Think of Leonid Brezhnev, his tenure as head of the Soviet Union makes him the leader of what I shall call the “Gray Men.” These were the leaders of the Warsaw Pact nations whose most notable achievement was how long they stayed in power. Words such as rigid, stolid, and geriatric come to mind as their defining characteristics. Those terms pretty much sum up the popular persona of Brezhnev. He looked the very essence of frosty, remote and ossified. Incredibly, Brezhnev was not even close to being the longest serving Warsaw Pact head of state. He took over as leader of the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, staying in power until 1982 (18 years). In true communist fashion, during his final years, the Soviet state claimed the increasingly haggard Brezhnev was not suffering ill health, even though he was surrounded by a cadre of physicians. No one it seems ever got out of the Communist party alive.
For the Soviets and their allies the ideas of progress and innovation, at least on a leadership level, were anathema. The lone time during the Cold War when the Soviets tried some new blood at the top resulted in the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev. And look how that turned out! It seems that the communists valued stability (read: status quo) above all else. Reform was a dirty word. Looking at the outcome of the Gorbachev era from a communist’s perspective, they certainly had a right to be fearful. So they resisted reform, turn over at the top or anything else that might be construed as progressive. And as the Soviets went, so their satellites followed. That brings us to a group of men who can best be characterized by their long goodbyes, too long. These were leaders who wore out their welcome long ago and in some cases they never were welcomed.
The Gray Men
East Germany – The title “General Secretary” was a byword for being the leading dictator of a dictatorial government. The top leadership post in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party. Look out for any government that has democratic or people’s as part of its official name. That usually means they feel compelled to shoot their citizens. Walter Ulbricht held onto the top post in the GDR for over two decades 1950 – 1971 (20 years 10 months). Ulbricht survived the Stalin era, but not the Brezhnev one. He was retired “due to poor health.” In other words, he fell out of favor with the Soviets. Ironically, his inability to build a better relationship with West Germany did him in. Wasn’t the west supposed to be their enemies? Following his ouster, Ulbricht had scarcely two years of life left in him. We have to give Ulbricht some kudos though for his goatee. He looked rather suave in comparison to almost all of his fellow travelers in the Warsaw Pact. On the other hand, the powerful head of the Soviet Union’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB), Lavrenti Beria is reputed to have called Ulbricht “the greatest idiot he had ever seen.”
Poland – Wladyslaw Gomulka was First Secretary of the Polish United Worker’s Party (note: United or Unity is another communist code word for we have shot or imprisoned all dissenters) from 1956 until 1970 (14 years and two months). This was the second time he had been put in charge of the country. The first was in the immediate aftermath of World War II from 1945 to 1948. He fell out of favor after that and spent his time like so many other communist leaders before and after him learning about life in prison. Riots and strikes brought Gomulka back to power and over a decade later would bring him down as well. In 1956 he took charge after a near revolution broke out in Poznan over economic conditions. Gomulka immediately raised wages, alleviated food shortages and instituted other popular measures which staved off unrest. Unfortunately what became known as “Gomulka’s thaw” suffered from a deep freeze in the 1960’s. An ill wind blew in from the east that caused him and his nation to chill out. He put into place increasingly repressive measures basically because the Soviet’s told him to do so. The man who had once been known for cultivating a “Polish Way of Socialism” was brought down when shipyard strikes turned bloody on the Baltic. This would not be the last time that shipyards played a prominent role in defying communism in Poland. Gomulka, in an ominous precursor to what would happen to Ulbricht less than six months later, was removed for “health reasons” in December 1971. The strange thing is that Gomulka lived another twelve years following his removal. Even stranger, he did have health problems. In 1970, it seems he had suffered a stroke.
Czechoslovakia – Gustav Hasek rose to the helm of Czechoslovakia following the Soviet Invasion of his country in 1968. He would rule for 14 years, 1969 – 1987 (18 years, 8 months). He was put in charge of “Normalization.” Well if I am sure of one thing, it is that Hasek craved “Normalization.” You would to, if you had been imprisoned by both fascist and communist governments multiple times in the 1940’s and 50’s. This had included a sentence of life imprisonment for “bourgeouis nationalism.” The majority of the years Hasek spent in prison were decreed by his own party, the one he would come to lead. Of course, this being communism, where forwards was so often backwards and vice versa, Hasek was rehabilitated in 1963. This started his rise to power. Hasek’s greatest feat may well have been gaining his nation’s supreme position despite being a Slovak, in a nation dominated economically, politically and intellectually by Czechs. Then again with the post- communist breakup of the Czechoslovak state into two separate nations who’s going to remember that. For that matter who will remember Hasek. That’s what he gets for being so “normal.”
