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Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (/ˈbrɛʒnɛf/; Russian: Леонид Ильич Брежнев, IPA: [lʲɪɐˈnʲid ɪˈlʲjidʑ ˈbrʲeʐnʲɪf] (listen); Ukrainian: Леонід Ілліч Брежнєв, 19 December 1906 (O.S. 6 December 1906) – 10 November 1982) was a Soviet politician. The fifth leader of the Soviet Union, he served as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the governing Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1964 until his death in 1982. His 18-year term as general secretary was second only to Joseph Stalin‘s in duration. While Brezhnev’s rule was characterized by political stability and notable foreign policy successes, it was also marked by corruption, inefficiency, and rapidly growing technological gaps with the West.
Brezhnev was born into a Russian worker’s family in Kamenskoye in the Russian Empire. Upon the Soviet Union’s formation in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution, Brezhnev joined the Soviet Communist party’s youth league in 1923. He became an official party member in 1929. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he joined the Red Army as a commissar and rose rapidly through the ranks to become a major general during World War II. Brezhnev was promoted to the Central Committee in 1952 and became a full member of the Politburo in 1957. In 1964 he ousted Nikita Khrushchev and took over as First Secretary of the CPSU, the most powerful position in the Kremlin.
Brezhnev’s conservative, pragmatic approach to leadership significantly stabilized the position of the Soviet Union and its ruling party. Whereas Khrushchev routinely disregarded the rest of the Politburo while exercising his authority, Brezhnev was careful to minimize dissent among the Party membership by reaching decisions through consensus. Additionally, while pushing for détente between the two Cold War superpowers, he achieved Soviet nuclear parity with the United States and legitimized his country’s hegemony over Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the massive arms buildup and widespread military interventionism under Brezhnev’s regime significantly expanded the Soviet Union’s global influence (particularly in the Middle East and Africa).
Conversely, Brezhnev’s hostility to political reform ushered in an era of societal decline known as the Brezhnev Stagnation. In addition to pervasive corruption and falling economic growth, this period was characterized by an increasing technological gap between the Soviet Union and the West. Upon coming to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev denounced Brezhnev’s government for its pervasive inefficiency and inflexibility before implementing policies to liberalize the Soviet Union.
After 1975, Brezhnev’s health rapidly deteriorated and he increasingly withdrew from international affairs. Following years of declining health, he died on 10 November 1982 and was succeeded as general secretary by Yuri Andropov.