Looking from the present back to the last decades of the Soviet Union, historians and political scientists view the Brezhnev years as the prelude to the fall of the Communist system. Gorbachev labeled the decades of the late sixties and seventies the “stagnation” (zastoi), a time when the Soviet economy and political structure appeared to be suffering from the same arteriosclerosis that its aging leaders endured. But if one steps back and observes the USSR from the vantage point of the mid-1970s, the internal decline was partly masked by a massive military buildup and the expansion of Soviet influence into new parts of the world—Africa, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia. For the first time, the USSR reached rough parity in military might with the United States, though its economy staggered at less than half the production of its principal rival. The USSR faced unrest in its Eastern European empire, “the Achilles heel of the Soviet system,” where the local Communist regimes were rapidly loosing the last vestiges of legitimacy.1 In Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Communist party itself, under Alexander Dubcek, attempted to reform and popularize a “socialism with a human face,” only to be met with Soviet tanks. In Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, massive strikes by workers and an extraordinary alliance of trade unionists and intellectuals eventually made Communist party rule untenable. Most disastrously, Soviet power overextended itself into Afghanistan to prop up a leftist government in late 1979, only to find itself mired in a debilitating and costly war against Muslim guerrillas backed by the United States, Pakistan, and China.
Internally, the Soviet system reached the limits of the Stalinist model of industrialization based on expansion of the physical plant rather than intensification and improvement of production. The “command economy” could no longer command significant increases in either industrial or agricultural output or labor productivity. In the 1970s, both Western capitalist and Soviet-style economies suffered the end of the period of spectacular growth of the 1950s and 1960s, but the Soviet economy continued its decline into the next decade. The only bright spot was that oil-rich Russia benefited from high world oil prices and exported cheap energy to its “satellite” neighbors and to the rest of the world in exchange for industrial goods and grain. As Mark Mazower explains, “communist regimes could not for political reasons adjust the economy through deflation and through mass unemployment after the fashion of their Western counterparts. They therefore chose the opposite strategy to that followed in
1. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes. A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York: Pantheon Books,
1995), p. 475.