Leonid Brezhnev, born into a Russian working-class family in Ukraine in 1906 and trained as an engineer in the early 1930s, started his political career in the Ukrainian party organisation under Khrushchev, serving as first secretary in Dnepropetrovsk, Moldavia and Kazakhstan before moving to Moscow as a candidate member of the Politburo early in 1956.

A cautious pragmatist without intellectual pretensions, he was seen by many as mediocre, and as he became known to the public, he was the butt of many jokes. But he could joke about himself too: when a speechwriter wanted to insert quotations from Marx in one of his public address, he allegedly objected: “What’s the point of that? Who will believe that Lenya Brezhnev has read Marx?”

That “Lenya” (a familiar form of Leonid) was typical of the man: it was how his Politburo colleagues addressed him, while he in turn called them Yura (Yury Andropov), Kostia (Konstantin Chernenko), Andriusha (Andrei Gromyko) and so on. Vladimir Ilyich (Lenin), Iosif Vissarionovich (Stalin), and even Nikita Sergeevich (Khrushchev), would have felt that was too familiar.

While Brezhnev manoeuvred for primacy among his peers, as Stalin and Khrushchev had done before him, the process was free of bloodletting or even hard landings for those excluded from the inner circle (Brezhnev would usually find them a sinecure lower down the chain, with perks continuing). Despite the minor cult that developed in later years, Brezhnev was basically a much more collegial type than Khrushchev, so that there was a good deal of genuine Politburo collectivity: regular meetings and consultation, no independent “harebrained schemes,” collective decisions, and social and family interactions, often arranged by Brezhnev himself. It was a group that had a lot in common.

More than half were of working-class or peasant origin and, like Brezhnev, had been sent to higher education under affirmative action programs, usually studying engineering. As young Communist graduates, they benefited from the very rapid promotion available to that cohort in the wake of the Great Purges. Marxism–Leninism was the ideology they had learned in youth, making state ownership of the means of production a given, along with suspicion of the capitalist West. Much of an age, they had gone through the war together, either in senior government and party positions on the home front or, like Brezhnev, serving as political officers in the armed forces.

The Brezhnev era may have been the best of Soviet times or the most boring, depending on your point of view. But nobody has ever said it was the worst of times, and the Soviet leaders had many causes for satisfaction, particularly in the 1970s before theimpact of stalling economic growth rates hit home.

This was the period in which the Soviet Union first achieved military parity with the United States and competed with it as an equal for influence in the Third World. It had become a major oil producer, and the price of oil on the international market doubled in the second half of the 1970s, much to the Soviet Union’s advantage.

The Soviet GNP continued to rise, both absolutely and in relation to other powers, coming the closest it was ever to come to that of the United States in the early 1970s (it was still little more than a third of the US GNP, but in 1946 it had been only a fifth). Two-thirds of the population were living in towns and cities by the 1980s, compared to a third on the eve of the war. There was no worry about unemployment, and housing rents and prices on basic food goods were kept low. Thanks to the apartment building program started under Khrushchev, the proportion of Soviet families living in separate apartments with their own bathrooms almost doubled in a decade.

All the indices of consumer welfare rose: if at the beginning of the 1970s, one in every two families had a TV set and one in every three a refrigerator, by the end of the 1980s there was one of each per family. Private cars – frowned on by Khrushchev – were becoming available, if only for the lucky few. Most rural as well as urban children were now getting a secondary education, while the proportion of the population with higher education more than doubled in the Brezhnev period, reaching just under 10 per cent.

Since the opening of the Soviet borders to tourism abroad in the mid-1950s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens had had a chance to fall in love with Paris, or at least Prague. Life became easier for all groups of the population, particularly in the towns, not only because material circumstances were improving but also because the regime had abandoned the use of random terror and used even targeted measures of repression sparingly.

But this rosy picture needs qualification. The Brezhnev era was not all of a piece, and it was the first decade – the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s – that was the high point. After that it went downhill, particularly with regard to the economy.

According to CIA estimates, the growth rate of the Soviet GNP dropped from almost 5 per cent annually in the 1960s to 2-3 per cent in the 1970s and under 2 per cent in the 1980s. High oil prices helped to disguise the problem, but oil prices do not stay high forever. Rising living standards in the 1960s and early ’70s generated expectations that rose even faster, encouraged by greater acquaintance with the conditions of life in the West; the result was growing consumer disappointment.

Alcoholism, always a problem in the Soviet Union, rose alarmingly, with binge drinking and increased consumption of dubious home-brews contributing to a doubling of the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning in the 1970s. Disturbingly, male life expectancy, which had risen steadily through the Soviet period, started to fall in the mid-1960s, primarily as the result of male alcoholism (women’s life expectancy was not affected). It was down from 64 in 1965 to 61 in 1980, while in the United States over the same period, male life expectancy rose from 67 to 70.

Excerpted with permission from The Shortest History of the Soviet Union, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Picador.