Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union exercised the right of direct intervention to restore order among its satellite nations where it deemed socialism to be threatened.

Summary of Event

As a victorious Ally and in direct violation of the provisions of the Atlantic Charter (1941) against territorial aggrandizement at the expense of the enemy, the Soviet Union came to inherit, after World War II, an empire larger than the old Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Habsburg empires combined. This diverse, multinational new empire consisted of an expanded Soviet Union plus numerous satellite states surrounding its Eurasian frontiers, and it reflected the Soviet Union’s status as an emerging superpower in the vacuum left by the total defeat of the Axis by the Allied Powers. The founding of this communist empire through the victories and subsequent occupation by the counterattacking Red Army after the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943) also marked a beginning of the post-World War II Cold War between the Soviet Union and its Western allies. Brezhnev Doctrine Cold War;Brezhnev Doctrine Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Iron Curtain [kw]Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations (Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989) [kw]Soviet Control of Satellite Nations, Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates (Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989) [kw]Satellite Nations, Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of (Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989) Brezhnev Doctrine Cold War;Brezhnev Doctrine Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Iron Curtain [g]Europe;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] [g]Soviet Union;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] [c]Cold War;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] [c]Geography;Nov. 12, 1968-Dec., 1989: Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations[10030] Brezhnev, Leonid Gorbachev, Mikhail Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Iron Curtain Dub{ccaron}ek, Alexander Nagy, Imre Tito

The Brezhnev Doctrine was a policy evolved by the Soviet Union for the maintenance of its empire against the right and forces of national self-determination. Under this coercive and punitive program, the Soviet Union assumed the right to intervene directly anywhere in its sphere—from East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to Afghanistan—where it deemed “socialism” to be threatened. It was specifically enunciated by Leonid Brezhnev in his speech to the Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers Party Fifth Congress of the Polish United Workers Party (1968) in Warsaw on November 12, 1968, in connection with the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia Soviet Union;invasion of Czechoslovakia by Czechoslovakia;invasion by Soviet Union on August 20-21 to suppress the moves toward greater independence during the so-called Prague Spring Prague Spring (1968) . The policy’s foundations actually were laid in the late 1940’s.

With the split of Yugoslavia under Tito from the Soviet empire in 1948 and the success of the communists in China in 1949, new centers of communism in addition to Moscow began to arise in Belgrade, Beijing, and elsewhere, threatening Soviet hegemony. World communism was becoming polycentric and multinational with the appearance of Titoism, Maoism, and other forms. Nationalism began to express itself through communism as well as affecting the nature of communism.

Events in Eastern Europe mirrored these changes in the Soviet empire and communist ideology. In the early 1950’s, continued repression and deteriorating economic conditions led to worker unrest in Poland and East Germany, culminating in a Soviet military intervention to put down strikes in East Germany in 1953. This invasion to suppress German worker and national aspirations was the first application of the Soviet policy later to be dubbed the Brezhnev Doctrine. In 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev similarly ordered the Soviet army to crush the Hungarian uprising under Imre Nagy. The Hungarian situation was seen as much more severe than the earlier ones in Poland and East Germany. After initially trying to reform communism in Hungary, the revolutionaries had quickly moved toward discarding it and adopting national independence. Consequently, the Soviet reaction also was much more severe, earning Khrushchev, the real author of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the nickname “the butcher of Budapest.”

Thereafter, East Germany and Hungary stood as clear examples to the peoples of the Soviet empire dreaming of national rights and freedoms. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, any moves toward the realization of these dreams had to be carried out carefully so as not to bring down the full force of Soviet power. Over the next two decades, for example, Romania slowly moved toward greater independence, Hungary gradually established a more Western national economy, and Albania broke away from the Soviet empire under Chinese sponsorship. As part of this process, liberalization came to Czechoslovakia under Alexander Dubček in 1968. Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership watched these events closely and periodically issued warnings to the Czech leadership. Once again, when the situation deteriorated too far for the Soviet Union, it declared socialism in danger in Czechoslovakia and interfered, with the Brezhnev Doctrine as its justification.

Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.

