Brezhnev Era

Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet leader for almost two decades from 1964 to 1982. He oversaw a time marked by stagnation at home and, despite the brief relaxation of tensions, a continuing Cold War abroad. Who was he, and what defined the Brezhnev Era?

Mockup Schule

Explore our app and discover over 50 million learning materials for free.

Brezhnev Era


Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet leader for almost two decades from 1964 to 1982. He oversaw a time marked by stagnation at home and, despite the brief relaxation of tensions, a continuing Cold War abroad. Who was he, and what defined the Brezhnev Era?

Brezhnev Era Timeline

Before we gain an understanding of Brezhnev's psyche and approach to politics, abroad and at home, we need to understand the Brezhnev Era.


A term used to describe the reversal of a revolution, in this case, a capitalist revolution within a socialist state.

Let's examine the key events that shaped the USSR during the Brezhnev Era.

1968 Brezhnev's Soviet forces set the tone for the Brezhnev Doctrine that crushes the 'Prague Spring' and demonstrates his intolerance of counter-revolution.
1969 After years of aggressive rhetoric from Khrushchev and then Brezhnev toward Chairman Mao, the Sino-Soviet Split culminated with border clashes between Soviet and Chinese soldiers over a dispute regarding a small island. The relations between the two communist nations reached an all-time low amidst worries that China was an unpredictable nuclear power after their first weapon test in 1964.
1970West Germany's Chancellor Willy Brandt begins his Ostpolitik or "politics of the east" with the Treaty of Moscow signed by Soviet ministers Kosygin and Gromyko as recognition of European borders and a foundation for détente. Brandt followed this with a Basic Treaty with East Germany in 1972 and Brezhnev visited West Germany in the same year.
21st February 1972President Nixon capitalises on the split between the Soviet Union and China. He becomes the first US President to visit Beijing since the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution and begins an era of working on diplomatic solutions with his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.
22nd May 1972After demonstrating the possibility of the United States collaborating with communist China, Nixon visits Moscow to meet Brezhnev. Whilst there he signs the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) which limits Anti-Ballistic Missiles and ensures both sides keep their nuclear deterrent.
18th June 1973Brezhnev goes to the United States and addresses the population in Washington with a friendly tone. The two countries pledge to avoid nuclear war but fail to sign any concrete follow-up to SALT I. In the following year, Brezhnev met new President Gerald Ford in Vladivostok, where the two men promised to control weapons for the next decade.
October 1973The Yom Kippur War between Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria and United States-backed Israel is brought to an end in less than a month and is a sign of the growing desire for diplomacy and peace between the two superpowers.
1975The Helsinki Accords is signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and over thirty European nations. It asked for the respect of post-World War II borders and allowed for increased trade, travel between the West and the Soviet-controlled east and guarantees of civil freedoms. However, Brezhnev ignored the Accords when the Soviet human rights record came under scrutiny, domestically and in Eastern European countries, continuing his repressive policies.
17th June 1979Another new President, Jimmy Carter completes another arms treaty. He signed SALT II with Brezhnev which limited each country's number of strategic arms weapons from Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) and more to 2250 per nation.
24th December 1979The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan, infuriating Carter who never put SALT II into law as a result. This was the end of the diplomatic years known as détente.
1981To halt the progress of Solidarity in Poland and a counter-revolution, leader Jaruzelski introduces martial law and outlawed the group under the watchful eye of the Soviet Union. They squash the opposition without requiring military assistance.


Some historians like to characterise détente as an ending of the Cold War before the Second Cold War at the start of the 1980s. However, to do so would be losing sight of the reality of the situation. Ultimately, it suited both nations to de-escalate nuclear tensions and be more careful with their military involvement. It is clear that Brezhnev would remain uncompromising in his principles, refusing to allow the political transparency that the Helsinki Accords requested.

Brezhnev Era Richard Nixon (right) and Leonid Brezhnev (left) sign SALT I in 1972 StudySmarterFig. 1 - Richard Nixon (left) and Leonid Brezhnev (right) sign SALT I in 1972

Moreover, it may have benefitted the Soviet Union to be more open economically, but as soon as communism and national security were under threat, Brezhnev invoked his Doctrine and intervened with force in Afghanistan.

