Reading my IB textbooks, they say Brezhnev's rule was an "era of stagnation". However they are only able to cite evidence of economic stagnation when claiming that would require "stagnation" in multiple aspects, such as political, economic, social, military, ideological...

From what I read, "stagnation" should refer to a lack of development in itself, and not a backwardness relative to other countries such as the USA, Japan ...?

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    Political, economic, social, ideological: yes, stagnation. But not in science (including space exploration; especially biological sciences which finally recovered from years of Lysenko's influence) and not in military and not in expansion of Soviet geopolitical influence (think of Afghanistan, Middle East, Central America, parts of Africa...). May 25, 2017 at 4:25
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    Stagnation is a term invented by the Soviet reformers. It applied to all aspects of life. They wanted to justify the necessity of changes.
    – Alex
    May 25, 2017 at 7:11
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    Could you elaborate on these points? About the biological sciences, that is most interesting, do you have a source? Thanks May 25, 2017 at 7:12
  • @Alex do you mean Gorbachev? I've been doing some research and some historians like Bacon and Sandle think that he coined the term, which may imply that it isn't legitimate because he had other reasons to coin the term, as you suggest. However, does this necessarily mean that it was completely false? And others like Kalinovsky believe the term came before Gorbachev, even whilst Brezhnev was in power. May 25, 2017 at 7:18

2 Answers 2



When an epoch ends, the intellectual leaders of the new epoch name the one that just ended (this is a general observation, cf Early modern vs late modern vs post modern?).

E.g., Khrushchev called Stalin's years "personality cult", Brezhnev called Khrushchev years "voluntarism", and Gorbachev called Brezhnev's years "stagnation" ("застой").

The existential problem of the USSR was its inability to deliver on its messianic promise of prosperity and happiness, and that required an explanation, and the easiest was was to blame the past and the surroundings:

  • For Stalin it was the "Tzarist heritage" ("тяжёлое наследие царизма" - he could hardly blame Lenin, who, first, was a "saint", and, second, ruled for only a short time) and "capitalist encirclement" ("капиталистическое окружение").
  • For Khrushchev - Stalin's excesses and USA meddling ("происки США").
  • For Brezhnev - Khrushchev's voluntarism, WW2 devastation and USA meddling.
  • For Gorbachev - Brezhnev's stagnation and USA meddling (notice the common theme).

Were Brezhnev's years truly stagnation?

Yes, mostly.

Economy: down

All attempts of economic reform failed, and the nature of communism took over: bureaucracy appropriating all benefits while bearing no risks. During Stalin's years, a "failed" (in the eye of his superior, which might or might not correlate with reality) bureaucrat was often executed. When Khrushchev broke this lame "feed back", bureaucrats stopped caring about the outcome.

Military: up

The army gobbled up all the oil revenues and achieved missile parity with the complacent USA.

Corollary: Space and other military-related research: up

Space industry and research benefited from the arms race. While losing the Race to the Moon and wasting precious resources on the attempt to duplicated Space Shuttle, USSR still made interesting progress with space stations.

Culture: down

The Khrushchev Thaw was over.

Incidentally, I highly recommend Советская детская литература и её современные перспективы: it is a very incisive (if somewhat controversial) analysis of Soviet culture.

Other research: uppish

With Stalin's fundamentalism and Lysenkoism gone, researches were more free to pursue their interests. E.g., fox domestication! This was limited by the usual funding shortages (if it's not military, you need connections at the top to get funded). Since mathematicians do not need much funding, the Soviet school of mathematics blossomed!

PS. One of the immanent aspects of the Soviet life was the alternation of the leaders: each one was the "antithesis" of the previous one. This is especially evident in the hairdo: Lenin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Putin are bald; Stalin, Brezhnev, and Yeltsin are not. Even the non-entity Medvedev fits the pattern!

