Era of Stagnation

Category: Soviet Union
Last Updated: 27 Jan 2021
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The term 'stagnation' was coined by the Gorbachevian discourse of the perestroika era to describe the situation in the Soviet Union from 1964-1985, under the rules of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. The assertion of 'apparent' stagnation suggests some ambiguity from the outset as to the actual situation in the USSR. Indeed, some have suggested that the term is too simplistic - this idea is especially asserted by Edwin Bacon and Mark Sandle in their recent reconsideration of the Brezhnev era.

Nevertheless, when Gorbachev came to power he referred to a 'pre-crisis' situation in the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, the 'stagnation' era did see social, economic and cultural changes which led to some deterioration in the USSR's situation, but improvement was not entirely excluded, certainly not for the whole period, thus to say that the Soviet Union was on the verge of crisis by 1985 can certainly be contested. Furthermore, the notion of 'changes' is paradoxical when the era is marked by great conservatism.

Consequently, there are many factors to debate in discussion of the assertion that 'the period of apparent stagnation saw vital social, economic and cultural changes which by the early 1980s had brought the Soviet Union to the verge of crisis'. The economic situation by the early 1980s is perhaps the most powerful for suggesting the USSR verged on crisis. It seems implausible that the entire 'stagnation' period to economic crisis for initially, recognition that the economy was doing badly and determination to achieve parity with the USA, led to Kosygin's 1965 reform programme.

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However, this was halted due to concern, bolstered by events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, that economic change could stimulate demands for political democratisation - economic conservatism would thereafter shape the period. The two chief sectors of the economy were agriculture and industry. On the one hand, agriculture received much budgetary expenditure, enabling prices to be kept down, stimulating consumption and the output of agricultural goods increases 1976-801.

However, there were fundamental flaws in the system: subsidies were a burden for the state, nor did they stop the need for grain imports; furthermore, the inability to deal with weather conditions led to disastrous harvests 1979-812. Continued migration to the towns was also problematic. Failure was officially recognised in 1982 with the introduction of a Food Programme to ease food shortages, though according to Bialer, it was equally inefficient in mitigating the problem3.

Bialer paints a similar picture of industry. While arguing that initially investments and production levels increased, as time went on, slow down set in4. Essentially, Bialer implies this was inevitable considering the lack of change in industrial policy5. Similarly, although Keep recognises moves towards scientific management, he stresses these had virtually ended by the early 1980s due to inefficient resources and reluctance of enterprise managers to adapt6 - inertia surrounded the system from all angles.

As he states, 'hoarding stocks, 'storming' at month's end, and a reluctance to innovate would remain characteristic of the Soviet industrial scene until the era of perestroika'7. Perhaps crisis by the early 1980s was demonstrated by Japan's take-over as the world's second largest producer of industrial goods and services8 - considering the USSR's aim was to advance as a superpower, this was devastating. Finally, inefficiency seemed inevitable when, despite increasing absenteeism by the early 1980s and high labour turnover, punishments, such as sacking, did not exist to prevent it.

On the one hand, to say that the economy was on the verge of a crisis is debateable. There had been some long-lasting improvements: expansion of the data-processing industry, an increase in electricity and expansions in the rail network and the automobile industry9 - there was hardly total stagnation of the economy. Harrison argues that by the early 1980s it was wrong to condemn the economy for it was still growing, despite a slower rate, government spending and revenues were controlled, and inflationary pressures were small10.

However, even he acknowledges that 'alarm bells were already ringing in the Kremlin when Brezhnev died'11. Overall, the economic situation by the early 1980s reveals that detrimental changes had occurred as the period progressed. Keep points to several factors by the mid-1980s which could cause a 'pre-crisis situation' such as a declining rate of return on capital investment leading to a slower rate of GNP and industrial output, and a declining rate of gross industrial expansion. 12 Furthermore, people had more money than they had goods to buy, causing consumer frustration and increased savings.