Brezhnev Era The Style of Leadership

Within the gallery of Soviet leaders, Leonid Brezhnev certainly falls into the inflexible category. After Khrushchev's policies of De-Stalinisation allowed for freedom of speech, he drew criticism for diverting from the goal of the communist party by allowing the possibility of opposition to develop.


A departure from the harsh and repressive policies of Joseph Stalin who, using a cult of personality, was a dictator between 1929 and 1953 in the Soviet Union.

With Khrushchev beginning to lose popularity after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Brezhnev and hardline conservative allies, Kosygin and Podgorny, seized power in 1964. Brezhnev would become the dominant leader in the next couple of years.

Key Features of the Brezhnev Era

Stagnation is a common word to describe Brezhnev's Era, but how? It was the following aspects that caused the powerful Soviet Union to STALL:

Stalinist-style repression returned with censorship of news, art and literature. Domestically, Brezhnev captured and imprisoned political prisoners. Abroad, the uncompromising Brezhnev Doctrine struck fear into the Soviet sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Treaties and agreements with the United States served to de-escalate the Arms Race. A period of "détente" or "relaxation of tensions" during the 1970s was short-lived but yielded the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) in 1972 and a working relationship with United States President Richard Nixon. However, both sides continued to build a huge number of nuclear weapons during this period.

Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of the Asian country in 1979 destroyed the progress made during the détente period. It stopped the United States from ratifying the SALT II Treaty into law and caused them to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The war would be long, expensive and ultimately fruitless.

Lack of economic growth plagued the Soviet Union from the 1970s onwards. Brezhnev was a conservative and his lack of reforms or attempts to diversify held back Soviet growth. Much of the resources funnelled straight to military campaigns, the Arms Race and the Space Race.

The Loss of a Soviet relationship with communist China gave the United States the opportunity to establish a relationship with Chairman Mao. Soviet and Chinese soldiers clashed on the border in 1968 and in 1972, Nixon visited Beijing, demonstrating the value of diplomacy to Brezhnev, who followed suit with the United States.

Brezhnev Era Brezhnev plaque in Dneprodzerzhinsk StudySmarterFig. 2 - Brezhnev plaque in Dneprodzerzhinsk

Brezhnev Doctrine

Four years into his premiership, the first concrete threat to Soviet-style socialism was underway in 1968. How would Brezhnev deal with it? It would set the tone for the military action and hardline stance that became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.


The 1968 "Prague Spring" seemed to signal the winds of change in Czechoslovakia. The leader Alexander Dubček gave into mass protests and promised the release of political prisoners, freedom of press and expression, along with Slovak autonomy and a comprehensive list of civil rights. Dubček went his own way, despite the cries of discontent from the Soviet Union and the other members of the Warsaw Pact.

On August 20th, the Soviet army swept through Prague and removed the leader, replacing him with staunch communists. Brezhnev was careful to control the narrative, showing footage of Soviet soldiers talking to Czech civilians, the reality was that blood spilt as the tanks rolled through Prague. This was the blueprint for the Brezhnev Doctrine: wherever socialism was under threat, there should be military intervention.


The other prominent voices of dissent during Brezhnev's era were in Poland in the form of the Solidarity movement, which was established in a Gdansk shipyard in 1980 by Lech Welesa and other discontented workers. They wanted greater freedoms and working conditions. The trade union snowballed in popularity and by the following year had 10 million members, a large chunk of the Polish workforce in all sectors.

Martial law

The control of a state is delegated to the military rather than the government. This occurs during wartime, disaster or rebellion.

Trade union

An organisation that is formed to protect the rights and prevent the exploitation of workers.

By 1981, the Soviet Union had already invaded Afghanistan and their economy was really stalling due to the system screaming out for reforms. It was thus in their interest to delegate and encourage Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski to declare martial law, which would last two years. The leaders of Solidarity were arrested and the group was outlawed. Brezhnev had maintained control without requiring military spending.

What was Afghanistan's impact on the Cold War?

Afghanistan turned out to be the death knell in Brezhnev's détente. Quickly after signing the second important SALT treaty of the decade, he quickly sullied his relationship with the United States by invading Afghanistan on 24th December 1979. This was justifiable because the Soviet Union shared a 25,000 km land border with the Central Asian country.

As such, the chance that socialism was under threat had to be taken as a matter of national security. It went in line with the notion that they were maintaining the status quo, a key tenet of the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Brezhnev Era Jimmy Carter StudySmarterFig. 3 - Jimmy Carter

However, it infuriated President Jimmy Carter, who described it as "

the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War."

