- Brezhnev’s Memos as a Source
“1. On the plenaries which were none / 2. Impossible to agree with the state of the note to the plenum—especially with the reduction of the role of the party organs / 1965 – 1929 = 36” (1:38). This is the first entry we find in volume 1 of Brezhnev’s edited “working and daily notes,” dated 13/14 October 1964. It reveals the richness of this source as well as the challenge it poses to historians: Brezhnev’s notes present mostly keywords, rarely entire sentences, and much more information is required to make sense of them. Thus the editors of these three volumes undertook the enormous task of adding footnotes with information on the textual level and endnotes with historical background information. This memo was written by Brezhnev during the TsK plenum that ousted Khrushchev, and Brezhnev obviously prepared this note as an aide memoire for accusing Khrushchev of having bloated the plenary sessions and thus minimized the role of the party. Furthermore, he did not agree with the note Khrushchev had sent to prepare the upcoming plenum on agriculture and the way he treated the party organs in it. Yet the meaning of the calculation “1965 – 1929 = 36” could not be revealed by the editors despite their meticulous investigations and seven end- and footnotes dedicated to these first lines alone. So we may only guess what Brezhnev had in mind: perhaps that from Stalin’s rise to total power in 1929 to the date of the note (1965?) the [End Page 421]significance of the Party had been abused? There is another point to bear in mind here: often it is not entirely clear whether Brezhnev wrote these memos in preparation for a speech or meeting or penned them during a political event, or whether he merely summed up his daily work at the end of the day.
Hence the three published volumes present a very special source, perhaps a genre which has never been published before. Although the Russian word is dnevniki, which may be translated as “diaries,” these are not diaries in the classical meaning of a personal logbook in which the enlightened self discloses his or her most secret thoughts, wishes, and fears. The more appropriate translation here is “pocket calendar,” and what we find in Brezhnev’s case are mere memos. Accordingly, the format Brezhnev used to write down his to-do, whom-to-call or what-to-say lists is a collection of small notebooks, pocket diaries, notepads, and loose sheets. This is not a form of presentation but a means of working that probably everybody uses—and normally discards after the task is completed—and for good reason, because the only person who can make sense of them is the author him- or herself. Brezhnev—we do not know why—did not discard but stored them; the oldest notes published here date from 1944, the last from 2 July 1982. So what we have here is a “non-text,” documents that were never supposed to disclose meaning to anybody other than Brezhnev. As a result, they turn methods like discourse analysis or any textual approach upside down, because they do not offer a narrative—a meaningful connection of units—but only keywords, often without any hints on how to combine them. Instead of analyzing or deconstructing meaning here, the historian is required to establish and construct sense.
This form of pre-narrative is probably the reason why the first researchers who had access to the “diaries,” Dmitrii Volkogonov and Leonid Mlechin, judged them to be witnesses to...