Similarly, the shadow economy was concerning, especially as despite supervisory organs to deal with it, it was increasingly tolerated, perhaps indicating the state's acknowledgement that their efforts would not stabilise the economy. Ultimately, economic improvement was stifled under Brezhnev because of his commitment to defence spending and his failure to reform the system by maintaining centralisation. Without change, even if not verging on crisis, surely the USSR was on the road - as Gooding states, 'disaffection had not yet turned to revolt. Unless the economic tendency were reversed, however, crisis was inevitable'13.

The same was to be the case under Andropov and Chernenko. On the one hand, Andropov believed economic expansion essential: his measures were to include a stamping down on absenteeism and low production. However, according to Service, 'probably he did not wish to venture far along the route of reforms'14. In practice, although industrial output had increased by 5% from 1982-3, and the value of grain by 7%15 and although, as Harrison argues, growth slowdown had stopped by 198316, Andropov's caution prevented him from instigating fundamental change that could reverse the threat of a crisis.

Finally, Chernenko's short term of office brought no improvement in the economic sphere. That social change brought the USSR to the verge of crisis by the early 1980s is debateable. Firstly, labour and living standards must be examined. The 'social contract', whereby the worker had a poorly paid yet, in return, secure and easy work-life, may have led to economic inefficiency, but, as Hosking states, 'as a social system... worked well enough'17 - it created satisfaction and stability for much of the period. However, a change occurred when the contract broke down by the early 1980s, threatening stability.

Gooding attributes this to the fact that people would react if the regime faltered on its promise of a better standard of life and 'by now it was hard to hide that the period of steady improvement in living standards had ended'18 - shortages were widespread and, as he argues, while the black market eased the plight, it highlighted the level people had to go to to survive19. One major improvement was that, due to agricultural subsidies, by the early 1980s the rural-urban gap had narrowed as peasants became much better off.

Gooding also stresses that because peasants were given internal passports and welfare benefits, 'the regime had at last put them on an equal footing with other citizens'20. Keep does stress that 'socially and culturally the gulf remained wide'21, hence the emigration to towns. Nevertheless, the up-side was that increasingly society became industrial, leading to Edwin Bacon's concept of 'social revolution' with 'an increasingly 'modern' society.... urbanised, educated and professionalised'22 - illiteracy had largely disappeared and education improved.

However, these improvements were to be self-constraining as the system proved unable to accommodate such advancements because the supply of jobs for an increasingly advanced population was incompatible. Several other factors demonstrate changes that could be deemed as contributing to a possible crisis. A falling rate of population growth in some regions by the early 1980s was worrying as was the declining life expectancy, linked to the under-equipped hospitals and poorly trained doctors. Keep also states that the incidence of serious diseases increased 1980-85 such as scarlet fever which rose by 21%23.

The problem of alcohol, ironically worsened by the state's commitment to its production, was severe: Keep states that from 1980-5 newly reported cases of alcohol morbidity increased by 10%24 and, as a cause of absenteeism, crime and domestic violence, it created social upheaval in several respects. The 'stagnation' period also saw increases in divorce, illegitimacy and abortion - indicators of a destabilising family situation, though some attempts were made to mitigate such crises in 1981 with pro-natalist measures such as improved maternity leave, creating, according to Keep, a recovery in the birth rate in the early 1980s25.

Overall therefore, social change during the 'stagnation' period presents a mixture of factors, making it difficult to assert definitively that it brought the USSR to the brink of crisis. On the one hand, Keep and Hosking point to disturbances that occurred in response to conditions such as housing and food supplies. However, that they constituted crisis is dubious as unrest was not organised and trade unions were constrained by the state. While Keep points to police and party controls, he also argues that most people had much to be happy about26.

