Brezhnev, the commentator writes, was “a communist and led the Soviet Union” and during his rule Moscow built factories, produced good films, and sent rockets into space. His era, in fact, is considered “the most successful period of Soviet history and is recalled with particular warmth and affection.”
Putin in contrast is “an anti-Soviet man who threw over his service in the KGB during the August 1991 events, went over to the democrats, served Yeltsin and today continues his program. Under Putin, factories aren’t being built but downsized, films are bad and space shots are falling out of the sky.”
“The people live in poverty,” Rusin continues, “and to call all this a successful period of Russian history requires that one have fallen victim to Kremlin propaganda.”
These differences are so great that they appear to preclude a comparison, “but if one looks carefully, then a great deal in common between the two reveals itself, much more than at first glance.”
“Yes, under Brezhnev, factories were built.” But Brezhnev didn’t do that: he simply continued on the course of his predecessors. In that sense, Putin is the same: he “hasn’t introduced anything new in industrial policy” but has simply followed the path of factory closures begun by his predecessor largely without change.
What is even more striking, Rusin says, is that Brezhnev took two decisions which have shaped Putin’s approach: he chose to rely ever more heavily on the export of raw materials and the purchase of finished goods abroad, and he rejected developing computers thus putting Russia on course to fall further and further behind the West.
But it isn’t just in economics that the two are similar. In foreign policy, they are as well. Brezhnev pursued détente and convergence, something that ended in 1991. And Putin sought friendship with the West, talked about partnerships and expanded contacts, although having been rejected because of his other actions, he has turned away from that approach at least for now.
“Both Brezhnev and Putin became very suitable leaders for the ruling hierarchy and party elite.” The first rewarded the elite with stability and prizes; the second with stability and a blind eye to their corrupt amassing of enormous wealth. Both were loved by those immediately around them because of that and enjoyed being celebrated.
Brezhnev opened the way to the embourgeoisement of the elite; Putin simply ensured that would reach its ultimate or perhaps penultimate conclusion. Both the one and the other were so popular with these senior elites that neither was or has been pushed aside even when that would serve the interests of these elites, Rusin says.
These parallels have become more obvious the longer Putin has remained in office. He has now led the country 19 years, compared to Brezhnev who was the top man for 18.
The attitude of the population toward each is also similar in many respects. “The enormous mass of their supporters love the one and the other, without reflecting at all about the results of their activity but simply reacting to their personal sense of well-being and stability,” the Russian commentator continues.
“Stability is what Brezhnev and Putin have most in common,” stability for as long as possible, “stability ‘for our time.’” Brezhnev’s period has bene called “the era of stagnation. And this is very true.” Everything continued as before and remained in that course. But the notion of stagnation is also applicable to Putin’s time.
To be sure, “the Russian economy under Putin has suffered already two crises … and they do not fit very well under the term ‘stagnation’ but if one considers the political, administrative and cadres components of his regime, it is complete stagnation,” Rusin argues.
“One can say that the Brezhnev era was the period of socialist stagnation and the Putin era is that of capitalist stagnation.” Indeed, their underlying desire for stability and continuity is so strong that Putin might have behaved like Brezhnev had he been born earlier and Brezhnev like Putin if he had been born later.
Putin therefore, Rusin insists, is “our contemporary Brezhnev.” But this analogy is not meant to be funny. And it is less important for what it says about either man than about what Russia faces when such people leave the scene. “With the exit of Brezhnev, the era of stability ended” not accidentally as some think but because of the way he ruled.
“Something similar will begin after Putin’s exit,” the commentator says, although there will be many differences. But one thing is clear: stagnation for long periods leads to convulsions when those periods end – and after Putin, the crises Russians have somehow survived under his rule are likely to take on a completely different dimension than those after Brezhnev.