A Beautiful Friendship

Portrait of Kunaev

Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time thinking about two men: Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev and Dinmukhamed Akhmedovich Kunaev. I daresay, even, that I’ve spent more time thinking about either of these two men than anyone else you know. If this is not the case, please put me in touch with that person – I have some questions.

The reason I’ve been spending so much time pondering these two arch Soviet bureaucrats is that they were both politically powerful during the period in which my research is concentrating. Although I’m working on three distinct papers, each of the stories I hope eventually to tell is set in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic (KazSSR) in the 1960s and 70s. Brezhnev’s and Kunaev’s policies and personalities, provide critical context for my stories. But both men are famously dull. I’ve been looking for ways to make them more colorful in my own mind in order to be more excited about all the reading I have to do. I recently had a breakthrough.

Brezhnev (1906-1982) served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and thereby de facto ruler of the USSR, from 1964 to 1982. Born in a small city in what is now Ukraine, he rose through the ranks of the military and Communist Party and in 1955 was made First Secretary of the Communist Party of the KazSSR. In this role, he oversaw the implementation of Khrushchev’s Virgin Land’s campaign, the attempt to transform Soviet Central Asia into the breadbasket and source of cotton for all of the Soviet Union. The Virgin Lands transformation is central to two of my papers.

Although Brezhnev had been Khrushchev’s protégé, the former was instrumental in his mentor’s removal from office. Following Khrushchev, however, Brezhnev took charge only as primes inter pares within a ruling clique. In keeping with this eminently bureaucratic beginning, Brezhnev’s tenure has become associated with the ossification of the organs of state, the stagnation of the economy, and increasing belligerence in international affairs. He became senile in office and died in 1982. Compared to Khrushchev, Stalin and Gorbachev, and excepting Andropov and Chernenko (who ruled for 2 and 1 years, respectively), Brezhnev has inspired the least interest among Soviet historians. Annoyingly, there is correspondingly less English-language scholarship about him.

Kunaev (1912-1993), a native Kazakh, is closely associated with Brezhnev. Having struck up a friendship with Brezhnev whilst he was based in the KazSSR, Kunaev rose behind his mentor. He was also instrumental in the implementation of the Virgin Lands campaign, but was dismissed from office after a disagreement with Khrushchev; however, his power was restored when Brezhnev became the General Secretary. Kunaev’s tenure is mostly discussed as a period in which there was an increase in the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the republic’s bureaucracy. Gorbachev dismissed him from office at the end of 1986.

Comrade and Mrs. Comrade Kunaev. Her lack of beauty apparently defied even the skills of the most sycophantic portraitists.

Snooze. So, the color! First: one man’s junk is another man’s gold. Kunaev would have turned 100 last week, and his apartment was transformed into a house museum to mark the occasion. I went the day after it opened – the pictures included in this post are all from his apartment, which is surprisingly small, but it is filled to the brim with presents given to him by visiting dignitaries – including Kazakhstan’s first Panasonic TV, given to him by a Japanese visitor in the early 1980s, and a clay model of Mt. Paektu, the supposed birthplace of Kim Jung Il, given to Kunaev by Kim Il Sung. He was also a well-known smoker (suggesting he smoked a huge amount. Given that everyone in the Soviet Union smoked, this is like becoming famous for breathing), and many guests brought him lighters. However, his niece (now the director of the museum) told me that he quit in the ’70s, but people kept bringing novelty lighters regardless. They take up several shelves in his library.

Kunaev’s niece also told me he was unusually tall. He was so tall, in fact, that he removed the baseboard of his bed so that his feet could hang off the end. The baseboard has, sadly, been restored to the bed.

Second: its appears that Brezhnev and Kunaev were close friends. Although this fact appears to be downplayed in the recent official celebrations of Kunaev – who is still treated in Kazakhstan as something of a hero (see the flowers under his monument in a picture below) – Kunaev does appear in most texts I’ve found about Brezhnev, even those in English. I like to imagine the two of them sitting around a table putting back vodkas and chasing it with anchovies. Did they tell jokes? Did they watch Kunaev’s Panasonic TV together? If so, what did they watch?

Kunaev's bed, including baseboard.

Lastly, on the subject of jokes: because Brezhnev went senile in office, he became the butt of many Soviet jokes, some with a distinctly dark cast. I’ve been learning some of these and hope to share them with you in a later post (I can’t give away all my goodies at once – I’d have nothing left to blog about).

Taken together, these little glimpses into these two men’s lives, and to life under their governance, is helping a great deal with my research into these grey men of Communism. The fun part of the practice of history is coloring them in; one of the difficulties is coloring within the lines, i.e. not making stuff up, which is certainly a temptation when dealing with men as boring as these.

Memorial to Kunaev in downtown Almaty. The flowers are to mark his 100th birthday.

Kunaev's novelty lighter collection

  1. Donnell said:

    Literally the only thing I know about Brezhnev: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB7PRY1Aqds

    I was surprised to learn he’s not more written about, since I know a song about him. I feel like “Donnell knows a song about this historical figure” is the least common denominator of historical fame.

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