- President Carter, State of the Union Address, January 23, 19801

The war would be a costly mission, lasting almost ten years, 15,000 Soviet lives and creating an Afghan Civil War after their departure.

Brezhnev Era of Stagnation

Unfortunately for Brezhnev, though being a hardline conservative preserved the Soviet system, it proved to create a crumbling economy, as the jobs were filled up and the nation's natural resources were dwindling. Brezhnev's inflexibility would be his downfall in this regard and his successors Andropov and Chernenko would be no different. Only when Gorbachev rose to power in 1985 with the background of an economic crisis did some changes occur. The economic historian Robert C. Allen highlights the crux of the problem:

The strength of Soviet socialism was that great changes could be wrought by directives from the top... The early strength of the Soviet system became its great weakness since the economy stopped growing because of the failure of imagination at the top.

- Robert C. Allen, 'The Rise and Decline of the Soviet Economy', 20012

Ultimately, the five-year plans of Stalin in the 1930s could no longer work, but as a conservative who was unwilling to change, Breznhev limped on and left his country on the brink of an abyss.

Political Repression

Coupled with the economic stagnation, Brezhnev also reversed much of the transparency allowed by his predecessor Nikita Khrushchev. It was a reign marked by a return to censorship and he employed the same brutality of his foreign policy towards his own people.


Control of the press and information to promote the narrative of a government.


The labour camps of Stalin's Soviet Union where prisoners often died due to freezing conditions, exhaustion or starvation.

Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn exemplifies the censorship that took place during the Brezhnev Era. In 1962, with Khrushchev at the helm, he published "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", detailing the harsh realities of life in a Stalinist Gulag. With Brezhnev, there was a clear change of tact. Solzhenitsyn suffered persecution and was expelled from the Soviet Writer's Union in 1967.

Brezhnev Era Alexander Solzhenitsyn StudySmarter Fig. 4 - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

However, there was praise for his work abroad and he won the Nobel Prize in 1970. Continuing to write, he published his seminal work "The Gulag Archipelago" in Paris in 1973. Within two months of a return to the Soviet Union, he was arrested and deported in 1974, wearing his clothes from the Gulag in a final show of defiance. Brezhnev's silence was deafening.

Brezhnev Era - Key takeaways

  • Leonid Brezhnev commanded the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. He was a conservative who wanted to preserve the Soviet political system.
  • Brezhnev achieved this through his Brezhnev Doctrine, suppressing opposition in Soviet bloc nations and also at home.
  • There were some positive achievements of Brezhnev's foreign policy, notably the SALT treaties, the Helsinki Accords and the increased participation in diplomacy.
  • However, it was clear with the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan that national security was his priority and this once more soured the Soviet relationship with the United States.
  • By the end of the Brezhnev Era, the Soviet Union was suffering economically through a lack of reform and political repression but had to wait until 1985 for real change through Mikhail Gorbachev's policies.


  1. Melvyn P. Leffler, 'From the Truman Doctrine to the Carter Doctrine: Lessons and Dilemmas of the Cold War', Diplomatic History, Volume 7, Issue 4, (Oct 1983), pp. 245–266.
  2. Robert C. Allen, 'The Rise and Decline of the Soviet Economy', The Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, No. 4, (Nov 2001) pp. 859-881.

Frequently Asked Questions about Brezhnev Era

The Brezhnev Era involved treaties to deescalate the Arms Race with the United States, foreign military intervention under the Brezhnev Doctrine and stagnation and repression domestically.

Brezhnev is known for being a hard-line conservative communist, unwilling to bend his principles for the preservation of his party and socialism.

Brezhnev took control of the Soviet Union in 1964 as part of a triumvirate with Kosygin and Podgorny and consolidated his position as the sole leader in the following years.

Brezhnev's theory or the Brezhnev Doctrine informed much of the foreign policy of the Soviet leader. As exemplified by Prague in 1968, he vowed to intervene in any Eastern bloc country where socialism was under threat.

The Brezhnev Era is the period between 1964 and 1982 when the Soviet Union was under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who did Brezhnev replace as leader of the Soviet Union?

Where was the first foreign intervention under the Brezhnev Doctrine?

Where was the trade union known as Solidarity based?


Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Entdecke Lernmaterial in der StudySmarter-App

Google Popup

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App