Death and state funeral of Leonid Brezhnev

On 10 November 1982, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the third General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the fifth leader of the Soviet Union, died aged 75, a month before his 76th birthday, after suffering a heart attack following years of serious ailments. His death was officially acknowledged on 11 November simultaneously by Soviet radio and television. After five days of national mourning, Brezhnev was given a state funeral and then buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. Yuri Andropov, Brezhnev's eventual successor as general secretary, was chairman of the committee in charge of managing Brezhnev's funeral, held on 15 November 1982, five days after his death.

Brezhnev's funeral
A dead Brezhnev.jpg
Body of Leonid Brezhnev, lying in state at the Column Hall of the House of the Unions.
Date10–15 November 1982
LocationRed Square, Moscow, Soviet Union
ParticipantsYuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, Nikolai Tikhonov, Dmitriy Ustinov, Mikhail Gorbachev, other Soviet and foreign dignitaries

The funeral was attended by 32 heads of state, 15 heads of government, 14 foreign ministers and four princes; U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent George H. W. Bush, the Vice President of the United States. Eulogies were delivered by Yuri Andropov, Dmitriy Ustinov, Anatoly Alexandrov, and a factory worker.

Death and declarationEdit

Brezhnev and Dmitry Ustinov at the 1979 October Revolution Day Parade on Red Square celebrating the 62nd anniversary of the revolution.

Brezhnev had struggled with several ailments since 1974, most notably heart disease, leukemia, jaw cancer, emphysema and circulatory disease, all of which had been exacerbated by his heavy smoking and obesity. There had been rumours of Brezhnev's death ever since the mid-1970s; he had been absent from important meetings demanded by protocol and it was rumoured that his health was in decline.[1] Brezhnev had rarely appeared in public for most of 1982 and was usually surrounded by doctors, although the Soviet Government insisted that he was not ill. He suffered a severe stroke in May 1982, but refused to relinquish office until he died on 10 November 1982 after suffering a heart attack.[2] He was honored with a state funeral in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis on the Red Square after a five-day period of nationwide mourning.[3]

The first hint of his death to the Soviet people came at 7:15 p.m. Moscow Time, when the usual television programs were altered and a pop music concert was replaced by a documentary on Vladimir Lenin. On Vremya, the Soviet Union's state television newscast, the hosts wore somber clothes instead of their normally informal dress code. At first, Soviet citizens believed it was Andrei Kirilenko who had died, as he had not been present at the 65th anniversary of the October Revolution a few days earlier (he died in 1990). Furthermore, other abrupt changes to the television line-up occurred, such as the appearance of an unscheduled program of war reminiscences and the replacement of an ice hockey game on Channel Two with Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony. Brezhnev's death was announced on 11 November simultaneously by Soviet radio and television hosts.[4] The television announcement was read by Igor Kirillov with tears in his eyes at 11 a.m. Moscow Time.[5]

Western commentators had already speculated that Brezhnev had died when he failed to sign a message of congratulations to José Eduardo dos Santos, the President of Angola, for the Angolan Independence Day. This was a breach of protocol, and, as Brezhnev had earlier signed messages to all Soviet-aligned heads of state, the absence of his signature was seen as suspicious. The delay in declaring the death of Brezhnev was seen as proof of the ongoing power struggle in the Soviet leadership over who would succeed him. Konstantin Chernenko was seen as the most likely candidate to succeed Brezhnev.[3]

Funeral serviceEdit

On 11 November Yuri Andropov was elected chairman of the committee in charge of managing Brezhnev's funeral. This election marked the beginning of Brezhnev's funeral. The occasion was seen as a sign by First World commentators that Andropov was the most likely candidate for the position of general secretary.[6]

During the funerals of Soviet leaders there was a custom of displaying their decorations on velvet cushions, which were carried in the procession behind the coffin.[7] This task was traditionally given to an escort of senior officers, each carrying a cushion with one decoration on it.[7] However, as Brezhnev had more than two hundred decorations, several were placed on each cushion.[7] Brezhnev's funeral officer escort ultimately included forty-four persons.[7]

Galina Brezhneva, Brezhnev's disgraced daughter, was constantly followed by two burly guards. Andropov, Brezhnev's successor as general secretary, embraced Viktoria Brezhneva but allegedly turned his back to Galina.[8] This claim has been disputed, with a Time article dating back to 1982 claiming that Andropov embraced both, and not just Viktoria.[9] Even so, during Andropov's fifteen-month rule, Galina stopped appearing in public.[8] At the funeral, Andropov praised Brezhnev for his "struggle for the relaxation of international tensions and for delivering mankind from the threat of nuclear war" and his détente policy.[10] Andrei Kirilenko, a leading Politburo member, burst into tears when confronting Viktoria at the funeral.[9]