(Library of Congress)

The invasion of Czechoslovakia demonstrated the Soviet Union’s commitment to maintaining its hegemony, and internationally this event had significant negative ramifications for the Soviet Union. For example, the process of Soviet-American détente was set back at least five years, the Soviet-Yugoslav rapprochement was halted, and the Soviet Union generally lost prestige abroad. Despite these consequences, the policy was not abandoned, and late in 1979 the Soviet Union intervened again, this time in Afghanistan to prop up and finally to replace a faltering communist regime. This intervention precipitated prolonged Western-supported resistance and a civil war which became the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.

The Brezhnev Doctrine not only put pressure on the various satellites to remain loyal and to conform to the Soviet ideology but also was used to intimidate the subject nationalities of the Soviet Union. The message was clear: If the Soviet leadership was willing to use whatever force was necessary in East Berlin, Budapest, Prague, or Kabul, it certainly would not hesitate to do so in Vilnius, Kiev, Yerevan, or Tashkent to stifle any national aspirations or disorders. The Soviet “socialist peace” was maintained until 1985 and the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Enforcement of the Brezhnev Doctrine, especially in the case of the costly war in Afghanistan, contributed greatly to the decline of the Soviet economy. Gorbachev inherited this economy, which was on the verge of collapse. Like the Russian empire before it, the Soviet Union was not only economically bankrupt but ideologically bankrupt as well. Gorbachev’s eventual response was sweeping reform, and the more democratic era of glasnost Glasnost (openness) and perestroika Perestroika (restructuring) was initiated. With this liberalization of the Soviet system came the demise of the Brezhnev Doctrine.

From the time of the founding of the opposition Solidarity trade union at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1980, Poland was in danger of running afoul of the Brezhnev Doctrine. The Soviet Union did not respond as in the past, in part because of the sorry state of the Soviet economy and the war in Afghanistan and in part because of the instability of top leadership after the death of Brezhnev. Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, and with Poland and Yugoslavia leading the way, Eastern Europe also began to liberalize.

In the waning weeks of 1989, Gorbachev indicated on several occasions, such as during an official visit to Finland, that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in the internal affairs of its satellites and, thereby, that the Brezhnev Doctrine was dead. Thereafter, Poland and the other Central and Eastern European satellites quickly asserted their national independence from the disintegrating Soviet empire. Following their lead, other republics and peoples in the Soviet Union began to assert their national rights and identities.

The Brezhnev Doctrine, as it became known in the West, was never proclaimed publicly as such by the Soviet Union, which even denied that such a policy existed. From its real inception under Khrushchev through its practice and justification by Brezhnev to its passing under Gorbachev, it was a major foundation for the centralized control exercised from Moscow throughout the Soviet domains.


For four decades, the Brezhnev Doctrine helped restrict severely the human rights of the Eurasian peoples under Soviet domination. For example, in forcing the adherence of Hungarian, Polish, or Lithuanian Catholics, Jews, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars to the Soviet state and its Stalinist ideology, the Soviet Union deprived these peoples of rights of national self-determination; they tried to destroy their national cultures, aspirations, and identities and replace them with artificial and alien Soviet substitutes. The Brezhnev Doctrine was nothing more than a brutal policy of Stalinist imperialism and totalitarian control.

In these years, Soviet power rested largely on the use of force, force which the Soviet Union readily exercised to control its satellites and to bully its own citizens into submission. Partially under the auspices of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union tried in vain to substitute material progress and hollow superpower prestige for national and individual freedoms. It succeeded only in stifling real leadership and productivity, initiative, and creativity.

While somewhat dampened perhaps, the fires of nationalism were not so easily extinguished. In 1989, once the oppression of communism began to lift through Gorbachev’s reforms and abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the blossoms of national rights quickly began to bloom again. One by one, Soviet satellites moved toward national self-determination and took on its challenges. Civil war persisted in Afghanistan, but without foreign involvement, indicating that the country would find its own solutions to its problems. Germany was reunited, and Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary moved rapidly toward democracy. Romania, Bulgaria, and Mongolia moved more slowly, but all took steps toward independent and more democratic futures.

The abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine was part of a general Soviet pullback internationally. Consequently, settlements to problems became more readily achievable in areas of former Soviet involvement from the Middle East, where the curtailment of Soviet aid to Syria, Libya, and the Palestine Liberation Organization brought a regional peace agreement closer, to southern Africa, where Soviet moderation brought an end to the Angolan civil war and a greater willingness of the African National Congress to cooperate with reform efforts in the Republic of South Africa, and to Central America, where the new Soviet stance helped force the Sandinista government to grant free elections and left Cuba effectively isolated. Even in tiny Albania, the Soviet moves contributed to the breakdown of Stalinist isolationism and to democratic changes.

