Why you should care

Because Leonid Brezhnev is still Russia’s most popular leader — and the U.S. would be happy to forget him.

Historical analogies can both compliment and condemn. When people compared Vladimir Putin to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before Putin’s 2012 re-election, not everyone was impressed. Most Americans, for example, preferred not to be reminded of their disagreeable Cold War opponent. But Putin encouraged the comparison. “Brezhnev is not a minus sign,” a Kremlin spokesperson argued in 2011. “[He was] a huge plus for our country. He laid the foundations for the economy and agriculture.”

Brezhnev was a formidable, isolationist Soviet leader. Critics abroad and at home, including his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, feared he was dragging the Soviet Union back under Stalin’s iron thumb. His aggressive expansion into Eastern Europe and unwillingness to compromise with Western capitalists during his nearly two-decade rule exacerbated the Cold War.

At a glance, Brezhnev may seem like a relic of Soviet-style communism, but the man who serves as Putin’s political example was also the most popular Russian leader of the 20th century — and cannot be so easily dismissed.

With the Russian economy heading off the rails today, it seems the Brezhnev comparison — which seemed to flatter Putin in 2012 — offers up less savory historical lessons for contemporary Russian politics. Besides his military exploits, Brezhnev was also known for stagnating — and permanently crippling — the Soviet economy.

Putin has taken risks that would’ve made even his hero cringe. Brezhnev considered pulling out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, concerned about the long-term effects of such an expensive production, but at $50 billion, last year’s Sochi Olympics were the costliest ever — leaving the Russian people holding the bag.

Peace goes with stability, which is a step away from stagnation.

Edwin Bacon, Birkbeck University

In the international arena, Putin, like Brezhnev, has managed to maintain civil relationships with other superpowers despite escalating tensions through smaller conflicts. But issues like the Six-Day War and Ukraine are classic examples of East and West dangerously toeing the line.

Speaking to OZY, Edwin Bacon of Birkbeck University in London recalls how the Soviet ambassador in Washington encapsulated Brezhnev’s time in office. Anatoly Dobrynin had a dry one-liner for his leader’s attitude toward the United States: “The main thing is that there is peace.”

“Peace goes with stability, which is a step away from stagnation,” Bacon observes. He’s referring to 1970s stagnation, when the Soviets’ dated planned economy began to catch up with them, the U.S. saw its biggest crisis since World War II and military expenditure hit both superpowers hard. “That the Cold War didn’t become thermo-nuclear hot is the plus side, and an inestimable plus at that.”

But Brezhnev’s knack for maintaining peaceful relations with his biggest rival wasn’t a straightforward alternative to crisis. His nearly two decades at the helm “saw systemic stability entrench Cold War mentalities and cultures which still seem to be with us today,” Bacon says.

While Westerners praise Russian leaders who helped defuse Cold War tensions, like Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, it’s telling that Brezhnev remains a model leader to his people. And even if many Reaganites would call him a loser of the Cold War — the stagnation was attributed to the USSR’s ultimate undoing — his legacy as an influential, ideological leader continues to sway Russian politics, hearts and minds.

And his popularity at home — like Putin’s — has yet to wane, despite the cost.

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