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  • Trust, Care, and Familiarity in the PolitburoBrezhnev’s Scenario of Power
  • Susanne Schattenberg (bio)

Mohammed Heikal, foreign policy adviser to Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser, recalls the following bizarre scene during his state visit to Moscow in June 1970. With consultations already in full swing, the door opened and a Foreign Office official came in and handed a document to the deputy foreign minister, Vladimir Vinogradov.

Vinogradov gave the paper to [Andrei] Gromyko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who read it, got up, and took it to [Aleksei] Kosygin. Kosygin read it, and gave it to [Leonid] Brezhnev. Brezhnev read it, and gave it back to Kosygin. Kosygin then gave it to [Nikolai] Podgornyi. Podgornyi read it, and gave it back to Kosygin, who gave it back to Brezhnev. Then Brezhnev signed it, and gave it to Kosygin, who signed it too. Then Podgornyi signed. Then Podgornyi gave it to Gromyko, who gave it to Vinogradov, who gave it back to the Foreign Office official. The official then left the room. The whole transaction took, I suppose, about five minutes.1

Brezhnev explained to the flabbergasted Egyptians that they had just signed a telegram warning General Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia that an attempt to assassinate him was being planned. Upon leaving the room, Nasser said to Heikal, “Did you see what happened?” “Over that bit of paper, you mean?” he asked. “Yes,” said Nasser. “If a telegram to General Siad in Somalia needs the signature of all those three, then we are in trouble.”2

Heikal and Nasser had just witnessed the collective leadership practice that Brezhnev had introduced upon taking up his duties in 1964. [End Page 835]

Western historians have long speculated that Khrushchev was removed because he had embarrassed the country internationally in the Cuban Missile Crisis or because he was blamed for food shortages.3 However, in October 1964 the members of the party Presidium were less concerned about Khrushchev’s foreign and domestic failures than they were about their own sinecures. Before going on holiday in 1964, Khrushchev had announced that when he returned, he would break up the party Presidium, which he described as a “bunch of old men.”4 Khrushchev had already proved that his intentions were serious. He had reformed the structure of a number of ministries and the party committees and had limited terms in office.5 At the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU) meeting on 14 October 1964, Brezhnev accused Khrushchev of suffering from “restructuring-itis”: “Comrade Khrushchev literally suffered from the itch of having to reorganize or restructure everything and believed blindly in its magical, secret power.”6 Above all, Brezhnev accused Khrushchev of breaking with the principle of “collective leadership.”7 Accordingly, the Presidium decreed that the offices of first secretary and chairman of the Council of Ministers were never again to be held by a single person.8 So to justify the overthrow of Khrushchev and secure his own power, Brezhnev declared himself the irreplaceable guarantor of “collective leadership.”9

Though it is common to speak of “collective leadership” under Brezhnev, this article seeks to shed light on Brezhnev’s specific practices of maintaining power as Heikal described it above, using unpublished and mostly unstudied [End Page 836] shorthand minutes of the CC plenary sessions and a number of memoirs. “Collective leadership” is defined here as a technique of ruling over the Politburo and the Central Committee. It did not mean that every Politburo member had the same impact on decision making, or that there was a free and controversial exchange of opinions, as in Western democracies. Rather it referred to the Leninist idea that the Party should speak with a single voice that reflected the one and only party line. This dogma had existed since Lenin had banned the formation of factions within the Party, thereby criminalizing every deviant opinion.10 But since there was no fixed rule concerning how “consensus” should be reached or how “collective leadership” should function, it was up to every party leader to determine which practices, rituals, or discourses he would subsume under this term. At least to a certain extent...


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pp. 835-858
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