Thirty-five years ago today, at a time when events inside the secretive USSR were slower to reach the West, rumours were rife that its long-serving leader Leonid Brezhnev had died.
They were confirmed the following day in an official announcement from the Kremlin stating that 75-year-old Brezhnev had indeed died on November 10th, 1982, after suffering a heart attack early in the morning.
Suspicion that a senior figure in the Communist Party had died began to grow when Russian television programmes were suddenly changed without prior notice, switching from light entertainment to sombre documentaries about the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. Brezhnev’s health had been failing for years and rumours soon spread that he had died.
Newsreaders on Russian TV made no announcement, but read the news dressed in black and without any light-hearted stories. Mr Brezhnev had also failed to sign a public message of congratulations to the President of Angola on its national day, further fuelling speculation that he was dead.
When it was confirmed, his death marked the end of an era in Russian politics. Brezhnev had come to power 18 years earlier, in 1964, after ousting former leader Nikita Kruschev in a coup. Since then he had remained in undisputed control of the vast USSR and its 260 million people, developing a strong cult of personality in his later years. It was a time when the USSR was diametrically opposed to the world’s other great superpower, the USA, but Brezhnev outlasted five US presidents.
His time in power brought a much-needed period of stability to the USSR, but also one of economic stagnation and forceful repression of political opponents and dissidents. A massive build-up of the USSR’s military forces – which Brezhnev said was vital to counter the West – brought the nation to the brink of bankruptcy. It also starved other segments of its economy, preventing any development and growth and leaving the USSR lagging far behind in terms of non-military advancement and standards of living.
Brezhnev’s foreign policy was also contradictory and confusing. On one hand he supported the notion of “peaceful coexistence” with the West, backed measures to limit and control nuclear arms, and even served as a negotiator between the USA and Communist North Vietnam in efforts to end the Vietnam War. But on the other hand he ordered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, unleashed Soviet forces against Czechoslovakia and became involved in revolts and uprisings in Africa.
On an individual level, he encouraged the personality cult which grew around him. His love of medals and awards was well-known. He received well over a hundred, many of which he conferred upon himself and which were undeserved. It was also a weakness, as foreign leaders soon realised they could win favour by awarding Brezhnev an ostentatious but meaningless medal in ‘recognition of his achievements’.
His health was also poor in later life, having smoked strong cigarettes since his youth and become a heavy drinker. He had suffered a series of heart attacks due to hardening of the arteries, was fitted with a pacemaker and was believed to be suffering from various other conditions including leukaemia, emphysema and gout.
It was initially thought that Brezhnev would be replaced as leader by his closest colleague, Konstantin Chernenko, to ensure continued stability, but instead it was another Communist hardliner and former head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, who got the top job. In contrast to Brezhnev’s long tenure, Andropov lasted only 15 months before dying from renal failure at the age of 69.
When reformist Mikhail Gorbachev became leader in 1985, he denounced Brezhnev’s legacy and set about liberalising the USSR from repressive government control and rebuilding relations with the West.