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The Brezhnev era was later dubbed the "period of stagnation." as we all

know, but that does not mean that there was no economic growth under that

leader. On the contrary, there was considerable development, especially in

the first half of his reign. The Soviet Union was regularly beating the

most advanced countries of the world in terms of annual growth rate.

Between 1964 and 1981, production of steel in the Soviet Union increased

from 85 million tonnes to 149 million, topping US output. Coal output beat

the American production of 500 million tonnes a year by half as much again.

In fifteen years, the Soviet Union doubled its oil production, becoming the

world's largest producer of oil. There were similar developments in the

other sectors, even in agriculture, where increased investment and higher

prices of agricultural produce introduced by the 1965 Central Committee

plenum made the Soviet Union the world's biggest producer of wheat.

But all these beautiful figures were made meaningless by the simple fact

that the share of consumer goods in the overall production was constantly

falling. That meant that the system favored production for production's

sake, its capacity either channeled into the military sphere or simply

wasted through the system's internal defects like poor organization, lack

of incentives for the workers, rejection of scientific and technological

innovations, etc. All those silly pochins and "socialist competitions"

could not obstruct the inexorable working of economic laws: No consumer

goods - no money for the budget - no investment -no progress or growth -

inevitable crisis as demand for consumer goods grows and supply shrinks.

Apart from crises, the Soviet economy produced even more inflammable

material - the Soviet intelligentsia. The Party's avowed goal was still the

Khrushchevian motto - to catch up with the West in every sphere of

"material and spiritual production." and this could not be achieved without

major breakthroughs in science and education. So in the years of

Brezhnevite "stagnation." the number of people with a higher education more

than doubled. The swelling intelligentsia formed, in fact, a new class that

bitterly resented its designation in the official ideology as a prosloika,

a rather derogatory term meaning something like a "thin layer between two

masses", the masses in question being the urban and rural workers.

^ It was, of course, more than the mere designation that the

intelligentsia resented. First, it was only too well aware that it was

grossly underpaid, getting a mere fraction of what their counterparts in

the West were earning. Speaking for oneself, I was one of the very few best

paid. top professional translators in Moscow doing translations from

Russian into English for about a dozen publishing houses, but I calculated

that I was being paid roughly the sum that a typist in the United States

was getting, page per page. And I lived about ten times better than some

m.n.s. or miadshiy nauchnyi sotrudnik "junior research fellow" getting 105

rubles a month (the trouble of course was that one couldn't correlate this

sum with any known currency, as the official $1=64 kopecks rate was

patently something from beyond the looking-glass).

Second, the nature of the intelligentsia's occupations made it keenly

sensitive to the prevailing stringent curbs on the freedom of intellectual

pursuits, especially in the humanities, where any deviation, real or

imaginary, from neo-Stalinist ideological dogma was punished swiftly and

ruthlessly. That was why most talented people went into the natural

sciences or mathematics, where they could be as free-thinking as they

wished in their quest for eternal truths. This elicited a couple of puzzled

lines from the Soviet poet Boris Slutsky, which instantly became famous:

Chto-to fiziki v pochyote,//Chto-to liriki v zagone... "Curiously,

physicists are in the limelight and lyricists are eclipsed..." Sure they

were eclipsed - who wanted to hear their bravura lies or piteous whining?

There were, however, some "lyricists" whom everybody wanted to hear as

they expressed the intelligentsia's most hidden attitudes and aspirations.

True, they had to resort to Aesopean language, like the Strugatsky

brothers: They wrote ostensibly science fiction, but anyone with an ounce

of intelligence could see it for what it was - social criticism and social

satire. You take their novel "Monday Begins on Saturday": The split between

mindless bureaucracy and selfless intellectuals seeking for the truth just

couldn't be made more graphic, despite the book's paraphernalia of magic

and time trips. No wonder both "physicists" and "lyricists" literally

fought in endless queues at book-shops over those slim volumes.

Paradoxically, the "physicists" were on the whole better protected from

some of the iniquities of life under the Soviets precisely because of their

role in the military-industrial complex - which was the prime cause of

those iniquities.

