A recent poll asked Russians to name their favourite political era since the Revolutions of 1917. Unsurprisingly, the Putin era and the Brezhnev era are nearly tied with 32% voting for the Putin era and 29% favouring the Brezhnev era. The only reason for the slight gap is that many young Russians cannot remember the Brezhnev era first hand.
Indeed, if Putin wins another term as President next year (which if he runs, he probably will), Putin will have been the longest serving Russian leader since Brezhnev who led the Soviet Union from 1964 to his death in 1982, first during a period of collective leadership and ultimately as the de-facto Soviet head of state.
The zenith of the Brezhnev era, the 1970s and early 1980s, is remembered fondly by many in Russia and beyond. The pain of the Great Patriotic War was far behind and the often turbulent Khrushchev years were gone forever.
Brezhnev’s Soviet Union enjoyed the most internal stability of any Russian state since the era of Tsar Alexander III. Some would say it was more stable.
Living standards continued to rise. Material goods were more readily available than at any other time in Soviet history. The USSR always dominated international sport, particularly the Olympics.
Culture was well funded and free for all. This included local Palaces of Culture, museums of modern and classic art, Russian orchestras, Melodiya records churning out both classical, pop and early Soviet rock music etc.
Car ownership increased and in the era of Vietnam, Watergate and the Helsinki accords, it is fair to say that the Soviet Union at least equalled the US in terms of geo-political, might, stability and prestige.
It’s not hard to see why this era is remembered fondly, not least because the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin is widely remembered as a horrible time for ordinary Russians. Indeed, in the poll, the Yeltsin era is remembered only by 1% of the population as an ideal era…ostensibly only by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and those on his payroll. Gorbachev’s era got a mere 2%.
When describing the Brezhnev era, one could be forgiven for thinking I was talking about the Putin era as there are many similarities: rising living standards, a boom in material wealth and increased funding for culture and sport.
Also just as America’s defeat in Vietnam and political uncertainty after the fall of Nixon necessarily elevated the Soviet Union to the position as a superpower, so too has Obama’s alienation of traditional allies and disastrously failed adventures in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, elevated Russia to a position as a geopolitical power broker and peace maker.
Just consider the recent Astana peace talks for Syria where a Russian organised summit took place with Syrian ally Iran and NATO member Turkey, but without any meaningful US presence. At first America wasn’t even invited and the Obama administration was too embarrassed to even kick up a fuss.
Russia’s important alliance with China, her long term friendship with India, her closer ties with US ally Pakistan, and her aid of Syria against terrorism, have made Russia a power that everyone must now contend with in international affairs.
Brezhnev’s era, in spite of the Communist pageantry, was ultimately one of pragmatism. So too is Putin’s era. Vladimir Putin has retained the best symbolic, cultural and even political elements of the Tsarist era and the Soviet era, whilst combining them with the modern culture which has arisen in post-Soviet Russia.
Whilst Gorbachev can still command high fees for speeches in the west, most Russians don’t especially care what the man who ultimately destroyed their country has to say. Likewise Yeltsin, a puppet of local oligarchs, foreign NGOs and western governments, is remembered as one of the worst leaders in modern history.
Russians will not have their history dictated to them, much though many in western academia and mainstream media would wish otherwise.