- Stirlitz in Washington? What “Stagnation” Tells Us Now
How should we feel about the Brezhnev era? The question is hard to answer, because the Soviet “era of stagnation,” the nearly two decades between the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the launch of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, remains profoundly entangled with our understanding of the present. As Dina Fainberg and Artemy Kalinovsky write, “the specter of Brezhnev’s stagnation haunts Russian leadership and its relationship with the world” (xix). Both Russians and foreign observers have, they observe, drawn “parallels between Putin’s Russia and Brezhnev’s USSR,” relying on “binary categories that functioned as the central pillars of [the] stagnation narrative in the [End Page 365] past, such as oppression/resistance, authoritarianism/democracy, or propaganda/free press” (xix). Western journalists and policy makers, they point out, following Andrey Tsygankov, often used these binary categories to contrast a “morally inferior neo-Soviet Russia” with an ostensibly superior European and American system (xix).
Since 2014–16, however, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency have brought other features of the Soviet “stagnation” era back to the fore, and not only in Russia. Brezhnev’s intermittently aggressive and personalistic foreign policy, as well as the involvement of his immediate family members in large-scale corruption scandals, are suddenly all too pertinent. How can we understand the Trump presidency without understanding the Brezhnev-era gerontocracy, in which an increasingly unstable, senile, and disconnected generation of leaders created chaos at the highest levels of government, frequently dying in office? Brezhnev’s legendary eyebrows, it seems, have simply moved slightly higher, onto the top of President Trump’s head. A recent Russian anekdot, which has the 1970s spy serial Seventeen Moments of Spring’s Maksim Isaev walking around Washington in an itchy orange wig, turns not only on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election but on the broader resemblances between the present and the crisis-filled era of “stagnation” and “stagflation.”
In these unsettled times, when we are no longer sure exactly whose eyebrows we are laughing at, we would be wise to turn to the burgeoning field of histories of the Soviet “era of stagnation,” in which scholars have been arguing for at least a decade that while “stagnation” as a metaphor retains some significance, there was very little that was stagnant in the era of stagnation, and that these supposedly stable and “ordinary” times, relative to the Stalin era, were really quite extraordinary.1 This rich new literature on the Soviet “stagnation” era’s cultural, social, and political life has gained a renewed relevance as we live through the decline of US exceptionalism and the refusal of recent US, European, and Russian politics to conform to the confident expectations of Cold War triumphalism. Taken together, they describe a formative and consequential moment in Soviet history, one in which nonelites and mid-level functionaries reshaped not only Soviet society but the world we now inhabit.2 [End Page 366]
At a moment when Europeans and Americans find that we have failed to anticipate a world in which Russia can once again influence political events around the globe, these books demonstrate the impact of Soviet involvement in global institutions and transnational relationships. Jenifer Parks’s incisive history of the Soviet entry into the Olympic Movement documents how Soviet sports officials successfully lobbied their colleagues and superiors to enable Soviet participation in...