Unhappy in Its own Way
Brezhnev's niece offers a portrait of a divided family and a corrupt regime.
The World I Left Behind
By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Who would have guessed that Leonid Brezhnev's niece was beaten up by the KGB? Or that her father, Brezhnev's brother, was imprisoned in the notorious Serbsky psychiatric hospital because his drinking embarrassed his sister-in-law? Luba Brezhneva, the niece of the former General Secretary, has written a vivid chronicle of a family and its life inside the Soviet system.
"The Life I Left Behind" is particularly valuable for its candid portrait of Brezhnev, who presided over the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982,, longer than any other leader except Stalin. Considering the span of his rule, surprisingly little has been written about the man, especially in the West. In post-censorship Russia, as Ms. Brezhneva notes, "observers who wrote paeans of praise to the General Secretary during his lifetime are still unfounded in their statements, still distorting and falsifying, only now in the opposite direction."
But this book is not an apologia. With candor and considerable detail, ms. Brezhneva exposes the flaws and weaknesses that corrupted Brezhnev and that she believes brought a form of plague and paralysis to his country. At the same time, she admits to an abiding fondness for her once handsome and charming uncle. Indeed, her memoir is valuable partly for its personal, and sometimes humanizing, portrait of Brezhnev - one of the few we have. We learn that he was breast-fed until the age of five; that he was a passable poet, who wept because his wife and two children brought him such unhappiness; that he nearly left his wife for a young doctor; and that he had an illegitimate child by another woman.
Ms. Brezhneva's family drama has the ingredients of a tale co-written by Tolstoy and Judith Krantz. Like many Russian families, the Brezhnev clan was divided politically and emotionally, and relations within it were often complicated. Ms. Brezhneva's father, Yakov, ended up as his older brother Leonid's appendage, consigned to distributing favors and apartments to his Communist drinking buddies. Galina, Leonid's daughter, became the symbol of the era's high-level corruption. Although Ms. Brezhneva musters some pity for her, the book generally depicts a heavy-drinking, self-indulgent woman with a young husband, a younger lover and a consuming passion for diamonds. It was Galina, and her alcoholic brother Yuri, who drove Leonid to weep quietly in his study night after night. "My uncle's personal life, at least toward the end," Ms. Brezhneva writes, "was the classic blend of tragedy and farce."
As a child, Ms. Brezhneva was immersed in her country's political tragedy. Like millions of soviet citizens, she came from a family, on her mother's side that was victimized by Stalin's terror. Her grandfather was imprisoned in Stalin's gulag because of his Cossack ancestry. A beloved aunt and uncle also suffered in the purges. "I grew up among these people and their descendants," she writes. "So, unlike the grandchildren of those who had stormed the Czar's Winter Palace, I had reason to question the Soviet Government from an early age."
But the complexities of Soviet history generated victims and victimizers in the same families and, on her father's side, Ms. Brezhneva's clan benefited from the Stalinist system. Although the future General Secretary, according to family lore, had early doubts about the Communist Party, he rose quickly through the ranks and participated in Stalin's brutal collectivization campaigns. Indeed, after almost being arrested by the secret police in 1937, Brezhnev was appointed to fill the post of a man who had just been executed in the purges. When Ms. Brezhneva, years later, asked her father how his brother could have served a system that almost destroyed him, he answered, 'The times were like that. . . . We were all doing the same things." Such attitudes fuel her anti-Communism. "What was Bolshevism," she asks," If not an attack of madness to which the Russian people had succumbed?"
But what emerges in this book is a portrait not of a revolutionary or ideological party but of a status quo party. By the late 1960's, according to Ms. Brezhneva, her uncle "did not believe in the triumph of socialism, in Marxist -Leninist principles or in the possibility of communism." "All that stuff about communism," Brezhnev told her father, "is a tall tale for popular consumption." If the era had an authentic ideology, it probably was summed up in Brezhnev's responses to his niece's question as to why the act of reading seemed like such a subversive idea to him. "Because, " he said, "if everyone starts doing what they feel like, there won't be any order in our country." (Today, many Russians would consider this remark analytically prescient.) By the late 1960's Soviet Communism had come to represent law and order, national security and a primitive cradle-to-grave welfare system.
For the party apparatchiks, the era meant "two decades of unprecedented contentment," stability and personal enrichment. With a novelist's eye for detail, Ms. Brezhneva describes a corrupt officialdom, strongly reminiscent of its czarist predecessor, in which people received rewards according to their position in the hierarchical ladder. "At the Soviet court, " she observes, " the nomenklatura's wives rated one another by the quality and quantity of their coats, the number and price of one's furs serving as an indicator of social status rather than mere wealth."
Although Ms. Brezhneva's book, capably translated by Geoffrey Polk, provides vivid, often gossipy portraits of the era's movers and shakers, it contributes little to the new interpretation of the Brezhnev period's still murky political history. Ms. Brezhneva herself admits that she was a naïve witness to the swirl of political intrigue surrounding the conspiracy to oust Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, and other important events of the period.
All politic memoirs operate at varying degrees of candor. They seek, of course, to present the author in the best possible light. In this case, Luba Brezhneva, who immigrated to California in 1990, emerges as an outspoken, sensitive and intelligent woman with strong anti-Communist feelings. As early as 1965, she says, she felt a "Spiritual kinship" with the dissidents. Yet is possible that Ms. Brezhneva is exaggerating her dissident views and outspokenness during those years. After all, for nearly two decades she continued to partake of the privileges accorded to her family. On the other hand, the description of her two beatings by the KGB when she was a university student - one so brutal that it resulted in a miscarriage - are believable in their graphic detail. Amazingly, her uncle's position and power couldn't protect her. Her speculation is that the KGB might have been running an operation against her uncle in the mid-1960's and hoped to collect damaging information about the Brezhnev's from her.
According to a recent Russian public opinion poll, a majority of citizens would like to return to Soviet life as it was under Brezhnev - that is, before the extraordinary changes under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. After reading, "The World I Left Behind, " we should not be surprised by such nostalgia. Russia is a county of conservative traditions, and even though the Brezhnev era was corrupt and repressive, it was the first truly conservative era since the 1917 Revolution - as well as, for most citizens, the most prosperous. As for the corruption, most Russians will tell you that it is even greater today, but done in the name of a different ideology.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor of The Nation and the author, with Stephen F. Cohen, of "Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers."
The New York Times Book Review
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