The Death of Leonid Brezhnev and the Long Battle for Russia's Future

When the Soviet premier died 30 years ago, it opened up a series of political debates and power struggles that continue to this day.

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Brezhnev waves from his stand atop the Lenin Mausoleum to marchers in the traditional Red Square parade marking the anniversary of the 1917 revolution, in Moscow, November 7, 1980. (AP)

In many ways, the current battle for Russia's future began 30 years ago today. On November 10, 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died, sparking a generational change in the Soviet leadership and setting in motion an ongoing cycle of reform and reaction in Russia that remains incomplete and inconclusive to this day. The players' names have changed as has the lexicon, but the fundamental issue remains essentially the same: how to carry out essential reforms when said reforms threaten the existing elite's continued dominance.
Brezhnev's death heralded the exit from the scene of the so-called "Class of 1937" -- the generation of Soviet leaders that quickly climbed the Communist Party's ranks following the Stalinist purges and ruled the country for decades thereafter. By the end of Brezhnev's rule, the Soviet economy, perilously dependent on commodities exports, was stagnating and contracting as oil prices fell. The political system was ossified, corruption rampant, and public cynicism endemic. The consensus within key quarters of the rising generation of the elite was that reform was essential.
The two main constituencies pushing for change -- the KGB and technocratic "regime liberals" -- made for an unlikely alliance. But this odd coalition teamed up to pick two Soviet leaders: Yury Andropov (the KGB's candidate) and Mikhail Gorbachev (the technocrats' choice). And it should come as no surprise that the two key meta-clans in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin are the siloviki and the technocrats. These bureaucratic descendants of the very same alliance that anointed Andropov and Gorbachev in the 1980s also put Putin in the Kremlin at the turn of the millennium.
In last week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast, Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" succinctly drew the parallel:

Andropov was able to bring together a coalition of people who realized that some kind of change was necessary. It was a very broad-based coalition that ranged -- in Soviet Communist Party terms -- from liberals all the way to hardliners whose idea of reform was turning the screws and getting the workers to work harder. They all agreed on one basic notion, that the status quo was not sustainable. That was the thing that held together the Andropov coalition -- and it was the Andropov coalition that would lead to Gorbachev's rise. As soon as he [Gorbachev] tried to operationalize it he had trouble. How can you hold that disparate coalition  together? Putin saw some of these pressures being played out...and its already failed. The creative capacities have been used up.

Andropovism and Gorbachevism represent two paths for a stagnating authoritarian system to reform itself -- and both eventually lead to a dead end. The Andropov model, which the sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya has called "authoritarian modernization," is similar to the path China has followed until now -- tightly managed economic reform that introduces market mechanisms, albeit without political reform.

The Democracy ReportDue to Andropov's death in 1984, it never got off the ground in the Soviet Union. But it was the model for Putin's rule, which exposed its limitations. In the short term it leads to growth and prosperity. But in the long run, said growth and prosperity leads to the creation of a middle class that eventually clamors for political rights. Denying these rights saps the system's "creative capacity" and leads to instability.
And if pushed to its logical conclusion, the Gorbachev model, which envisions more comprehensive economic and political reform, eventually unleashes forces that lead to a level of pluralism that brings down the authoritarian system.
Both models also inevitably split the coalition of siloviki and technocratic liberals that spawned it. In the case of the Andropov model, the technocrats rebel and team up with the emerging middle class in pushing for greater pluralism, as exiled members of Putin's team, like former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, are doing now. And as the full implications of the Gorbachev model play out, the siloviki ultimately rebel -- as they did in August 1991.
If Putin followed Andropovism throughout his first stint in the Kremlin from 2000-04, Dmitry Medvedev's presidency had the feel of a Gorbachev redux. And while September 2011, when Putin announced his return to the Kremlin, wasn't quite the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, the impulse was the same: the siloviki feared losing power and made their move to stop any more change. They famously failed in August 1991, but were more successful last autumn. So three decades after Brezhnev's death, we've come full circle. The system remains deadlocked with nothing in sight to break the logjam.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.