The Moscow militsiya sealed off downtown Moscow[11] during the funeral on 15 November.[12] Large avenues were tightly guarded by the police and the Moscow military garrison. The soldiers, who stood in front of the House of the Unions, wore black-edged red armbands. The House of the Unions was decorated by numerous red flags and other communist symbols.[11] Brezhnev's body lay in state for three days at the House of the Unions. On the third day the coffin was placed on an artillery carriage towed by an olive-green BRDM-2 armored vehicle of the Red Army—led by dozens of wreaths as well as Brezhnev's decorations carried by Soviet military personnel and other mourners—to the Lenin Mausoleum on the Red Square, where it was greeted by speeches by Andropov; Minister of Defence Dmitriy Ustinov; Anatoly Alexandrov, the President of the Academy of Sciences; and a factory worker.[13] After the speeches, pallbearers, led by Andropov and Nikolai Tikhonov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, carried the coffin to another location close to the mausoleum. It was here that Brezhnev's family made their farewell. Before the body was laid to rest Viktoria kissed Brezhnev on the face in accordance with Russian traditions. As Brezhnev's body was lowered into the grave a military squad saluted while an orchestra played the Soviet national anthem.[14] According to Time magazine, Brezhnev's death was mourned by the majority of Soviets.[11]

Brezhnev's body reportedly sustained two falls. As the coffin was lifted into place for the lying in state at the Column Hall of the House of the Unions, Brezhnev's body fell through the bottom. After that, a new, metal-plated coffin was made, and as it was lowered into the grave, the funeral servants could not handle its weight and the coffin fell with a loud crash into the grave hole.[15] This account, however, was contested by Georgy Kovalenko, one of the funeral servants—according to him, twenty minutes before the deposition of the coffin he was asked by the Kremlin custodian Semyon Shornikov to lower the coffin simultaneously with the chime of bells.[16]

Foreign dignitariesEdit

The funeral was attended by 32 heads of state, 15 heads of government, 14 foreign ministers, 4 princes and the UN Secretary General.[14] Among the foreign dignitaries to attend the funeral were:

Assad declared seven days of mourning in Syria when Brezhnev's death was announced.[12] Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, did not attend but sent a delegation headed by Vice President George H. W. Bush. Secretary of State George Shultz, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Casey and National Security Advisor William P. Clark tried to persuade Reagan to attend the funeral. Reagan rejected the idea; furthermore, he stated that he had no intention to alter US policy towards the Soviet Union because of Brezhnev's death.[19]


Among notable condolences was one from Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, who woke up at 3:35 a.m. to write a two-paragraph message about Brezhnev. Reagan called Brezhnev "one of the world's most important figures for nearly two decades" and expressed hopes for the improvement of Soviet–US relations.[11] Pope John Paul II promised "a particular thought for the memory of the illustrious departed one",[11] while former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said Brezhnev's death would "be painfully felt".[11] The government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) expressed "deep condolences" and Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, said "he [Brezhnev] stood by us in our moment of need".[11]


  1. ^ Blake, Patricia (22 November 1982). "The Soviets: A Mix of Caution and Opportunism". Time. p. 1. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  2. ^ Service 2009, p. 426.
  3. ^ a b "1982: Brezhnev rumours sweep Moscow". BBC Online. 10 November 1982. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  4. ^ "The Soviets: Changing the Guard". Time. 22 November 1982. p. 1. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  5. ^ Schmidt-Häuer 1986, p. 80.
  6. ^ White 2000, p. 211.
  7. ^ a b c d "Most Pompous Funeral Ceremonies of All Times Were Held in Soviet Union". Pravda. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  8. ^ a b Vasilieva 1994, p. 211.
  9. ^ a b "The Soviets: Changing the Guard". Time. 22 November 1982. p. 2. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  10. ^ Raymond 1994, p. 86.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g "The Soviets: Changing the Guard". Time. 22 November 1982. p. 3. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  12. ^ a b Seale 1990, p. 398.
  13. ^ Blake, Patricia; Amfitheatrof, Erik (29 November 1982). "Soviet Union: The Andropov Era Begins". Time. p. 1. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  14. ^ a b c Blake, Patricia; Amfitheatrof, Erik (29 November 1982). "Soviet Union: The Andropov Era Begins". Time. p. 2. Retrieved 23 January 2011.
  15. ^ Bacon & Sandle 2002, p. 3.
  16. ^ Прощание с Великими (in Russian). Gazeta 2.0. Retrieved 22 January 2011.
  17. ^ Trudeau, Justin (17 October 2014). "Justin Trudeau's memoir: 'My father was never the same man'". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
  18. ^ Hyman, Anthony; Ghayur, Muhammed; Kaushik, Naresh (1989), Pakistan, Zia and After--, New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, ISBN 978-81-7017-253-6
  19. ^ a b "The Soviets: Changing the Guard". Time. 22 November 1982. p. 4. Retrieved 23 January 2011.


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