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    The effect in the PS is not limited to Soviet leaders. People have long observed the same with Popes (who are also elected for life in a similarly opaque conclave of oligarchs). The saying is, "After a fat Pope, a skinny Pope". Perhaps there's some kind of systemic effect here, worthy of someone's doctoral research.
    – T.E.D.
    May 25, 2017 at 21:10
  • Could you elaborate on the economic stagnation? As you said, "the nature of communism" - the lack of incentives, the subsidies despite inefficiency... caused stagnation, but why did it only show significant impact at Brezhnev's time? Why not before? Also, the information presented to me has led me to think that economic, cultural and political (as other orthodox historians have pointed out, in terms of corruption, "stability of cadres", authoritarianism...) stagnation all have roots under the ideology. So maybe we could just say it was ideological stagnation but not stagnation as a whole? May 27, 2017 at 1:56
  • Well, under Khruschev there was a sort of low baseline effect - the devastation of WWII and of Stalin's utterly ihumane policies were so great that by just by letting up pressure a bit and caring a bit about people (not too much, case in point the Novecherkassk massacre) a lot of objective and subjective growth was achieved. Under Brezhnev this could no longer work. May 27, 2017 at 16:54
  • @AnnaCHOI see history.stackexchange.com/a/10640/1979
    – sds
    May 28, 2017 at 3:07
  • @T.E.D.: Yes, even of monarchies according to ancient tradition: After a great king a bad one; unfortunately any number of bad kings between great ones. Jul 11, 2017 at 20:46

Consider a typical day of a Soviet white-collar worker at the time.

The 1970s, Moscow.

In the morning you go to the office. There you do not work, but just chat with your colleagues. You discuss some news or personal stories. Somebody tells about a relative who just returned from abroad and what things he/she brought back. Then one woman says she forgot to ask if anybody likes her new blouse made in Yugoslavia. She bought 3 of them (the rest are at home) but if anyone wants she can bring them to the office. Then another woman asks to try on the blouse to see if it fits her. Then they change blouses and everyone gives their opinion.

Then comes the lunch time. During the lunch you go shopping so to avoid lines that may be after the work hours. This time you go to a book store and find a deficit book by Ivan Yefremov “Thais of Athens”. It is valued because it has realistic sexual scenes.

You return to the office and here they discuss who will get the trade-union sponsored tour to Crimea and who will be less lucky and only get a tour to the Moscow area. Immediately, someone asks you to give them your new book to read for a week and you give.

Finally, the workday is heading to the end, so someone brings a bottle of wine or vodka. Someone also brings a box of chocolates. One needs a pretext to drink so one woman announces her cat has a birthday today. Everyone has a wineglass and then there is some drunk chat with men trying to flirt with women.

The workday ends at about 6 pm and you are heading home.

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    This is realistic for a "civilian" research institute. Space/Military was busier. E.g., there was a saying that there are "10 meters of dicks and a bucket of balls per each woman" at Baikonur. Once a Space research team spent a whole day analyzing whether the ratio 10m:1bucket was realistic (average penis and testicle size, dense packing, shape distortion under pressure, &c &c &c). Serious science!
    – sds
    May 25, 2017 at 17:18
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    @sds my writing is actually about a military, classified enterprise dealing with space communications and mainframe programming. I do not say that NOBODY was doing anything there, possibly when a department needed something done, they would select 1-2 persons interested in carrier to do things for all (and those would be awarded of course). Also, allegedly, most of the done work was going to the trash...
    – Anixx
    May 25, 2017 at 18:21
  • You mean lunch rather than dinner. May 27, 2017 at 16:55
  • @FelixGoldberg: Where I come from lunch is the mid-day meal; supper is the early evening meal; and dinner is the larger of the two. In my youth I often had dinner around mid-day, and supper later. I believe this pattern is particularly common in Southern climates that celebrate a mid-day siesta. Jul 11, 2017 at 20:50
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    @Pieter Geerkens in Russia the main meal is usually mid-day and we were told it should be translated as dinner to English.
    – Anixx
    Jul 12, 2017 at 7:05

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