December 01, 1996

Dear Demosthenes ...

Dear Demosthenes ...

There are plenty of phrases in common usage that Russians associate with Leonid Brezhnev. According to one such formulation, Brezhnev may go down in history as a мелкий политический деятель эпохи Аллы Пугачёвой (“a minor politician in the era of Alla Pugachyova” – a top Russian pop star of the 1970s and 80s). Ordinary Russians used to call him either Lyonya (the familiar form of Leonid) or Ilyich (his patronymic, shared with Lenin, hence the humorous slogan of the time от Ильича до Ильича (from Ilyich to Ilyich). Official propaganda, meanwhile, called him a верный ленинец (a loyal Leninist).

In his later years, Lyonya could hardly put two words together. So, when speaking in public, he simply read a prepared text. This was called по бумажке – to do everything from paper. This is why ill-wishers claimed that he started his opening speech at the 1980 Olympics with five exclamations (“O! O! O! O! O!”) – he had simply read the Olympic logo.

Though his writing skills were questionable at best, at the end of his career Leonid Ilyich discovered a penchant for literature. So much so that the Union of Soviet Writers awarded him the Lenin Prize for his memoir trilogy Little Land, Renaissance and Virgin Lands – mandatory reading at all high schools. The last of these started with the great platitude будет хлеб – будет и песня (if there’s bread there’ll be songs), still famous because aging Soviet actor and sex symbol Vyacheslav Tikhonov read excerpts from these “masterpieces” on prime time TV.

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