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Corruption Under Brezhnev


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This is my essay that I wrote for my history of the Soviet Union class in the spring of 2002:

The Growing Problem of Corruption Under Brezhnev

When the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government in October 1917, Lenin's grand plan was to somehow bring socialism into Russia and eventually spread it among the world itself. Near the end of his life though, Lenin began to realize that the Communist Party was moving away from his vision. Membership was increasing steadily and some members were beginning to abuse their power; straying from the Partys discipline. Corruption began to emerge within the Party, which would continue under Stalin and increase under Khrushchev's thaw. The problem of corruption would hit its peak when Brezhnev would rule over the Soviet Union for twenty-eight years. During Brezhnev's reign, the bureaucracy was huge, going directly against Lenin's vision. It became inefficient as officials used their positions for their own personal gain. Brezhnev and his government would do nothing to stop it and mainly ignored the problem since many Party members were directly involved with it. This would lead to economic stagnation, which created a lack of consumer goods. The black markets role would increase significantly, becoming a pillar under the Soviet system.(1) This obvious misuse of power by the Party while the Soviet Union was in decline disillusioned the publics view of the Soviet system. The ideals of socialism, used by the Party were seen as lies. This added to the cycle of decline when disenchanted citizens undermined political authority. The quality and efficiency of Soviet production fell. Criticism of the Party would also increase with the growing internal problems. Gorbachev would inherit these problems when he became General Secretary in 1985, and with his policy of glasnost, public discontent would help bring down the Soviet Union in 1991. This contradiction of socialism that the Party almost encouraged during Brezhnev's time hurt the Party's legitimacy, which in turn would help weaken the system and move it towards collapse. Lenin was right when he said that the bureaucracy and corruption would threaten the future of the socialist project.(2)

   From the beginnings of the October Revolution, corruption and the growth of the bureaucracy became apparent. Lenin was aware of this early in January 1918, and when he was speaking at the Central Committee he condemned it. Lenin was worried, being that he saw the Party transforming because of a conquest for power.(3) Since the Bolshevik coup, Party membership increased with new members eager to exploit their positions. For example, a Party official noted that a new member wanted his Party card right away only so he could use it to acquire an office job.(4) Lenin despised those kind of Party members, and he pushed for education of Party members to help stop the problem. In his last years, he could see that the Party bureaucracy was still growing.(5) From this he worried about the future of the Party and socialism in Russia. Lenin closely predicts the Partys future when he asks, "What if unscrupulous and malevolent men succeeded in capturing these institutions and manipulated them to cover-up or condone their own abuses of power?"(6) Years later, in 1964, when Brezhnev came into power, they system would reflect Lenin's fears, and the hope for true socialism would be gone.

   When Brezhnev rose to power, the Soviet system was already deeply corrupted. The bureaucracy at this stage was also large and inefficient. Corruption and the black market grew under Khrushchev, as people were less afraid of the state during his thaw.(7) The two problems also grew because of a lack of consumer goods. These issues would increase under Brezhnev, being as he was mainly unwilling to reform the economy. His polices were actually overtly protective of the elites privilege.(8) The Party was still used as a tool, as it was in the beginning by some members for their personal benefit. Ministries and subagencies "grew like mushrooms" and had many bureaucrats with "ill-defined responsibilities", but very agreeable salaries.(9) The system was huge and unwilling to reform. The Communist Party apparatus became the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known.(10) The elite shopped at special stores, and had luxury cars with drivers. They owned country dachas and took extravagant trips abroad.(11) Like Lenin had predicted, these apparatchiks would also defend these privileges at any cost. They guarded this monopoly of power with a phony consensus and constitution.(12) The actions of the Party at that time were what Lenin had feared. The Communist Party under Brezhnev had become a complete betrayal of Lenins vision of socialism in Russia.

