Abstract: On September 24, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made clear that he would run again for the presidency. This news and the speculation leading up to it provoked a rash of comparisons in the Russian media between Putin and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader from 1964 until his death in 1982. Their personalities, methods of rule, and the outcomes of their tenure--or, in Putin's case, predicted outcomes--stood at the center of the analyses. This essay aims to flesh out these comparisons in broad brush-strokes, presenting my own views alongside those of Russian commentators. This comparison is important because it helps to shed light on the future of the Putinist system.
The journalist Nikolai Troitsky reacted to a July 29, 2011, Reuters report speculating that Putin was about to announce his candidacy with an article entitled "Putin is the Brezhnev of Today." (1) In addition to the fact that both leaders came to power and restored order in the wake of the chaotic regimes of their predecessors Khrushchev and Yeltsin, Troitsky held that: "The main thing they have in common is their philosophy, world-view, and mentality, the essence of which is that in Russia nothing should be changed. More exactly, order must be restored, but then let everything proceed as before, without reforms, without wild leaps, without upheavals.... Let everyone steal and filch from top to bottom, let corruption penetrate everything: nothing can be done about all that. Doing anything would require upsetting the system, and that would be dangerous, harmful, and destructive. Yes, progress is slowly and quietly proceeding, but God preserve us from any substantive modernizations or innovations." (2)
Putin's declaration of September 24 that he would run again provoked an escalation of such discussions. Since he'd already been in power for 12 years, and could now be headed for two more 6-year terms, his total number of years as Russia's ruler might reach 24. This would be six years longer than the 18-year rule of Brezhnev, who, in the 1970s, had seemed to be depressingly immortal.
In this context, during a TV program on October 5, Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov admitted: "It's true that many people are talking about the Brezhnevization of Putin.... But you know, Brezhnev is not a negative figure in the history of our country; he's an enormously positive one. He laid the foundations of the economy, of agriculture, and so on." In an eloquent reply to these claims, an anonymous editorialist on the critically inclined website gazeta.ru interpreted the new PR ploy on Putin's behalf as presenting the following false message: "Brezhnev does not represent stagnation (zastoi), nor 'an economy that's addicted to oil,' nor the suffocating atmosphere of dogmatism, nor the political gerontocratism of the authorities that led to the Afghan fiasco, but, rather, he represents political stability and a calm and steady development." As for Putin in today's real world, the writer went on, he "is returning to power to be president of the essentially Soviet majority of the population, people who live in an economic and political environment that differs little from that of the Brezhnev era." For these people, he is presented as their "only hope and support." The Brezhnev-created illusion that "nothing will ever be changed, nothing will ever disrupt the status quo" is exactly the same message that "will be drilled into the Russian people now." (3)
The fact that Putin soon rejected the comparison between himself and Brezhnev, preferring to be compared to Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected president four times, did not deter the critics. Nor did his claims, first that "If two or three incorrect steps are taken, then all this [the horrors of the 1990s that he had just enumerated] could once again rain down on the country," and therefore, second, his re-election as an experienced former president was essential. (4)
This article will now analyze and compare, briefly and somewhat schematically, the Brezhnev and Putin systems. …