A protégé of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev came to power (after he and Aleksei Kosygin forced Khrushchev to resign) as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1964 – 82) and was president from 1977 to 1982.
Domestically he was conservative, while abroad the USSR was established as a military and political superpower during the Brezhnev era, extending its influence in Africa and Asia.
Born in the Ukraine, Brezhnev joined the Communist Party in the 1920s. In 1938 he was made head of propaganda by the new Ukrainian party chief Khrushchev and ascended in the local party hierarchy.
After World War II he caught the attention of the Party’s leader, Stalin, who inducted Brezhnev into the secretariat and Politburo in 1952.
Brezhnev was removed from these posts after Stalin’s death in 1953 but returned in 1956 with Khrushchev’s patronage. In 1960, as criticism of Khrushchev mounted, Brezhnev was moved to the ceremonial post of state president and began to criticise Khrushchev’s policies openly.
Brezhnev stepped down as president in 1963 and returned to the Politburo and Secretariat. He was elected general secretary of the Communist Party in 1964 when Khrushchev was ousted and gradually came to dominate the conservative and consensual coalition.
In 1977 he regained the additional title of state president under the new constitution.
He suffered an illness (thought to have been a stroke or heart attack) in April 1976 that was believed to have affected his thought and speech so severely that he was not able to make decisions.
These were made by his entourage, for example, committing troops to Afghanistan to prop up the government.
Within the USSR, economic difficulties mounted; the Brezhnev era was a period of caution and stagnation, although outwardly imperialist.
Brezhnev died on 10 November 1982 and was quickly succeeded in his post as General Secretary by Yuri Andropov. Mikhail Gorbachev, who would lead the USSR from 1985 to 1991, denounced his legacy and drove the process of liberalisation of the Soviet Union.