   The essential function of the Party according to Marx and Lenin was to articulate the historical goals of the working class.(13) At the time of Brezhnev, many members goals were to increase and continue under the system. Another goal for Marxists was to eliminate the exploitation and class divisions within society.(14) By the sixties and seventies divisions between classes in the general public were blurred, there was a huge division between the Party elite and the rest of society. The Party bureaucracy was also large and inefficient as mentioned before. This went directly against Lenin's call for a small but disciplined group within the Party, working towards a common goal.(15) One of the only common goals during the Brezhnev era was the elites effort to hold on to their power. This period saw the utopian concepts of socialism waste away in the thought and practice of the political elite.(16) The Party had betrayed their pledge to socialism. The aim of the October Revolution was to not have any privileged group, and the very existence of privileges for certain people removed much of the social justification of the revolution.(17) The actions of the Party at this time would have dire consequences that would appear during the Gorbachev years. The whole reason for the Partys authority and the whole Soviet system itself was rapidly disappearing. As Martin Malia states, "The Soviet system had its deepest origins in, and drew its justification from the moral idea of socialism as the fullness of human equality".(18) The Party had become vastly self-serving at the time when the country had needed good leadership the most.

   Under Brezhnev the standard of living in the Soviet Union slightly increased in his initial years in power.(19) Brezhnev saw that the agriculture industry had been lacking and decided to invest more state funds towards it. The Soviet Union had still been paying the price for Stalin's massive purges and financial neglect of the countryside. The production in agriculture had increased, but there were a few harvests that would deeply hurt the economy. Meanwhile, there were increases with incomes in rural and urban areas, which fed the hunger for consumer goods.(20) There were no state funds to increase consumer-good production, since the agriculture sector had become such a net burned on the economy.(21) Even before Brezhnev's time Party officials knew the economy needed to reform. The Soviet economy was not capable of continuing post-war growth through the old-formula of massive investments and the constant expansion of the labor force.(22) There were small economic reform experiments started by Aleksei Kosygin that moved away from the centralized economy. They were met with success, but ended for two reasons. The first reason being that there was not any proper cooperation with the production managers and the second reason was the issue of the Prague Spring.(23) The regime feared reform after the events in Czechoslovakia, and felt economic reform was dangerously close to political liberalization.(24) This unwillingness to reform would lead to more problems for the public. The standard of living for the common Soviet citizen which had improved over the initial Brezhnev years had sharply declined by the mid 1970s.(25)

   This fear and failure to reform the fledgling economy was also tied in with the regimes ignorance of the problems. The elite wanted to hold on to their privileges and therefore they would ignore the obvious problems. Brezhnev's approach to governing was to try and increase the living standards of the people at the bottom without undermining the privileges of those at the top.(26) Of course it would be impossible to help the people at the bottom significantly without introducing economic reform and reducing Party corruption. Party members would not put the publics interests in front of their personal gain. This crippled the efficiency of the government. The Party was too deep and had important vested interests to take care of. It had become "ostrich-like", unwilling and unable to confront the problems.(27) With the market hurting, the shortage of consumer goods continued to grow. This would increase the role of the black market in the Soviet Union.

   The black market in the Soviet Union was so massive by the 1970s it actually amounted to a counter economy.(28) It not only involved the Party elite, but it engulfed most of the nation. Common people would go through the motions of working in the official economy, but when they wanted goods and services such as clothes, rugs, apartment space, car parts and many other things, they had to turn to the black market.(29) The black market of course, also reflected the obvious problem of corruption not only in the Party but also throughout the entire system. It became a direct outgrowth of the process of privatization within the Soviet system, because most of the goods on the black market were offered by those who had exploited their official positions.(30) People who were not within the Party also exploited their positions. For instance, bribes were generally needed for most healthcare.(31) Soviet corruption cannot be compared to corruption in the West. Corruption in Western nations was optional, while most Soviet citizens would have to "deal" a little to survive.(32) Frustrations would continue to rise within the public, as even with the black market all the items sought after were not always available. Party elite would enjoy their luxuries while the common citizen would lack new clothes, medicine or other goods. This discontent within the public would lead to criticism towards the Party. The strict hand of the regime was starting to lose its power of fear. As most of the population was dragged into corruption and the black market, the very existence of the two undermined the publics morality and sense of law.(33) Crime and corruption therefore would steadily increase, hurting the economy. More people were beginning to lose faith in the Party and it was beginning to show.

