MOSCOW: In the West former Soviet supremo Leonid Brezhnev was reviled as the embodiment of a corrupt totalitarian system who sent troops into Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and crushed dissent at home.
But a new exhibition in Moscow largely glosses over the dark side of Brezhnev’s 18-year rule — emphasising instead the stability and global clout many Russians associate with his time in power, as the same spin is being put on the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.
The exhibition in Russia’s State Archives “aims to present Brezhnev as objectively as possible and to show how the Soviet Union actually was during his time”, the exhibition’s curator Mikhail Prozumenschikov told AFP during a recent visit.
The retrospective is dedicated to the 109th anniversary of Brezhnev’s birth and contains pictures of the famously bushy-eyebrowed leader — who headed the USSR from 1964 to his death in 1982 — hunting in the woods, partying with friends and dancing a folk dance.
“He was a jovial man who loved dancing, women, and to drink a beer with friends,” Prozumenschikov told a group of visitors.
Among the numerous classified documents, memorabilia, personal diaries and correspondence there are few reminders of the grimmer aspects of the Brezhnev period, such as the systemic graft among a corrupt elite and economic stagnation that was eating away at the system.
Only two exhibits evoke Brezhnev’s crackdown on regime critics: his decree to strip Nobel Peace Prize winning nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov of government awards and another one that took away the Soviet citizenship of chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi.
But there is nothing about Sakharov’s arrest and exile and the show trial of “anti-Soviet” writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky or the thousands of political and religious prisoners and dissidents locked in mental asylums or sent to labour camps.
“One can’t tell everything. We would have needed much more space,” said curator Prozumenschikov.
Parallels with Putin’s era
Some exhibits illustrate Brezhnev’s cult of personality that marked the last years of his rule: a huge porcelain vase adorned with his portrait, the leader’s bronze statue or a canvas depicting Brezhnev in a military uniform. Brezhnev loved to show up in a full uniform of a Marshal of the Soviet Union and was infamous for his weakness for unmerited medals, but the exhibition discreetly displays only few out of 94 decorations he received from the Soviet and foreign governments.
Nowadays in Russia Brezhnev is largely a forgotten figure after nostalgia for his time in power that flourished during the hectic 1990s died down during the relative stability of Putin’s tenure, sociologist Lev Gudkov said.
Under former KGB officer Putin, however, the authorities in Russia have revived some Communist-era traditions and are accused of reverting to some of the repressive measures used by their Soviet predecessors. And while the current leadership harks back more to the victory under Stalin in World War II rather than Brezhnev’s period, the early experiences of most at the top now were forged during his rule.
“Putin exploits all the motifs of the Brezhnev period — from being a great power to confrontation with the West,” said sociologist Lev Gudkov.
“The period when Putin came of age was under Brezhnev. He grew up in that age. And that was when the cult of WWII, veterans, victory began and there was a growth in Russian nationalism.”
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2016