After 18 years as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Leonid Brezhnev dies on this day. His death signaled the end of a period of Soviet history marked by both stability and stagnation.
Brezhnev came to power in 1964 when, along with Alexei Kosygin, he was successful in pushing Nikita Khrushchev out of office. For the next 18 years, he brought a degree of stability to Soviet politics unknown since the Stalinist period. However, his time in office was also marked by forceful repression of political opponents and dissidents, a massive military buildup that bankrupted the Russian economy, and a foreign policy that seemed confusing at best.
During Brezhnev's reign political repression took on more and more ominous overtones. Dissidents such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov were harassed and sometimes sentenced to internal exile. His program to bring the Soviet military to parity with the United States drove the Russian economy to the breaking point; by the late 1970s economic growth was almost at a standstill. His foreign policy was often confusing for U.S. officials. On the one hand, he seemed to approve of the idea of "peaceful coexistence," pushed for control of nuclear weapons, and helped the United States in its negotiations with North Vietnam. On the other, he unleashed Soviet forces against Czechoslovakia in 1968, became involved with revolts in Ethiopia and Angola in the 1970s, reacted in a threatening manner during the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1973, and ordered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. By the end of his rule, discussions about nuclear arms control had almost completely lapsed.
Upon his death in November 1982, Yuri Andropov took control of the Soviet Union.
I've mentioned before a little bit of what it was like growing up at the tail end of the Cold War. From my perspective as a 12-year-old, the USSR was a threat, with the possibility of World War III breaking out any minute. When Brezhnev died, I remember the question on everyone's mind as to who would take over next.
The TDIH entry notes that Andropov took over. He was old and sickly, and died soon thereafter. Then they put a guy named Cherenko in power, and he too died quickly, leading to comments about the ABC's of dead Russian leaders.
And so, the Soviet Union decided to put in someone younger, who might actually live for a while. Which is how Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Who knew? I don't remember anyone seriously predicting that the communist state would wither away. In fact, even the Bloom County cartoon pointed to the opposite. In a famous strip in which Opus hears a list of ridiculous, unbelievable television news stories, one of the stories was that the Soviet Union had declared Communism a failure, and that free elections start next Tuesday.
Again: Who knew?