San Francisco Examiner
A Russian insider weeps for her country
Brezhnev's niece ran afoul of the power structure because she was a dissident at heart
By Joan Smith
Who would have supposed that Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Soviet Union for nearly two decades, might have been unable to prevent the KGB from beating, tailing, interrogating and otherwise harassing to the point of near madness his only brother's daughter?
But Luba Brezhneva, now 52, divorced and living in San Mateo, writes in a memoir from Random House, "The World I Left Behind, " that she tried for years to win permission to leave the country where her uneasy relationship with her famous uncle left her a vulnerable and conspicuous target for the intricate system of internal espionage that has long been a prominent feature of ordinary life.
"I left the Soviet Union at the first opportunity not because I no longer wanted to live there but because I was no longer able to," she writes and quotes James Fenimore Cooper; "If your country fails to defend you, if it does not respect your thoughts and your rights, then by this very failure it frees you - its citizens - from obligations."
Brezhneva, who still suffers kidney and spinal damage from the beatings she received as a young woman - one of which induced a miscarriage - explained during a recent interview that the KGB "wanted me to work with them," perhaps on behalf of rivals for her uncle's power, "They knew I knew a lot, that my father told me things, and they knew that I had disagreements with my family. But of course I would never cooperate. This is the first time I have opened my mouth in 30 years."
Brezhneva's feelings for Russia are as complicated as her relationship with her family; she can't help loving what she, at the same time, cannot truly respect. "I feel sorry for Russia," she says simply. A dissident "in my heart," Brezhneva says she was never a dissident in fact. "I never took part in any dissident activity,' she says. "They wouldn't have let me." Her most serious act of rebellion - falling in love with an East German soldier - ended tragically when, threatened by the KGB, her lover chose to end their romance and return to East Germany to save his military career.
But Brezhneva's friends were dissidents and she writes that, "after (her lover) Helmut left Russia in 1966, I began distancing myself from all my relatives on my father's side. Tired and disgusted by Moscow's upper crust, I gradually descended into the realm of ordinary Muscovites, people forced to cope with a harsh world that I, too, felt churning under my feet."
The people, in other words, who did not have private rooms and telephone lines and access to the stores and medical clinics of the elite.
"The World I Left Behind" is an outraged account of those privileges, of Brezhneva's disgust with the dissolute behavior of the Soviet ruling class, her father and uncle and their children the prime examples.
There are the lavishly furnished dachas, "huge, lordly mansions," with their flower gardens, greenhouses, swimming pools and saunas. There are the parties where Soviet generals entertain their young mistresses, ballerinas they dress in designer clothes and maintain in apartments inaccessible to ordinary people. There are two kinds of life in the former Soviet Union, Brezhneva notes, and they are as irreconcilable as the lives of the peasants and the aristocracy under the czars.
She writes with remarkable honesty about the failings of her father, Yakov Ilyich, a man she dearly loves, but whose indolence and alcoholism and tolerance of the drunken cronies to whom he dispenses favors in his brother's name are a source of perpetual exasperation. She was forced to rescue him, at one point, from a mental hospital, where he was secretly and forcibly detained, ostensibly for alcoholism, as the result of what Brezhneva believes was a conspiracy involving her uncle's wife.
And she writes, with loving dismay, of her uncle. She describes the conversations in which she needled him for what she saw as his ineffectualness and hypocrisy, but she also tells what she knows of his unofficial history, that he was a romantic who respected religion and loved poetry. That he loved to repeat a phrase of the poet Yesenin's: "In my heart I never lie."
That he was a sickly child and his mother's favorite, breast-fed until the age of five. That he had to give up his one true love, a doctor he met during the War, for political reasons. That he was unhappily married to an acquisitive wife, that he once in a fit of rage at what he saw as her "vulgar, bourgeois" greed cut all of her clothes to ribbons, that he wept when he talked about his spoiled and self-destructive children.
At the same time, Brezhneva writes that her uncle once told his brother that "all that stuff about communism is a tall tale for popular consumption. After all, we can't leave the people with no faith. The church was taken away, the czar was shot, and something had to be substituted."
"He made many errors," Brezhneva writes. "But no one can say that his career came easy, no one can accuse my uncle of laziness. Not at the beginning, at least; there was a time when he worked up to 18 hours a day, leaving home in the early morning and coming home after midnight. During the first decades of Leonid's career, his life was a race between office, field, building site, factory, shop, smoke-filled meeting room, train and plane - a way of life that left him hardly a minute to stop and reflect."
She describes the decline of his powers after his near-death in 1976, "his barely comprehensible official addresses,' " his speech impediments copied by impersonators and ridiculed in anecdotes."
"Several members of the Brezhnev family, including me, were sure in 1976 that he would retire. Had he resigned then for health reasons, his memory might have been honored by future generations; at least there would have been one less disgrace on his conscience, the war in Afghanistan. But he would remain in power another six years, long enough to lose every shred of the people's respect."
What is striking about this book is its hopelessness Brezhneva draws a sorry picture of her native county --the ineptitude, the corruption, the ruthless individual self-interest that seems to characterize a people who have, as she points out repeatedly, "suffered so much."
This is not a political critique, a program for reform. It is a bitter eulogy for a hopeless love.
"I am not optimistic about Russia," she says. "The people who have been running my country were so incompetent and so criminal in their behavior from the very beginning. In the former Soviet system it was possible to believe that your brother was your enemy or your wife a spy. It is an amoral society and the people running things now are the same people who were running it before. So I am not optimistic, and that makes me suffer very much."
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