The Dark Underworld of Brezhnev’s Kremlin | History Hit

The Dark Underworld of Brezhnev’s Kremlin

Tom Brown

30 Oct 2022
Leonid Brezhnev, June 1972
Image Credit: Dutch National Archives / Anefo / Public Domain

An often overlooked Soviet Leader, the story behind the reign of Leonid Brezhnev is one that covers some of the defining moments of the Cold War yet is not a topic that has drawn the attention of many documentaries.

However, The Dark Underworld of Brezhnev’s Kremlin from the Secrets of War series is one that takes a look behind the Iron Curtain and tells the story of one the most influential leaders in the history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

The early years of Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev was born to a Russian working-class family in what is now modern-day Ukraine during the time of the Russian Empire. In the aftermath of the October Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, Brezhnev joined the Communist party’s youth division in 1923 before becoming an official member of the Communist party in 1929.

With the outbreak of the Seond World War and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, he highlighted his commitment to the cause by joining the Red Army as a commissar. He would be rewarded, with a rapid rise through the ranks to become a Major General of the Red Army before the end of the Second World War.

In the post-war era, Brezhnev gained promotion to the Communist party’s Central Committee in 1952 before becoming a full member of the Politburo under Khrushchev’s reign following the death of Stalin.

Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, 23 April 1943

Image Credit: Public Domain

Seizing power

In 1964, as his power began to disintegrate, Khrushchev promoted Brezhnev to the role of Second Secretary and de facto second in command of the Soviet Union. This was in part due to Brezhnev’s public support of Khrushchev who was facing serious opposition within his party since 1962, but little did he know that Brezhnev had been secretly part of a plot to replace Khrushchev since 1963.

A conspiracy amongst the Central Committee aided by Vladimir Semichastny, head of the KGB, began seeking an opportunity to succeed with their plan to replace Khrushchev’s faltering leadership. There was a division within this conspiracy between those who wished to remove Krushchev simply as leader of the Soviet Union, and those that seeked to remove him from Soviet politics completely.

It would be Brezhnev who would lead this campaign to remove Khrushchev completely, which would lead not only to the successful removal of the General Secretary but also his own rise to leader of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev, while more orthodox in his approach in comparison to Khrushchev, sought to win the Cold War through non-aggressive, peaceful co-existence with the United States of America while working to increase the power of the Soviet Union among the rest of the world.

The reign of Brezhnev

This documentary takes a look at some of the defining moments of his premiership of the Soviet Union. It was under Brezhnev’s orders that the Soviet Union would invade Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in order to maintain the status quo in the Soviet Bloc and prevent more liberal reforms that would undermine Soviet control; this documentary details the role that the KGB played in the invasion and the decision making happening inside the Kremlin at a time of crisis.

It was around this crisis that one of the most famous parts of his leadership appeared, with the creation of the Brezhnev Doctrine which became a key piece of Soviet foreign policy that proclaimed any threat to Communist rule within any state of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe would be considered a threat to them all, and would therefore justify any action or intervention by the Soviet Union within these countries.

LEFT: Leonid Breznev kissing Erich Honecker, 1979 in a socialist fraternal kiss, during the 30th anniversary celebration of the foundation of the German Democratic Republic. RIGHT: ‘My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love’ graffiti on the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery, by Dmitri Vrubel, 1990. This picture became an iconic symbol of the Cold War, of the relations between the USSR and its satellites.

Image Credit: LEFT: Taken by Regis Bossu of Sygma agency on 7 October 1979. Courtesy of Corbis Corporation / Fair Use. RIGHT: Graffiti by Dmitri Vrubel, 1990 - now restored. Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F088809-0038 / Thurn, Joachim F. / CC-BY-SA 3.0

It would not be until the era of Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika policies that the Brezhnev Doctrine would be renounced as Soviet policy, as these reforms by future Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would not only see the liberalising of the Eastern bloc but also the refusal to send in Soviet troops to counter the end of East Germany.

Brezhnev’s leadership was also the era of conflict between the two largest communist states – the Soviet Union and Mao’s China – and the rising rivalry between the two which would play a critical role in the support of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War as both looked to provide support to the fledgling communist state. Support that would ultimately lead to the defeat of the United States and the rise of another communist state.

The conflict and rivalry between Mao’s China and Brezhnev’s Russia was observed with scrutiny by the West as many believed it was simply a show to distract from their true Communist alliance, however the reality was a divergence in the Sino-Soviet relationship.

These are just two of the conflicts that Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union in – and not the only key moments he was a key player during the Cold War. Brezhnev was the Soviet leader that signed key nuclear arms reduction agreements with the West, such as The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements in 1974, which began a series of de-escalation in the Cold War arms race but also meant that the Soviet Union achieved nuclear weapons parity with the US for the first time.

Brezhnev (seated right) and US President Gerald Ford signing a joint communiqué on the SALT treaty in Vladivostok, 24 November 1974.

Image Credit: White House Photograph, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library / Public Domain

From Soviet involvement in Vietnam and its role in Arab-Israeli conflicts to the untold stories of the invasion of Afghanistan, learn about the proxy wars and conflicts that Brezhnev’s Kremlin led their country into and the true stories behind their actions that saw a dramatic shift in the tide of the Cold War.

The Dark Underworld of Brezhnev’s Kremlin is part of the Secrets Of War series, available to watch on Timeline.

Tom Brown