Indeed, throughout much of the period most people lived better than they had before: according to Gooding, despite shortages, meat milk and butter were more plentiful, improvements had been made regarding consumer goods, such as televisions, and although housing was still a problem, it had improved significantly27. Nevertheless, the end of the period saw a veritable decline in several respects. Most worrying was the scarcity of meat by 1982 - as Gooding concedes, 'Lack of freedom could be put up with; lack of meat... was a far more serious matter'28.

On the one hand, as with the economic situation, it seems that the period after Brezhnev did see some move towards crisis abatement. Andropov laid great emphasis on social discipline and as Service states, police cracked down on drunkenness in the streets and punishments incurred for indiscipline at work29. Furthermore, Service believes that Andropov sincerely wanted to improve living standards and actually talked to workers30. However, whatever he learned did not transpire into change for the better - caution prevailed and therefore the possibility of crisis perpetuated.

Overall, Keep argues that most citizens did not appreciate the seriousness of the country's problems by the mid-1980s, they even thought in some respects they lived better than in the West31. However, surely this delusion could not last forever, as the meat shortage was beginning to demonstrate. At the very least, if a direct social crisis was not looming by 1985, perhaps indirectly social problems were having an effect for, as Hosking states, they were undermining the economic strength of the USSR32. The cultural situation of the 'stagnation' period saw many changes.

Brezhnev ended Khrushchev's cultural 'thaw' and brought a return to orthodoxy, epitomised by a gradual return to Stalin, reasserting the period's conservatism; according to Bialer, there was resistance to experimentation and alien ideas33. Bialer also points to other aspects of cultural policy including patriotism, the cult of Lenin, and from the mid-1970s, the cult of Brezhnev34. If such policies had been adhered to there would be no fear of cultural crisis. However, seeds of discontent were stirring and while repression prevented eruption in the short term, perhaps this perpetuated discontent rather than solved it.

Firstly, some signs of instability emerged in popular culture. Keep argues that liberalization was needed to appease youths - discotheques and rock-and-roll appeared along with expression of some critical ideas such as the balladeer Vysotsky's blast of the gulag35. There was some increased suppression under Andropov, yet youth dissatisfaction expressed regardless; according to Keep this represented 'the deep psychological malaise that afflicted the younger generation... '36. The 'stagnation' period also saw the rise of cultural nationalism.

This represented a nostalgic mood with a return to early art, architecture and Russian religious philosophy37 and the establishment of an All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments which had grown substantially by the early 1980s38. Cultural nationalism also encompassed 'village prose' writing which projected the idea that urban life, with its materiality, lacked value. That such writings had become relatively widespread leads Keep to state that 'by the late Brezhnev era the system of literary controls had become more flexible'39. He also argues the same for visual arts.

However, although Keep states that 'by the mid-1980s cultural nationalism may be said to have struck root in the Russian popular consciousness', that it was subversive is unlikely considering the system of repression and censorship that could have suppressed it. In fact, Keep believed that 'nationalism could provide the nomenklatura with... [a] basis of support'40. Connected to this was nationalism within the republics. On the one hand, the era is characterised by equalisation and indigenisation; for example, in non-Russian republics, the top position went to someone of the titular nationality.

This created stability for much of the period. However, Fowkes points to factors which stimulated national grievances: for example, from the late 1970s a greater stress was given to the Russian language, leading to accusations of Russification, and also the Russian monopoly over central institutions was maintained41. Fowkes even suggests that Brezhnev's national policy 'contained the seeds of its own destruction'42 especially due to the 'pervasive hidden opposition... practised by almost every non-Russian national group' such as attempts to maintain traditional national cultures43. There were even some instances of popular national fronts.

However, that such protests constituted crisis-point seems implausible. On the one hand, 249,000 Jews were allowed to emigrate between 1971-1980; yet this was not in response to internal crisis, more due to pressure from the USA - that the Jews were to prefigure the need for a general liberalisation was not true. Furthermore, as Fowkes points out, radical nationalists were a minority44. Crisis did come eventually but that in 1985 it was inevitable seems an over-exaggeration - essentially, repression kept nationalism under control, though its subtle presence could create long term problems.

