The art of the quick health fix, from Brezhnev to HRC & DJT

When Brezhnev died in November 1982, he was almost 76 years old. Since the mid-1970s, he had been mocked for his apparent senility – approaching dementia – and for his slurred speech. Many Russians remember him as a decrepit wreck, unable to fluently read a speech printed on a sheet of paper, probably in big letters. The butt of jokes, such as:

Brezhnev [reading aloud from a document]. O! O! O! O! O!
Assistant. Leonid Ilyich, it’s the Olympic rings.

That was not how Nixon found Brezhnev in 1972 and not how Kissinger remembered him from the detente years. In Camp David, the secretary-general drove fast (true to stereotype) and expertly and cracked jokes to enliven the conversation. Nixon and Kissinger were more concerned about Mao’s health than Brezhnev’s in 1972.

Brezhnev’s health started giving way in 1974; he survived a clinical death in 1976, as his doctor revealed decades later, and never fully recovered. At the time of his 1976 stroke, Brezhnev was 69 and a month old – two months older than Secretary Clinton is at the moment, and 14 months younger than Donald Trump. (Assuming Brezhnev’s birth date, some time in December 1906, is correct: one can never be sure with the Party people.)

However, in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Brezhnev and his inner-circle gerontocrats occasionally appeared in public in a serviceable condition, as if some elixir had momentarily restored them to good health. People would sneer and remark, “they’ve patched him up” or “pumped him up” with medication. As a nasty joke from around 1983-4 went:

“Why isn’t Andropov traveling around like Brezhnev used to?”

“Because Brezhnev ran on batteries and Andropov is mains-powered.”

The last bit is basically true: Andropov developed kidney failure early in his 15-month tenure and needed regular dialysis, which could only be done at a hospital.

With only two days until the first presidential debate in the US, I trust the patching skills of the candidates’ doctors. Both the faint-prone and the apoplectically-tinged one will probably last through the ninety minutes without a bout of consumption-grade coughing or an emergency bloodletting. That would mean victory for HRC, for whom the expectations are the lower.


    • It was only fun from a safe distance. The man suffered from poor health but was several notches above the senior party nomenklatura intellectually. At the same time, despite having witnessed and narrowly escaped Stalinist repression, he was an opponent of free speech and ideological heterodoxy. Perhaps he feared that once the people figured out the body count, they would start hanging Communists on lampposts, like they did in Hungary in 1957, when Andropov was the Soviet ambassador in Budapest.

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