "Brezhnev" constitution was promulgated in 1977, but differed little from the preceding Stalin constitution.

Détente Ends

Brezhnev's foreign policy during the 1970s supported Marxist revolutionary governments in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia, Grenada, Nicaragua, and South Yemen, but it stumbled in applying the Brezhnev doctrine to Afghanistan. A 10-year occupation of that country (1979–89) pitted the forces of the USSR against the same sort of indigenous, nationalistic guerrilla army that the United States had faced in Vietnam. The United States' response to the invasion was swift; it shelved the second SALT agreement, suspended grain shipments, and led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. and European governments, despite domestic opposition, placed new intermediate range Pershing II missiles in Europe, and a staunch anti-Communist, Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States. Détente was over.

Almost in synchrony with the breakdown in international relations, the Stalin-era leadership began to fail. Kosygin resigned and died in 1980. Brezhnev grew ill. His declining health slowed the Soviet response to the 1980–82 challenge posed by Poland's Solidarity union. Soviet economists, who had been secretly relying on doctored economic figures and raw material exports to gloss over the economy's deficiencies, could not disguise the USSR's failure to meet its Five-Year Plan goals. Fortuitous increases in gold and oil prices in the 1970s had camouflaged the decay, but the USSR possessed few manufacturing exports, the lifeblood of all developing economies. Life expectancy for men began to decline due to alcohol abuse, a fact so embarrassing to the government that it stopped issuing life expectancy figures.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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