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Sunday, 10 November, 2002, 19:15 GMT
Russians remember Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev
The ailing Brezhnev was known for his verbal gaffes

It is exactly 20 years since the former Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, died.

Designer furniture store in Moscow
Moscow's brash capitalism would be unrecognisable to Brezhnev
The latter part of his 18 years as general secretary of the Communist Party saw the Soviet economy slide.

And when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the post in 1985, the Brezhnev years were called "the era of stagnation".

Brezhnev would not recognise Moscow now.

'Figure of scorn'

The grey society over which he presided has been replaced by colourful, often brash capitalism.

Yet many Russians remain nostalgic for the law and order of Brezhnev's Soviet Union.

What tends to be forgotten is how Brezhnev became a sick man and a figure of scorn.

He had two heart attacks in his latter years, although this was revealed only after Mr Gorbachev's policy of glasnost - openness - set in in the late 1980s.

This helped to explain retrospectively the ailing Soviet leader's behaviour.

Brezhnev's legacy

On a visit to the then-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1980, Mr Brezhnev commented that it was good to be back in Afghanistan.

Mikhail Gorbachev
It took Gorbachev's energy to reform Soviet leadership

A few months earlier, he had sent the Soviet Army into that country, a badly-planned military operation which dragged on for nearly 10 years and which wiped out one tenth of its population.

It also highlighted the inadequacies of an army which had claimed to be one of the most powerful in the world.

Perhaps the worst part of Brezhnev's legacy was that the Soviet Union continued to slide into poverty after his death because of the inability of the Communist Party leadership to accept reform.

Roots of collapse?

Brezhnev was replaced by another sick man, Yuri Andropov.

He lived only until February 1984, and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was also ill.

It was only after his death, in March 1985, that the leadership grasped the nettle and appointed the younger - and more energetic - Mr Gorbachev.

Would the USSR have survived if reform of the crumbling system had been attempted earlier? No-one will ever know.

But it is not stretching a point to say that the roots of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 can be traced back to the stagnation over which Brezhnev presided.

See also:

29 May 02 | Country profiles
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