On the other hand, in the Soviet Union itself, the resultant resurgence of nationalism, inspired in part by events and changes in Central and Eastern Europe, brought major problems. It also speeded the drastic political and economic restructuring by fostering democratization and the transition to a free market system as well as the national realignment of the Soviet Union. The Brezhnev Doctrine was a major impediment to human rights and progress in the Soviet empire and ultimately was symptomatic of its political, economic, social, and ideological weaknesses. Its renunciation contributed substantially to a dynamic for momentous change in the Soviet Union and elsewhere by ending the Cold War and encouraging international cooperation. Brezhnev Doctrine Cold War;Brezhnev Doctrine Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Iron Curtain

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berglund, Sten, and Frank Aarebrot. The Political History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century: The Struggle Between Democracy and Dictatorship. Lyme, N.H.: E. Elgar, 1997. Detailed examination of the oscillation between freedom and totalitarian regimes in pre- and postwar Eastern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dawisha, Karen. Eastern Europe, Gorbachev, and Reform: The Great Challenge. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A contemporary evaluation of the era of glasnost and perestroika. Offers an understanding of the reasons for and consequences of the Soviet renunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine by Gorbachev.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dawisha, Karen, and Bruce Parrott, eds. Conflict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A scholarly examination of the impact of democracy on former Soviet states.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gati, Charles. The Bloc That Failed: Soviet-East European Relations in Transition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. A good study of contemporary Soviet-European relations. Deals with the formulation and impact of the Brezhnev Doctrine as well as the current outcomes of its abandonment by the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. A factual and well-written account.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorbachev, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. This collection of essays reflecting on the political history of the Soviet Union is mainly useful for the perspective it provides on its author, the former president of the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamšik, Dušan. Writers Against Rulers. New York: Random House, 1971. A detailed discussion of the coming of the Prague Spring by a leading Czech intellectual and participant. Chapter 8 specifically deals with the Soviet-Warsaw Pact intervention, the Czech reaction to it, and the Brezhnev Doctrine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchings, Robert L. Soviet-East European Relations: Consolidation and Conflict, 1968-1980. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. A concise history of post-1968 Soviet-East European relations, stressing the impact of the Brezhnev Doctrine on foreign policy. Examines internal as well as external factors shaping the policy. Includes a good bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nogee, Joseph L., and Robert H. Donaldson. Soviet Foreign Policy Since World War II. 4th ed. New York: Pergamon Press, 1992. A standard history of contemporary Soviet foreign policy. Puts the emergence of the Brezhnev Doctrine in the broader perspective of post-World War II Soviet international relations. Chapter 7 concerns the events surrounding the formation and executions of the policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ouimet, Matthew J. The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. A thorough history of Soviet foreign policy in the wake of the Brezhnev Doctrine and following decades. Recommended as an updated historical source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staar, Richard F. USSR Foreign Policies After Détente. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1987. Social-science analysis of Soviet foreign policy and its making in the years since Khrushchev and Brezhnev. The impact of the Brezhnev Doctrine, its deterioration, and its reversal are aptly discussed in a wider context. Somewhat dated but still very good for the basics of policy making.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokes, Gale, ed. From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. These edited primary sources put the Brezhnev Doctrine into the broader historical perspective of post-World War II Eastern Europe. Part 2 concerns the formulation of the policy and contains the actual speech by Brezhnev of November 12, 1968, enunciating it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkogonov, Dmitri. Autopsy for an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. Edited and translated by Harold Shukman. New York: Free Press, 1998. The author, a prominent historian and former Soviet general with access to formerly secret files, provides a sweeping history of Soviet leaders including Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. Index.

Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe

Churchill Delivers His Iron Curtain Speech

Communists Seize Power in Czechoslovakia

East Germans Flee to West to Escape Communist Regime

Germany Splits into Two Republics

Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland

Brezhnev Rises in Communist Ranks

Austria Regains Its Independence

Communists Raise the Berlin Wall

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