An examination of the cultural situation enables an evaluation of the level of open hostility that could have brought crisis. On the one hand, Keep refers to the emergence of 'cultural opposition'45. True, there may have been informal discussions among academics, who also published works in the samizdat. However, there was a rigorous censorship system which suppressed freedom - history, social sciences and literature were often severely censored for subversive messages. Moreover, to progress in life, you had to conform.

As Sandle argues, 'The state deployed a whole variety of sanctions - sackings, harassment, public humiliations and coercing people into psychiatric hospitals... '46. Ultimately, the goal was achieved: dissidence, though having thrived in the early 1970s, had basically disappeared by the 1980s - though also due to its internal divisions - hence stability within the regime seems plausible. However, there was also a grey area between conformism and dissent, an area which flowed underneath the surface, expressing non-orthodox views.

This 'loyal' opposition within the system itself, despite its silence, was essentially seditious, and as several have suggested, would ultimately create the ideas and personnel for perestroika. It was maintained by an informal network of discussions and a creative way of writing that expressed views without being overtly dissident - there was a determination, according to Sandle, that 'the period of re-Stalinisation and retrenchment would not snuff out the spark of change and liberalisation that began in 1956'47.

On the one hand, by the early 1980s critical opinions were becoming more overt. Elliot points to the workings of clandestine groups who disseminated leaflets criticising the authoritarian system though argues that, despite subversive messages, they would never threaten in practice because they were not widespread and because leaders were often arrested or exiled48. Overall, 'loyal' opposition had to wait until after Brezhnev, at which point the beginnings of open reformist expression demonstrated that, despite prior suppression, discontent had remained.

By 1985, perhaps it could be suggested that, had Gorbachev and glasnost' not come along, these intellectual ideas could have threatened a conservative regime - as Sandle states, this 'diverse' intellectual life that had continued in silence became 'an essential part of the destruction of the 'citadel of dogmatism' after 1985'49. Nevertheless, it does seem that with active dissidence largely gone in the early 1980s, severe threats to stability were, if not fundamentally absent, then severely mitigated.

In conclusion, that the apparent stagnation period brought the Soviet Union to the verge of crisis by the early 1980s is not an easy statement to evaluate. On the one hand, the masses were not privy to the information that Gorbachev was regarding the state of the USSR by 1985. On the popular level, therefore, perhaps crisis was not that imminent. Certainly, this connects to Elliot's idea that the stability of the regime was 'apparently based more on passive toleration than active support'50.

Furthermore, the concept of 'stagnation' is very contentious; Sandle suggests that, as it was coined by perestroika reformers, it sprang essentially from their need to justify their ideas than perhaps being a true reflection of society51. Furthermore, that the stagnation period as a whole created a crisis situation by the early 1980s is exaggerated for it is consensus that deterioration came mid-way through the period, whether after Brezhnev became ill, or perhaps earlier, from events in Czechoslovakia.

However, that conservatism was to dominate the era was fundamental - if it had meant the situation remained constant over the twenty years, there may have been no cause for concern; but conservatism ironically brought detrimental change. That this was inevitable is plausible considering the situation at the top - the period was certainly stagnant in this respect for Brezhnev's 'stability of cadres' bred inertia, and despite personnel changes under Andropov, essentially the gerontocracy remained. Overall, social, economic and cultural changes that caused concern did occur.

While crisis may not have been apparent at the time, especially as dissidence and discontent did not seem that widespread, perhaps all that was needed was a final push to bring the situation to a head. Ultimately, the situation probably hinged on the economy - as Gooding suggests, 'economic failure would do in fact what continued oppression and arbitrariness were most unlikely to do: it would shake ordinary people out of their passivity. Therefore, failure to reform could only be safe for so long - as proponents of conservatism were dying out, so too was stability.

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Era of Stagnation. (2017, Dec 26). Retrieved from

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