   The fact that corruption involved most of the Party, going right up to Brezhnev's associates and family, was known to the public and severely damaged the regimes fragile credibility.(34) Most of the Soviet citizens were sincerely beginning to lose faith in Brezhnev as a leader. The majority of the public still believed in socialism, but the intelligentsia knew the system was due for a change.(35) Western lifestyles also did not help. The regime tried to block out these images of Western lifestyles and culture, but it was impossible. Some citizens were beginning to learn how Western people lived and this increased dissatisfaction even more.(36) The common Soviet citizen was becoming alienated from the state. Even if the Soviet populace had generally accepted the corruption, discontent stemmed from the Partys inability to improve the economic situation. It had become obvious to the majority of the people that the state was unable to run the economy efficiently and provide enough goods and service for the population.(37) Free healthcare that had been the pride of Soviet socialism and it began to decline. Infant mortality rates rose and male life expectancy went down.(38) The state could no longer meet some basic needs of its people. Many Soviet citizens lost complete respect for Brezhnev. While the problems grew worse, the regime would brag even more. Propaganda increased, and when Brezhnev would hold ceremonies to have more medals awarded to him, it would sicken the viewers. Many people rightfully saw his loyalties lie with holding power instead of socialist ideals.(39) All of these factors would lead to the undermining of political authority increasing to the 1980s.

   With the Party elite wrapped up in a web of corruption, the public had become deeply disillusioned about the whole system of socialism. Is this what the older generation had fought and died for in the Great Patriotic War? To many, as years went on during Brezhnev's time, the whole system was a sham. This would be reflected in the workplace and dissent movement. Dissidence in the Soviet Union was beginning to slowly emerge by the 1960s. It had initially started after Stalin's death, when Khrushchev's thaw had started.(40) This movement would increase even more with the deepening disillusionment that the system would reform. The Soviet dissident movement still had to be careful and tread lightly, because the Party still had the power to crackdown on obvious resistance and protest. This dissident movement began with writers and their literary works, criticizing the system.(41) Most of their works would be banned and in some cases, the writers would be exiled or jailed. The younger generation, mostly the educated middle class, helped the dissident movement grow. They were susceptible to change and longed for more freedoms that Western societies had.(42) This movement would slowly grow during the Brezhnev years and finally erupt with the emergence of Gorbachev's glasnost. The movements main concerns were with human rights, different nationalities self-determination, and of course, economic reform. The fear of repression by the Party was not enough to check the seething economic disillusionment.

   The disappointment in the Soviet system under the Party had inevitably seeped into the workplace. The expectations for a better future, which were high were not met. The low standards of living had a huge toll on the workers morale. Social discipline had severely deteriorated, increasing theft and corruption in the general workforce. Some citizens were also starting to feel that relationships among human beings had deteriorated. No one seemed to care about each other.(43) This lead to depression and alcoholism among some Soviet citizens. Alcoholism grew and became a major problem, while deviant social behavior was also on the rise. The obvious social decline had become a political problem, as directors could not meet their economic goals.(44) These social problems combined with low productivity had created a viscous cycle within the Soviet system. Social discipline would have increased if the amount of material incentives had grown significantly, but without social discipline and low production, the state had no resources available for incentives.(45) This public discontent was building more under Brezhnev, but would not totally surface until Gorbachev took power. It would do so with incredible results.

