In 1991, plenty of Americans made the somewhat arrogant assumption that the United States had “won” the Cold War. A quarter-century later, with institutions like the EU fragmenting and a Russia-backed president of the United States refusing to guarantee its support to NATO allies, those exultant cries of victory look pretty naïve. Obviously, something was going on in the past two decades that a lot of people missed.
During the Dubya presidency I started formulating a theory, which I now find to be vindicated, that America was living in its Brezhnev years. In case you do not know, Brezhnev came for power in the Soviet Union along with Alexei Kosygin in 1964, forcing out Nikita Khrushchev. During Brezhnev’s long reign, from 1964 to 1982, he gave himself a plethora of medals, all while Soviet society stagnated. Khrushchev had promised that the Soviet system would out-do the West in the comforts it could provide to its people, but by the 1980s the Soviet economy was outmoded and prone to shortages of consumer goods. The Soviet standard of living had stopped advancing, while faith in the Soviet system and Soviet ideology crumbled. It was that stagnation and loss of faith that made Gorbachev’s reforms possible and desirable.
It’s all well expressed in a old Soviet joke I heard once:
Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev were on a train going across the Russian countryside. Suddenly, the train stopped. Stalin told the others “I will sort this problem out! Shoot the engineer for being a wrecker and send the conductor to Siberia for being a deviationist!” The train still failed to move. Khrushchev piped up and said “Now let’s approach this in a more humane manner. Release the conductor from Siberia.” Being without an engineer, the train still failed to move. At that point Brezhnev brightly said “Comrades! Please pull down your window shades and start rocking the train from side to side!”
On the surface, of course, the Soviet Union projected strength. Its military was never mightier, and it still paraded missiles through Red Square on May Day. But beneath the surface, the rot had truly set in. That same mighty military had been sent to invade Afghanistan in 1979, where instead of victory, it found quagmire. Cynical workers, supposedly the backbone of Marxism, often quipped “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” This was miles away from the spirit of the Stakhanovite “shock workers” of the Stalin years, heroes of labor encouraging their comrades to build socialism while toiling in steel mill cities created out of thin air in the forbidding environment of the Ural Mountains. In general, there was increasing ambivalence or even contempt for state ideology. As a profile of Vladimir Putin in the New Yorker pointed out, even his fellows in the KGB “laughed at Soviet ideology” and “thought it was a joke.” A state built on an ideological project now ruled over a people that had abandoned it. That state, or any other state so founded, could not survive such a disjuncture.
Very recently historians of this period have tried to stress the stability of Soviet society in that period, the persistence of Soviet ideology, etc. This does not refute the thesis of stagnation of the Brezhnev years, so much as it shows that such rot can be malignant in a society where plenty of people still buy into its promises. A similar thought crossed my mind when I recently read Alex Shishin’s excellent travelogue Rossiya: Voices From The Brezhnev Era. The author traversed the USSR twice in the late 70s, fluent in Russian and on a mission to get to know people. The portrait that emerges is mostly one of good, friendly people living day to day in an unresponsive, regimented, restricted society with no future. The lack of any sense of the future is what struck me most about this book, especially in a place whose entire raison d’etre since its founding by Lenin had been about building a new future for humanity.
Which brings us back to America. The United States too was founded on ideological grounds, and it too has long proclaimed itself as a model to be imitated around the world. After America’s own years of rot, however, that has changed. The Trump administration has been notable for its complete neutering of the State Department and its declining to take part in human rights initiatives. When Trump defended Russia by saying “we’ve got plenty of killers,” it was not the sentiment that was so shocking, as it was the fact that he, as president of the United States, essentially refused to act as if America’s stories about itself as a beacon of freedom were true or even relevant. Now I as well as anyone with a basic understanding of the true realities of American history knows the complete hypocrisy of that story, but Trump’s refutation of it was more George Wallace than Howard Zinn. There was some outcry when he said it, but that’s mostly just faded away now.
Trump could say that, and he is in office, due to the effects of America’s own Brezhnev period. Now I want to be absolutely clear in saying that historical analogies are messy, imperfect things. I am not drawing a one to one comparison between the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev Years and America since the end of the Cold War. However, I do want to show the parallel stories of dying empires based on ideological foundations eventually abandoned by their people and institutions.
