This week marks the 50th anniversary of Brezhnev deposing Khrushchev. Khrushchev reigned (more or less) from Stalin’s death in March of ’53 till October 14, 1964; Brezhnev took over till November of ’82. Compared to Lenin and Stalin, Brezhnev was an anodyne despot, though he was worse than Khrushchev — who was a liberal compared to Stalin. Brezhnev brought back some of the cultural repression that had flagged under Khrushchev, and, after the Khrushchev growth era, Brezhnev oversaw the economic downturn Gorbachev described as the “era of stagnation.”
Brezhnev also oversaw a massive investment in the Soviet military; according to the historian Archie Brown, Brezhnev brought the Red Army, et al., into “rough parity with the United States.” He was the father of Soviet Superpower. For that, in Russia, he is much beloved.
The Soviet Dictator is defunct; not so the Russian Strongman. Putin is trying reassert the Russian global influence that Gorbachev and Yeltsin let go by the board. Putin has also revived economic stagnation: Russia’s economy grew 1.3 percent last year, and will end this year at a measly half-percent growth. But Putin is popular. Remarkably popular. A recent, plausible poll puts him at 84 percent approval.
Brezhnev cultivated a cult of personality; he would have gotten a kick out of a new Moscow art show celebrating Putin’s 62nd birthday. The show, at the Red October gallery, features Putin painted as Hercules performing his twelve tasks. In the style of a red-figure Greek vase, Putin is limned strangling the Nemean Lion of terrorism and beating back the (three-headed) Hydra of economic sanctions. Et cetera, et cetera. Annexing the Crimea is covered by the capture of the Cretan Bull, and the United States makes an appearance in the final task, represented by Cerberus, the three-headed death-dog. This is what you get with 84 percent approval.
Our president, Obama (suffering sub-84 percent approval), has been giving speeches re Russia and Ukraine, advising Putin that his “decisions are not just bad for Ukraine; over the long term, they’re going to be bad for Russia.” That quote comes from a speech delivered in April; Mr. Putin does not seem to have taken it to heart. Mr. Obama added that Putin had acted out of “a sense of weakness, not strength.” Biting though it was, Putin doesn’t seem to have taken that quote to heart either. Although, at the time, it was widely expected that Obama’s rhetoric would stop him in his tracks.
It’s possible that President Obama misjudged President Putin’s method of making decisions. Obama warned that Putin would “lose all credibility around the world.” (He said that six months ago, but it may still happen.) It’s possible that Putin cares more about 84 percent credibility at home than he does about 0 percent abroad. After all, not everyone cuts his conscience to fit this year’s European fashions.
In 2005, Putin delivered a “state of the nation” speech in the Kremlin, in which he said, “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”
If Reagan bled Red, White, and Blue, Putin bleeds Red. And though Americans like to talk about refusing to trade liberty for security, Russians don’t look at life the same way. In a recent poll on Russians’ favorite 20th-century leader, Gorbachev just beat out Yeltsin for last place.
Brezhnev, who imprisoned tens of thousand of dissidents, who reempowered the KGB and reintroduced show trials, came in first. Lenin and Stalin, who murdered tens of millions, were second and third. This week also marks the 70th anniversary of the Soviet occupation of Riga, Latvia’s capital. The Balts, the Kazakhs, and everyone else ought to keep that in mind. Those co-citizens and co-patriots don’t live just in Donetsk and Crimea.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.