Brezhnev’s Final Days – A Cover Story
By Andrew Nagorski
I quickly—and often—irritated the Kremlin after starting my assignment as Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief in May 1981.
Solidarity was on the rise in Poland. I visited neighboring Lithuania to report on whether that Western outpost of the Soviet Union was vulnerable to similar discontent. I traveled to a dairy region in northern Russia to report on the widespread food shortages and other signs of how the Soviet economic system was failing to meet the basic needs of its citizens. I met with the remnants of the dissident community, survivors of successive waves of crackdowns. I hunted out independent writers and “refuseniks,” Jews who were repeatedly denied permission to emigrate and stripped of their jobs in the process.
Some of those meetings took place openly. The people involved wanted the outside world to know about their plight. Others required playing cat and mouse games with the KGB to protect those Russians brave enough to supply me with information while still trying to cling to their official positions.
Kopeck Caper: That meant going to great lengths, literally. I never called them from my tapped office or home phones. Instead, I’d walk a long way from our foreigners’ housing compound to make a brief call after dropping one of the 2-kopeck coins I always carried into a pay phone. We’d exchange a few words, never mentioning my name. We’d signal a time and place to meet, usually using a code we’d worked out beforehand.
The biggest and most sensitive story—and the one that was the hardest to crack—was the state of Leonid Brezhnev’s health. The aging Soviet boss, supreme leader since 1964, was visibly ailing. Recurrent rumors maintained that he was only alive because of the extraordinary efforts of his medical team, which kept him pumped up with concoctions of booze and drugs. His every public appearance was scrutinized, and every disappearance even more so.
The challenge was to find anyone who could tell you whether the latest mix of rumors, were anywhere near the mark.
Secret Shrink: No one could speak to Brezhnev’s doctors of course, but I felt I had hit close to pay dirt when I developed a guarded contact with a psychiatrist who knew that elite group well. We met periodically using the pay phone arrangement. I only called when I felt the urgent need to confirm, refute or otherwise get a read on the latest disappearance or flurry of rumors. At first, I wasn’t sure how accurate his information would be, and how close he was to the Brezhnev team. But after a few occasions where his information proved to be right on target, I was willing to trust him. In return, I had to do everything not to identify him in any way as my source.
In late March 1982 Brezhnev made a four-day trip to Tashkent, clearly trying to demonstrate that he wasn’t as ill as it appeared. When the Soviet media failed to carry the customary photos of his return to Moscow, rumors quickly spread that he had been carried off on a stretcher and hospitalized. At that point, the editors in New York revived an idea we’d been contemplating for quite some time: running a cover story on “The Succession Struggle”—the behind-the-scenes battle for power in the Kremlin and the growing evidence that the entire communist system was in crisis. Rich Thomas, our economic reporter in Washington, had been gathering copious materials that demonstrated the Soviet civilian economy had been stagnant more than a decade and might actually be shrinking; life expectancies even seemed to be sinking. He had been pushing a “Communism in Crisis” cover.
Cover Story: The idea of a cover with a crumbling bust of Brezhnev quickly caught on, but it was initially meant to portray the overall disintegration of the system as the succession question hung in the balance. It was not meant to predict exactly when that succession would occur.
All that changed on the Friday morning in early April when the cover was being written. John Walcott, the State Department correspondent, told New York that his sources had just briefed him on a ten-page U.S. intelligence document reporting that Brezhnev had suffered a “very serious” stroke in Tashkent; even if he survived this ordeal, which was doubtful, the report purportedly predicted that he would resign in May. Maynard Parker, our top editor, immediately called me from New York to see whether I could corroborate this, adding that he was switching to the cover line, “Brezhnev’s Final Days.” I promised to check, but argued against a cover line which made it sound like Brezhnev would be dead in a couple of weeks. It also indicated that our cover was only about his illness, when in fact we had a much broader story to tell. Maynard noted I had one day before our deadline to see what I could get. He promised the cover line would remain open.
Rumor Mill: I had no luck immediately reaching my Soviet source. But late that night I connected with a U.S. diplomat who was one of the embassy’s best analysts and also someone I felt would give me an honest response. Taking a walk outside to be sure we weren’t monitored, I told him about the intelligence report and asked if it had originated in the embassy. He insisted it had not. He said the embassy had no information to confirm its content.
What then would explain the report in Washington? The most likely guess: the author of the report may have taken the embassy cables reporting speculation about Brezhnev’s condition, stripped them of their qualifiers, and presented the rumors as fact.
I was more anxious than ever to meet with my Soviet source. Finally, late Saturday Moscow
time, which was still mid-day in New York, I reached him and we met. He told me that Brezhnev’s doctors were still uncertain about the diagnosis. They were focusing on two possibilities: either he had suffered a mild stroke or a transient pre-stroke condition. They were leaning towards the second possibility; if they were right, he said, Brezhnev could reappear in a few weeks. There was no doubt this was another warning signal, but it wasn’t the “very serious” stroke Walcott’s source was reporting. I rushed back to the office to file just before the final deadline.
The Fallout: The Washington intelligence report was still given top billing in our cover story, but my less alarming reporting was also included, making it somewhat more balanced. But before I had reported back, the cover language was locked in. It screamed “Brezhnev’s Final Days” with smaller lines below saying “The Succession Struggle” and “Communism in Crisis.”
That Newsweek cover prompted the first angry official denials that Brezhnev was mortally ill. He was, instead, “on his regular winter rest,” the official statement claimed. A few days later, my source told me that the doctors had revised their diagnosis. Brezhnev’s collapse had been prompted by a new attack of heart spasms, stronger than the ones I had reported on in February. This was less ominous than a stroke, my source added; he could go any time but might survive for months.
Brezhnev, who was frequently bed-ridden, held on to power until his death on Nov. 10, 1982, seven months after his “final days.”
Thrown Out: By then I had taken up a new assignment as Rome bureau chief. I’d been expelled from Moscow in early August “for impermissible journalistic activities.” Those had included all sorts of reporting that infuriated the Kremlin, but there’s no doubt that our “Brezhnev’s Final Days” cover had been a significant addition to that list.
As much as I loved Rome, I still wish that I had prevailed with Parker to stick with the original cover line. “Kremlin’s Succession Struggle” would have been dramatic enough. We could have reported his declining health, but written much more fully on the political infighting and the Soviet’s crumbling economy. The Brezhnev cover line probably speeded my departure from Moscow just enough to prevent my reporting of the final chapter of one of the biggest stories of that era.
Andrew Nagorski joined Newsweek in 1973 in New York, as bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin, reported from Washington and was senior editor of foreign language editions of Newsweek International, leaving in 2008. His most recent book is Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, 2012.