The country's economy was geared, in accordance with the prevailing

ideological doctrine of isolationism and confrontation with "world

imperialism," to the production of ever more sophisticated weapons.

Sophisticated weapons could only be produced by sophisticated minds, as one

could easily see both in real life and in films like the famous 1960s hit

"Nine Days of One Year." in which nuclear physicists discussed exactly this

incongruity - that the scientific and technological progress was a

byproduct of the development of lethal weapons in the course of the arms

race between the imperialist and socialist "camps."

Those sophisticated minds could clearly see the obvious: That the

country's socioeconomic system was basically flawed. They even had a handy

methodological tool to describe the flaws: Marxism, Marxist Political

Economy included, was taught in every higher education establishment.

Anyone who had the least intellectual interest in these things and adequate

intellectual equipment could describe in Marxist terms what had gone wrong

with the slave-owning society, the feudal society, the bourgeois society:

They were "burst asunder" by internal contradictions between the

"productive forces" and "production relations" (especially those of

property) (see esp. Chapter 32 of Marx's "Capital").

It was all too easy to see that, under Soviet socialism, the socialist

"production relations" were simply waiting to "burst asunder." being, in

Marxist terms, "a fetter on the mode of production" (op.cit). The lines

from a popular song, Vsyo vokrug kolkhoznoye, vsyo vokrug moyo "Everything

around is the collective farm's, everything around is mine" were often

quoted, tongue in cheek, to justify common or garden stealing: Property

that wasn't anyone's was everyone's, it aroused in people the worst, most

predatory instincts, not those of a zealous owner eager to make that

property flourish.

The intelligentsia could also see clearly, and discuss in nocturnal kitchen

debates, that, while it was the carrier of economic, scientific, and every

other kind of progress, it could do little to achieve that progress except

bash its head against the double wall of the workers-and-peasants' state:

the workers and peasants themselves, who couldn't care less about

scientific, social, etc. progress, and the bureaucracy professing to

represent and care for the interests of the workers and peasants but in

actual fact caring for nothing but its own well-being - progress of any

kind was definitely not among its priorities. "Stability" was, and under

Brezhnev it had all the "stability" it wanted. It practically wallowed in


This explains the fact that while self-avowed dissidents with a

political agenda, people who wrote for underground publications, staged

puny demonstrations and went to labor camps or mental homes for their sins

were few and far between, practically the whole of the intelligentsia was

tarred with the brush of dissent. Moreover, it wasn't just vague, general

discontent with things as they were but a clear realization of the

conditions under which the intelligentsia could play a role it wanted to

play - the conditions under which Western society operated. Unfortunately

for Russia and for itself, when the time for action came, the

intelligentsia wanted too much too soon, not least perhaps because its

aspirations had been thwarted for too long. It had eaten too much humble

pie, listening to harangues about the triumph of proletarian dictatorship

in a "single, separately taken country" and seeing the mess into which the

country was sinking under that dictatorship.

This last observation, however, is but parenthetic comment. What I'm

really trying to say here is this. Although the West mostly noticed and

discussed the actions of the more prominent dissidents of the Brezhnev era

like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, and

others of that type, much more important for the country's future

development under Gorbachev and later was the mood of the massive

intelligentsia Fronde as described here. it could not even be called a

movement, for under Brezhnev there was no political movement outside the

Party that would be worth the name (just as there was no political

movement worth the name inside the Party). It was merely a common mood. a

common understanding of certain things, and a common readiness to act in a

certain way. given half a chance. It was this general mood and intentions

that would make the Gorbachev perestroika possible, not the conspicuous

dissidents of the Brezhnev era who were given a hero's welcome each as

they drifted one by one to the West.

The mood I'm describing here is that of shestidesyatniki "people of the

sixties." The term needs some explaining. Originally, it referred to

Russia's progressive social figures of the 1860s and then became the self-

appellation of the intelligentsia that took the Khrushchev Thaw and

denunciation of the "personality cult" to heart as promises of Soviet

socialism's evolution toward a more human form (the term was apparently

first used in this sense by the writer and critic Stanislav Rassadin).

