- “Soviet” Man of PeaceLeonid Il´ich Brezhnev and His Diaries
As one of Iosif Stalin’s vydvizhentsy (promoted workers) who ran the USSR during the Cold War, Leonid Il´ich Brezhnev ruled in a manner fully consonant with that of his generation, sharing his comrades’ strengths, shortcomings, and understanding of a world divided by two universalizing ideologies. Yet he also left his personal stamp on Soviet foreign policy during his years in office. Despite the role that speech and ghost writers played in crafting Brezhnev’s public addresses and “autobiographical” accounts, he believed unconditionally in peace and saw himself as its architect. He nurtured the propaganda image of him as man of peace because, at heart, he was.1 The spate of published memoirs written by his comrades and foreign leaders, his speeches and writings, and Brezhnev’s diaries make that clear.
His diaries? Perhaps more accurately described as Brezhnev’s work notes or work logs, these relatively unknown and heretofore little-used documents are of enormous historical significance, despite their intermittent and at times laconic or ambiguous nature, because they provide unique insight into what issues Brezhnev deemed important—even if they do not always tell us what he thought about them—and because they chronicle how he spent his time. As the only Soviet general secretary to have undertaken this practice, Brezhnev began keeping the diaries in earnest in 1957, after he [End Page 837] had already turned 50. Originally preserved in the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation, they have been declassified and transferred to the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI), where they are stored in fond 80, opis´ 1, dela 974, 975, 977–90.2 In an important development, a multivolume edition of the documents and related materials will be published thanks to the collaboration of the German Historical Institute in Moscow in cooperation with RGANI, under the title Rabochie dnevniki L. I. Brezhneva (L. I. Brezhnev’s Work Diaries). I prepared this essay as part of that endeavor.
Until recently, only the military historian Dmitrii Antonovich Volkogonov and Russian Duma member and journalist Aleksandr Evseevich Khinshtein utilized the diaries. In his highly opinionated account of Soviet leaders, Volkogonov casts Brezhnev as a mediocrity, maintaining that the diaries offer evidence of the “pathetically low intellectual level of … the fourth leader of the Communist Party.”3 Some 15 years later, Khinshtein included excerpts from the diaries in his biography of Brezhnev, which can be read as much as a damning indictment of Boris Yeltsin and an exoneration of Vladimir Putin as it can a sympathetic rehabilitation of Brezhnev.4 Acknowledging that Brezhnev kept the diaries only for his personal use, Khinshtein appreciates that they nonetheless “provide the opportunity to trace how the personality of their main protagonist changed over time.”5 More recently, a number of articles based on the diaries by the historians Victor Dönninghaus and Andrei Savin demonstrate the real potential of Brezhnev’s written legacy.6 This is especially the case because, as they observe, “the bulk of his published political [End Page 838] and theoretical legacy is actually the highly ideologized fruit of a collective effort.”7 In contrast, in his notes, Brezhnev speaks for himself.
That said, one should not use them in the hope of exploring the world of Soviet subjectivities, of how Brezhnev fashioned himself in line with the liberating powers of the Bolshevik revolution, or of his efforts to live as a self-conscious Soviet citizen.8 Ideology and politics infuse the diaries, to be sure, but above all, they open a window onto Brezhnev as a practical man, who began keeping his work journals for pragmatic reasons: he had a lot to remember and became his own stenographer of sorts. Constituting a large body of disjointed, usually brief, and often stream-of-consciousness notations, the journals include his doodling, underscoring, and other flourishes of the pen that add emphasis and suggest what issues caught his attention. At times the entries take on meaning only when used in conjunction with other sources. Moreover, the diaries contain many gaps of weeks, months, and even more. Although he sometimes made entries...