The Brezhnev era was later dubbed the "period of stagnation." as we all know, but that does not mean that there was no economic growth under that leader. On the contrary, there was considerable development, especially in the first half of his reign. The Soviet Union was regularly beating the most advanced countries of the world in terms of annual growth rate. Between 1964 and 1981, production of steel in the Soviet Union increased from 85 million tonnes to 149 million, topping US output. Coal output beat the American production of 500 million tonnes a year by half as much again. In fifteen years, the Soviet Union doubled its oil production, becoming the world's largest producer of oil. There were similar developments in the other sectors, even in agriculture, where increased investment and higher prices of agricultural produce introduced by the 1965 Central Committee plenum made the Soviet Union the world's biggest producer of wheat.
But all these beautiful figures were made meaningless by the simple fact that the share of consumer goods in the overall production was constantly falling. That meant that the system favored production for production's sake, its capacity either channeled into the military sphere or simply wasted through the system's internal defects like poor organization, lack of incentives for the workers, rejection of scientific and technological innovations, etc. All those silly pochins and "socialist competitions" could not obstruct the inexorable working of economic laws: No consumer goods - no money for the budget - no investment -no progress or growth - inevitable crisis as demand for consumer goods grows and supply shrinks.
Apart from crises, the Soviet economy produced even more inflammable material - the Soviet intelligentsia. The Party's avowed goal was still the Khrushchevian motto - to catch up with the West in every sphere of "material and spiritual production." and this could not be achieved without major breakthroughs in science and education. So in the years of Brezhnevite "stagnation." the number of people with a higher education more than doubled. The swelling intelligentsia formed, in fact, a new class that bitterly resented its designation in the official ideology as a prosloika, a rather derogatory term meaning something like a "thin layer between two masses", the masses in question being the urban and rural workers.
^ It was, of course, more than the mere designation that the intelligentsia resented. First, it was only too well aware that it was grossly underpaid, getting a mere fraction of what their counterparts in the West were earning. Speaking for oneself, I was one of the very few best paid. top professional translators in Moscow doing translations from Russian into English for about a dozen publishing houses, but I calculated that I was being paid roughly the sum that a typist in the United States was getting, page per page. And I lived about ten times better than some m.n.s. or miadshiy nauchnyi sotrudnik "junior research fellow" getting 105 rubles a month (the trouble of course was that one couldn't correlate this sum with any known currency, as the official $1=64 kopecks rate was patently something from beyond the looking-glass).
Second, the nature of the intelligentsia's occupations made it keenly sensitive to the prevailing stringent curbs on the freedom of intellectual pursuits, especially in the humanities, where any deviation, real or imaginary, from neo-Stalinist ideological dogma was punished swiftly and ruthlessly. That was why most talented people went into the natural sciences or mathematics, where they could be as free-thinking as they wished in their quest for eternal truths. This elicited a couple of puzzled lines from the Soviet poet Boris Slutsky, which instantly became famous: Chto-to fiziki v pochyote,//Chto-to liriki v zagone... "Curiously, physicists are in the limelight and lyricists are eclipsed..." Sure they were eclipsed - who wanted to hear their bravura lies or piteous whining?
There were, however, some "lyricists" whom everybody wanted to hear as they expressed the intelligentsia's most hidden attitudes and aspirations. True, they had to resort to Aesopean language, like the Strugatsky brothers: They wrote ostensibly science fiction, but anyone with an ounce of intelligence could see it for what it was - social criticism and social satire. You take their novel "Monday Begins on Saturday": The split between mindless bureaucracy and selfless intellectuals seeking for the truth just couldn't be made more graphic, despite the book's paraphernalia of magic and time trips. No wonder both "physicists" and "lyricists" literally fought in endless queues at book-shops over those slim volumes.
Paradoxically, the "physicists" were on the whole better protected from some of the iniquities of life under the Soviets precisely because of their role in the military-industrial complex - which was the prime cause of those iniquities.
The country's economy was geared, in accordance with the prevailing ideological doctrine of isolationism and confrontation with "world imperialism," to the production of ever more sophisticated weapons. Sophisticated weapons could only be produced by sophisticated minds, as one could easily see both in real life and in films like the famous 1960s hit "Nine Days of One Year." in which nuclear physicists discussed exactly this incongruity - that the scientific and technological progress was a byproduct of the development of lethal weapons in the course of the arms race between the imperialist and socialist "camps."
Those sophisticated minds could clearly see the obvious: That the country's socioeconomic system was basically flawed. They even had a handy methodological tool to describe the flaws: Marxism, Marxist Political Economy included, was taught in every higher education establishment. Anyone who had the least intellectual interest in these things and adequate intellectual equipment could describe in Marxist terms what had gone wrong with the slave-owning society, the feudal society, the bourgeois society: They were "burst asunder" by internal contradictions between the "productive forces" and "production relations" (especially those of property) (see esp. Chapter 32 of Marx's "Capital").
It was all too easy to see that, under Soviet socialism, the socialist "production relations" were simply waiting to "burst asunder." being, in Marxist terms, "a fetter on the mode of production" (op.cit). The lines from a popular song, Vsyo vokrug kolkhoznoye, vsyo vokrug moyo "Everything around is the collective farm's, everything around is mine" were often quoted, tongue in cheek, to justify common or garden stealing: Property that wasn't anyone's was everyone's, it aroused in people the worst, most predatory instincts, not those of a zealous owner eager to make that property flourish.
The intelligentsia could also see clearly, and discuss in nocturnal kitchen debates, that, while it was the carrier of economic, scientific, and every other kind of progress, it could do little to achieve that progress except bash its head against the double wall of the workers-and-peasants' state: the workers and peasants themselves, who couldn't care less about scientific, social, etc. progress, and the bureaucracy professing to represent and care for the interests of the workers and peasants but in actual fact caring for nothing but its own well-being - progress of any kind was definitely not among its priorities. "Stability" was, and under Brezhnev it had all the "stability" it wanted. It practically wallowed in "stability."
This explains the fact that while self-avowed dissidents with a political agenda, people who wrote for underground publications, staged puny demonstrations and went to labor camps or mental homes for their sins were few and far between, practically the whole of the intelligentsia was tarred with the brush of dissent. Moreover, it wasn't just vague, general discontent with things as they were but a clear realization of the conditions under which the intelligentsia could play a role it wanted to play - the conditions under which Western society operated. Unfortunately for Russia and for itself, when the time for action came, the intelligentsia wanted too much too soon, not least perhaps because its aspirations had been thwarted for too long. It had eaten too much humble pie, listening to harangues about the triumph of proletarian dictatorship in a "single, separately taken country" and seeing the mess into which the country was sinking under that dictatorship.
This last observation, however, is but parenthetic comment. What I'm really trying to say here is this. Although the West mostly noticed and discussed the actions of the more prominent dissidents of the Brezhnev era like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, and others of that type, much more important for the country's future development under Gorbachev and later was the mood of the massive intelligentsia Fronde as described here. it could not even be called a movement, for under Brezhnev there was no political movement outside the Party that would be worth the name (just as there was no political movement worth the name inside the Party). It was merely a common mood. a common understanding of certain things, and a common readiness to act in a certain way. given half a chance. It was this general