The shestidesyatniki matured in ideological battles between the liberal

"stout monthly" Novy mir (New World) and the weekly Literaturnaya gazeta

(Literary Gazette), on the one hand, and the conservative, or neo-

Stalinist "fatty" Oktyabr (October) and the Soviet excuse for a glossy

magazine Ogonyok (Little Light), on the other. Of course, the battles were

fought entirely within the socialist ideological framework and in such

language that most of the liberal message had to be extracted from between

the lines. Besides, the liberals' main antagonist was not the hard-line

Stalin-ists on the other side of the barricades but the censor, and in

1970 this arch-enemy won a decisive victory:

Novy mir's editor-in-chief, the poet Alexander Tvardovsky, was fired;

with him went the people who had made the monthly a bastion of liberal

thought, or what then passed for liberal thought.

After that, in 1974, Novy mir published a novel by one of Moscow's most

reclusive writers, Vladimir Bogomotov, "tn August '44." an obvious

counterpoint to Solzhenitsyn's "August '14." It was excellent Russian

prose -1 really enjoyed translating chapters from it for Books and Arts -

but the Moscow intelligentsia reacted rather hysterically to its subject

matter - the heroic deeds of the dreaded SMERSH, an acronym for smert

shpionam "death to the spies" designating Soviet wartime

counterintelligence units. In terms of social impact, the situation was

the mirror likeness of what happened in 1962, when Novy mir published

Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisov-ich": At the time the

event held promise of a future swing toward liberalization, while

Bogomolov's book was seen as a portent of dire things to come, like

vindication of Stalin, Beria, 1937, the Gulag, etc. etc. Silly, but quite

in the jittery spirit of the times.

Afterwards, Novy mir, as the country's premier literary journal, was

chosen as the vehicle for the publication of Leonid Brezhnev's notorious

trilogy I have already mentioned in a previQus installment. They say that.

as fiction goes, It wasn't all thai bad, but t still take pride in never

having read any of it, except for the inevitable quotes in the papers.

But the real literary events in that era occurred not on the surface, not

in books and magazines, but in the underground, and I do not even

primarily mean here the so-calted samizdat "self-made publications,"

although it was an important part of the spiritual life of the

intelligentsia's Fronde. Brezhnev's era was the time of incredible

efflorescence of the underground "political" joke, or anekdot. In good

company, one could spend literally hours listening to guys versed in the

art, the so-called anekdotisty. Here's a couple of my favorites - a

suitable ending. I believe, to this section on Brezhnevism.

Brezhnev, as all the world knows, was fond of hunting, and on one of his

hunting excursions he fell into a deep hole, where he was eventually

discovered by a bright youngster. Brezhnev told the boy, "Pull me out of

here. boy, and I'll confer on you the title of Hero of the Soviet Union."

The little chap ran home to get a rope, but when he returned, he had a

rather unusual. tearful request to make. "Uncle Brezhnev," he said, "could

you confer it on me posthumously?" "Sure I can. Why?" asked Brezhnev.

"Father says, if I pull you out, he*ll kill me!"

The other one is a particular favorite of mine. as I helped in the making

of it. The Umpteenth Congress of the Communist Party is in progress, and

Comrade Brezhnev is mumbling through his speech. In the gallery, some

people are craning their necks to see the speaker better. One guy asks the

man in front, "Could you move slightly to the right? Thanks. Now could you

bend forward a bit? Thanks. No, that's too much..." The guy in front asks

in irritation, without turning, "Should I give you my field glasses,

perhaps?" "No thanks, I've got my telescopic sight!" End of this story,

but there's a sequel. The guy in the back row shoots, misses, is duly

apprehended and taken to the KGB for interrogation. There follows the

regular KGB routine:

strong light in the victim's face, rubber truncheons, who are your

accomplices, the works. This goes on round the clock, and in an unguarded

moment in the wee hours of the morning the KGB interrogator asks something

straight from the heart: "Look, you asshole. how could you miss, with your

teiescopic sight and all?" This really hurts. "You try rt yourself, with

everybody shoving and pushing, "Let me have a go, no, tet me...'*'

This said more about the people's real attitude toward the "leader of the

Leninist type" than an annual - subscription to Now mir ever could.

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