The stagnation and rot in American society has been hard to miss, like a festering, gangrenous wound. Its universities, once the pride of the world, have become underfunded diploma factories reliant on exploited adjunct labor where football teams are retained and philosophy departments cut. Its aged infrastructure has been crumbling for decades without anything being done about it. Rail commuters to New York travel through century old flood damaged tunnels on trains with interiors a shade of brown not seen elsewhere since 1978. Its criminal justice system is a backlogged machine of racist mass incarceration. In a nation that once cherished the “American Dream,” economic inequality has hit Gilded Age levels. Mortality and death put America’s Brezhnev years in high relief. “Deaths of despair,” meaning those from alcohol, opiates, and suicide have skyrocketed, particularly among middle-aged whites. Despite that trend, rates of life expectancy still show massive racial inequalities. In many parts of the country the rate of infant mortality among African American children resembles that of much less “developed” nations. That disparity has been known for decades, yet still has not changed. In the case of racial segregation in schools, the problem is worse than it was forty years ago.
For some demographic groups, like middle-aged white women, life expectancy is actually going down. A similar dynamic occurred in Brezhnev era Russia, where cheap alcohol was consumed in fearsome quantities. Much of Alex Shishin’s travelogue is taken up by his being plied with insane amounts of vodka by the people he meets on the Trans Siberia railroad. When Gorbachev took power in 1985, one of his big (failed) initiatives was an anti-alcohol campaign.
In America the political will to solve these problems has been lacking, or in the case of conservatives, actively hostile. The embrace of unfettered capitalism and consumerism since Reagan has led to an atomized, dysfunctional society where “public good” has become a dirty word. Social and political institutions have lost their support. The approval ratings for Congress have been at or close to single-digit numbers for years now. Most people don’t vote in midterm elections, and barely half do in presidential elections. More and more Americans do not belong to an organized religion. The education system has been actively cut to pieces by the wave of charter schools. Labor unions have been broken and ground to dust. What we are left with is a society where the police and military are the two most trusted public institutions, a frightening prospect. (Especially considering the racial disparity in trust of the police.) Is it any wonder that authoritarianism has suddenly become so accepted in this country?
“Democracy” has become just another meaningless, empty buzzword in American life, equivalent to words and phrases like “grit,” “outside the box,” or “excellence.” If few people actually believe in democracy anymore it’s hardly a surprise that a man who has opposed democratic norms so assiduously has become president of the United States. His $25 million fraud lawsuit and his profiting off of his position are things that in prior years would have immediately disqualified him for public office. Nowadays, it just doesn’t matter. Trump’s whole election narrative was one of national decline, and it was a powerful one because such decline is obvious, though he fingers the wrong people and the wrong problems.
Lots of people who voted for Trump, including some people I know, took a completely nihilistic stance, basically saying “at least he will shake things up” or “the system sucks, how could he be any worse?” That nihilism is a testament to the effects of America’s Brezhnev years and how belief in democracy is no longer a majority opinion in this country. In a poll a majority might actually say they do believe democracy is important, but in reality I really doubt the word means anything more to them than a vague piety.
While someone may challenge that statement, one cannot dispute that Trump has done a great deal to countermand democratic norms. He hired his daughter and son-in-law to be his advisers like a petty dictator. He has made the press his biggest enemy, and some critical outlets have even been banned from press events. On March 30th Trump sent out a tweet attacking the New York Times, threatening changes to “libel law,” and that story was buried in a side article in that very newspaper the next day. We have stopped being shocked by this behavior because we really don’t actually believe in the norms that are being assaulted anymore.
The end of the Brezhnev years in the USSR led to Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika. America is not so lucky. America is left with Trumpism. As with Gorbachev, Trump seems intent on permanently altering the current political system and challenging its ideological foundations, but instead of being motivated by humanism and reform, Trump is motivated by personal gain and lust for power and adulation. America’s Brezhnev years may now finally be over, but what’s ahead promises to be a whole lot worse. The millions who have taken to the streets in the past three months are hopefully a sign that enough people are ready to arrest the decline in democracy. In that respect, America’s Brezhnev years may be over in a much more positive way. We can only hope so.
Jason Tebbe earned his PhD in history from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has successfully escaped academia and is now a private school teacher in New York City. Jason lives in New Jersey with his family.