Luba Brezhnev
The World I Left Behind

Reviews

Memoirs of a Soviet Princess
Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Book World

The World I Left Behind
Pieces of a Past
By Luba Brezhneva
Translated from the Russian by Geoffrey Polk

Luba Brezhneva was born 52 years ago in the new industrial city of Magnitogorsk, in the Ural Mountains of Russia, the daughter of Yakov Brezhnev and his wife, Yelena, who had only recently discovered that her husband had another wife, in the Kazakhstan capital of Alma-Ata. When Yelena gave birth, the doctor heard no heartbeat in the infant girl and consigned her to a mortuary; had a "drunken night watchman" not rescued her and taken her to the maternity ward, the life around which this memoir revolves would have been snuffed out at its inception.

It was a strange beginning for a strange life. Born in poverty, Luba Brezhneva rose through a fluke of fate to a position of considerable privilege. Her Uncle Leonid, Yakov's older brother, served for nearly two decades as prime minister of the soviet Union and Luba was among the several accidental beneficiaries of the immense power he enjoyed The World I Left Behind is her account of what it was like to grow up in the Soviet Union as a niece of Leonid Brezhnev." It "does not pretend to be a work of political science, rather, it is intended to portray aspects of Soviet life from the inside and, above all, to portray the experience of one girl, then one woman."

The Brezhnev's began as peasants and on Luba's mother's side, as Cossacks. In time the Communist revolution changes their lives dramatically, not because they profited from the reforms it allegedly sponsored, but because Leonid Brezhnev proved to be an accomplished practitioner of Communist beaurocratic politics. A loyal party member who spouted its rhetoric profusely -albeit with an enthusiasm that turned to cynicism over the years-he rose steadily and undramatically, all the while managing to survive the various purges and massacres of the Stalin years. In the 1060's he engineered the coup that squeezed out Nikita Khrushchev, a coup that, as his niece dryly observes, "barely changed the structure of power, merely replacing one group of government lackeys with another."

For the members of Brezhnev's extended (and quarrelsome) family, his ascension was a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, it granted them full access to the tawdry luxuries and drunken festivities that the members of the upper bureaucracy enjoyed. On the other hand, they knew that this access had been given them not through their own merits or performance but because they were kin to the Prime Minister. Yakov Brezhnev, who bounced around among various assignments and was forever surrounded by a coterie of "money grubbers, losers, black-market businessman and outright criminals," put it simply, "My occupation is being Brezhnev's Brother," he said, "And that's it."

The portrait that Luba Brezhneva paints of the Soviet upper crust is withering and unsparing in all respects. She writes" "I came to the conclusion that the state and political elite was made up of people who held nothing sacred. To retain power, which meant above all having willing access to the good life, they were willing to betray friends and relations, act as anyone's flunky and forsake the pleasure or the duty of saying what they really thought. The men ruling the country included criminally insane monsters that used a patina of official purpose to cover their drunkenness, gluttony and banal games. I expected at least one of them to get fed up and end it all with a bullet through the head. But most went on to die natural deaths, leaving their heirs to divided up - and battle over - their property"

That this was the case is by now widely known, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet power structure, but the details that Brezhneva provides are startling all the same. While ordinary Russians lined up for hours to purchase the most basic necessities, the privileged members of the nomenklatura had their exclusive food stores, medical clinics and pharmacies, their own motor pools, gas stations and telephone booths, their own schools, institutions of higher learning and graduate fellowships, their own dressmakers and tailors." Their children "had mastered the finer social graces, "but "what they really knew how to do was steal, consume and destroy."

Like the upper echelon of Nazi Germany, the nomenklatura was corrupt to the core. Through at this remove she understandably emphasizes her distaste for it, Brezhneva seems to have been both participant in and detached observer of its affairs while her uncle was in power. She tells us about being groped and propositioned by ranking generals and others in power, but it remains that she went to their parties and "I couldn't fool myself into believing that I lived like everybody else."

Even for Brezhnev's niece, power had its limits, which seem to have been reached at the door to the KGB. Its agents harassed her regularly, and her uncle seems to have had no power to stop them even if he had tried. They managed to break up her romance with Helmut, an East German doing graduate military studies in Moscow, a romance of which to this day, after marriage and two sons, she says, "I will remember him as long as I live." The KGB made life miserable for her in other respects as well, including beatings and psychological intimidation; that she seems to have come through all of this intact suggests a strong inner core.

As to her famous uncle, Brezhneva declines either to retreat into stereo type or to dismiss him perfunctorily. The world tended to see him, especially in his alter years, as a stuffed uniform, but his niece remembers him as "considerate and outgoing by nature, " as "handsome and affectionate," as using in private language that was 'Lively, colorful and expressive," even as a "kind man, (though) his kindness was oval shaped, of the variety that comes from inaction." She recalls as well the cynicism into which he finally lapsed, telling his brother; 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. So let the people build communism."

Luba's story ends, in this telling, too abruptly. Though she dwells lovingly and perhaps overlong on her family's history and her own childhood, she tells us nothing about her immigration to the United States five years ago and her new life in California. Did her husband and sons come with her? How has she supported herself? Where does she live and who are her friends? How does she find life in her new country? It is a pity that having answered so many questions about her old life, she doesn't even mention the pertinent ones about her new one.

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