   When Gorbachev came into power, there were many hopes that came with it. He would try to reform the socialist state, but it would be too late. Gorbachev's reforms would actually have the opposite of the desired effect. His "openness" known as glasnost, opened the door wide open to the dissident movement. Grievances with the state were beginning to be brought out into the open. The criticism of where the Party had taken socialism grew even more. The economic decline in the Soviet Union had discredited the claims of the ideology and Gorbachev's glasnost made it possible to state this, which delegitimized the whole Soviet system.(46) All the ideals that Lenin had in 1917 for Russia had clearly transformed over the years of Soviet rule into an overall failure. This can partly be blamed on the Partys decisions in regards to corruption and the economy. The Party had become the biggest hypocrite in the so-called socialist system. It had started from the Bolshevik's beginnings in Lenin's time, even though he warned of the Partys future problems. The problems of the regimes corruption would peak under Brezhnev causing massive economic stagnation. By this time, Marx and Lenin's ideas had been betrayed. Most of the public had lost faith in the Party by Gorbachev's time. All of these factors would contribute to the social breakdown and the growth of the black market. By the late 1980s, with the iron will of the state vastly receding, dissidents began to increasingly question the Party's legitimacy. The Soviet Union's collapse of course, does not fully lie with the Partys corruption. Factors such as self-determination by nationalities within the union and the quest for human rights also contributed greatly to the demise of the USSR. It cannot be understated though that the economic decline created by Party corruption was a major factor in questioning the relevance of the system, therefore fatally weakening it. Also, with a weak economy, the Party did not have the power and resources to effectively hold together the union. If Party corruption and the black market had been crushed or not allowed to develop to the extent it was, prevention along with a stable economy might have secured many more years of Soviet rule. The systems existence would not be as easily questioned. The Party, following its true socialist ideals, would be able to also push public morale by increasing propaganda that actually had a base of truth. This, with the availability of consumer goods, would have also helped the Party strengthen the economy, while at the same time crush any challenge it may face with its political authority.


1. Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy, (Toronto: The Free Press, 1994), 368.

2. Neil Harding, Leninism, (Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996), 195.

3. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1975), 306.

4. Ibid., 307.

4. Harding, 195.

6. Ibid., 195.

7. Malia, 368.

8. Mervyn Matthews, Privilege in the Soviet Union, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1978), 129.

9. Hendrick Smith, The New Russians, (New York: Random House, 1990), 15.

10. David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb, (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 183.

11. Smith, 19.

12. Remnick, 183.

13. Harding, 171.

14. Harding, 177.

15. Harding, 181.

16. Seweryn Biuler, The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline, (New York: Alfred A. Knof Inc., 1986), 54.

17. Matthews, 185.

18. Malia, 494.

19. Smith, 23.

20. Malia, 357.

21. Ibid., 358.

22. Smith, 10.

23. Malia, 360.

24. Ibid., 360.

25. Smith, 23.

26. Mark Sandle, A Short History of Soviet Socialism, (London: UCL Press, 1999), 352-3.

27. Ibid., 360.

28. Smith, 24.

29. Smith, 24.

30. Vladimir Shlapentokh, Public and Private Life of the Soviet People, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 211.

31. Smith, 23.

32. Malia, 370.

33. Ibid., 370.

34. Ibid., 369.

35. Smith, 22.

36. Ibid., 19.

37. Shlapentokh, 227.

38. Smith, 23.

39. Ibid., 23.

40. Malia, 356.

41. Fred Coleman, The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire, (New York: St. Martins Press, 1996), 95.

42. Smith, 19.

43. Walter Laquer, Soviet Realities: Culture and Politics From Stalin to Gorbachev, (New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Publishers, 1990), 28.

44. Biuler, 73.

45. Biuler, 73.

46. Malia, 492.


Biuler, Seweryn. The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1986.

Coleman, Fred. The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire. New York: St. Martins Press, 1996.

Harding, Neil. Leninism. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Laquer, Walter. Soviet Realities: Culture and Politics From Stalin to Gorbachev. New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Publishers, 1990.

Liebman, Marcel. Leninism Under Lenin. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1975.

Malia, Martin. The Soviet Tragedy. Toronto: The Free Press, 1994.

Matthews, Mervyn. Privilege in the Soviet Union. London: Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Remnick, David. Lenin's Tomb. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Sandle, Mark. A Short History of Soviet Socialism. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Smith, Hendrick. The New Russians. New York: Random House, 1990.

Shlapentokh, Vladimir. Public and Private Life of the Soviet People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.