I have a lot of jokes about General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. I mean they had a lot of jokes about Brezhnev. People made fun of his love for shiny medals, which he awarded to himself on his birthdays: (Leonid Ilyich is in surgery.” / “Heart again?” / “No, chest expansion surgery: to fit one more Gold Star medal.”) They thought he was semi-illiterate (At the 1980 Olympics, Brezhnev begins his speech. “O!” — applause. “O!” — more applause. “O!” — yet more applause. “O!” — an ovation. “O!!!” — the whole audience stands up and applauds. An aide comes running to the podium and whispers, “Leonid Ilyich, that’s the Olympic rings, you don’t need to read it!”)
Towards the end of his life, he was not quite there anymore in head. More jokes ensued. (He came to address a Party meeting, and began: “Dear Comrade Imperialists.” An advisor walked over to the podium and pointed to the speech for Brezhnev. “Oh…” he muttered, and started again: “Dear Comrades, Imperialists are everywhere.”) He would go down to a meeting on science and would deliver a speech about culture. (“After a speech Brezhnev shouts at his speech writer: ‘I ordered you to write a 15-minute speech, but it took me a whole hour to read!’ ‘Sorry, Leonid Ilyich,’ he answered, ‘there were four copies, and you read them all.'”)
The Master of Kremlin, who loved foreign cars and fine clothes and who was oblivious of economic stagnation, was quite removed from the people too. (“Comrades,” he said, I have a plan to overtake the U.S. in the space race — you will land on the sun!” / “But Comrade Brezhnev,” the scientists protested, “we’ll burn up!” / “Don’t take me for a fool,” he said, “you’ll land at night!”) By the time of the 26th Party Congress, in 1981, his speech had deteriorated to a near-incoherent mumble — even if his audience remained as publicly respectful as ever.
Above, during a visit to the United States in 1973, Brezhnev gives US actress Jill St. John the eye at a poolside reception in California hosted by President Nixon. Photo by Wally McNarnee.