Hungary – Janos Kadar was installed by the Soviets in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He willingly carried out Soviet orders to imprison or execute all dissenters. He did this over the next couple of years without a hint of remorse. He was the most hated man in Hungary. And yet Kadar would last a remarkable three decades in power, 1956 – 1988 (31 years, 7 months). By the time he was forced into retirement (those nebulous “health reasons” yet again) Kadar had rejigged the Hungarian state into a relatively liberal economy, where travel abroad was allowed. In 1989 the Hungarians were by far, the best suited of all the Warsaw Pact nations for a transition to capitalism. How did he do it? It is said that a Hungarian can enter a revolving door behind you and come out ahead without you even noticing. Kadar was a methodical magician who made haste slowly, a magician of incrementalism. He took the country one teeny, tiny step at a time, towards what became known as “Goulash Communism.” Hungary was an Eastern Bloc-oxymoron: state run socialism with western living standards. Perhaps the best way of understanding Kadar, can be summed up by his most famous saying, “those who are not against us, are for us.”
Romania – Nicolae Ceausescu was the opposite of Kadar. He started off relatively well regarded only to end up being one of the most reviled world leaders ever. Romania actually had a higher standard of living than Hungary during the early years of his reign. His initial moves relaxed strictures and boosted the people’s confidence in his leadership. But then he went mad or maybe he was always mad, perhaps it just took years of absolute power surrounded by fawning acolytes to exacerbate his penchant for megalomania, stupidity and cruelty. Ceausescu was at the pinnacle of power from 1965 – 1989 (24 years, 9 months). His final decade of rule was among the worst for any developed country in European history. He obliterated several centuries worth of rich culture and architecture as an historic neighborhood was wiped away in central Bucharest to cleanse the capital for the building of his magnum opus, a sterile monstrosity known as the Palace of the Parliament. Still the world’s second largest building, it has hundreds of rooms the majority of which are of such a size that they can swallow several football pitches. Much of the country’s output went towards this and other grand projects that were fathomable only to a madman. What wasn’t expended on such “public works” went to paying off the nation’s large foreign debt. Every financial resource was marshaled towards an effort that would liberate Romania from its creditors. By 1989 the debt was down to zero. As a gift for all he had done, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were arrested for crimes against the people, given a show trial, then taken out and summarily executed on Christmas Day.
Bulgaria – Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than almost anyone and hardly anyone even knows his name. Then again, perhaps that’s the reason Todor Zhivkov lasted longer than anyone. Zhivkov was the ultimate gray man. He rose to power not long after Stalin’s death. From 1954 through 1989 (35 years, 8 months) Zhivkov ruled Bulgaria from the shadows not of his countrymen, but the Soviet Union. He made his nation a mere appendage of the Soviets. This brought the Bulgars oil, electricity and anonymity. Marching in lockstep with the Soviets, Zhivkov ended up creating a thirty-five year plan for his homeland, which consisted of mass industrialization and collectivization. Concrete blocks to house the rural flight sprouted all the way from the Balkan Range to the Black Sea. Zhivkov had staying power, but even he could not escape history. He lasted only one day longer after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His country was through with him, but Zhivkov was not through with life. He lived another eight years and even was acquitted for embezzling government funds. His funeral was said to be well attended, I wonder if many of them just came to see whether he was finally leaving.
Albania – Enver Hoxha we hardly knew you. Thank goodness for that, if only Albania could say the same. Hoxha created what has been termed a “hermit state.” He ruled from the next to last year of World War II up until the last decade of the Cold War, 1944 through 1985 (40 years, 6 months). During that time, he fell in and out of love with all of his allies, basically making the whole world an enemy. His paranoia was all consuming. He pockmarked his country’s landscape with concrete bunkers that were supposed to protect his nation from a foreign invasion, but instead became love bunkers where scores of Albanians consummated their romance. The country averaged one bunker for every four of its citizens. Hoxha brings to mind one simple and brutally elusive question: Why? Perhaps it was just another form of communism, with an Albanian twist. Nobody deserves this much madness. His homeland could have hardly done worse and when his heart finally failed in 1985 that wasn’t nearly as surprising as the fact that he had a heart at all.