Chronicle of Life as the 'First Niece'

One evening in 1965, Luba Brezhneva regained consciousness and found herself lying on the floor of her Moscow dormitory in a pool of blood. She had been kicked in the kidneys and punched in the face and, when she dragged herself to the sink, she realized that she had lost the baby she was carrying.

Brezhneva, 22, was the niece of Leonid Brezhnev, at that time the most powerful man in the Soviet Union. A student with little interest in politics, she was being repeatedly harassed by KGB thugs because of a romantic entanglement with a foreigner.

Brezhneva's memoirs, "The World I Left Behind: Pieces of a Past," are a vivid illustration of how proximity to power in the Soviet Union provided scant security, and less happiness. Even Brezhneva's father, the country's "First Brother," who for years indulged himself in a dissolute life of drinking and granting favors, would eventually find himself incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital.

Yet Brezhneva's account of her life before emigrating to the United States in 1990 is not a poor little rich girl's sob story. It is a compelling chronicle of a woman's rebellion against her family and everything it represented.

Brezhneva was raised by her mother and stepfather in a provincial town where she watched her uncle's rise from afar. Her first inkling of her family's extraordinary position came in 1964 when she visited her father in Moscow and was put up in a deluxe suite at the Moskva Hotel, then the city's best. She accompanied her father to all the elite parties, where she could not fail to observe the debauchery of life at the top.

At a general's dacha in Barvikha, she came upon Yekaterina Furtseva, the powerful culture minister, sprawled on a bench and reeking of cognac. A few steps away, she saw Rodion Malinovsky, the defense minister, diving into a fountain, in which his inebriated, pot-bellied comrades were already cavorting. Such scenes did not endear Brezhneva to the world of politics.

Soon she would have more serious reasons to rebel. Her romance, and her refusal to toe the party line as a member of the first family, elicited KGB interrogations and beatings, which continued even after direct appeals to "Dyadya Lyonya." Her father's drinking and indiscretions led him to be locked in a psychiatric clinic, where he told doctors, "My occupation is being Brezhnev's brother. And that's it."

The incident convinced both Brezhneva and her father that despite their connections to the seat of power, they had no one to protect them from the dangerous maneuverings of Kremlin politics. But while the realization led Brezhneva to pull further away from the family and the power structure, her father ventured deeper into a corrupt and empty life. "From then on, he would reap all the personal benefits his position as Brezhnev's Brother could offer, since he had already tasted its bitterest fruits."

Brezhneva's relationship with her uncle was inevitably an ambivalent one. She claims to have despised his politics and the system he personified from the very beginning, but she always loved him as an uncle. She found him at once infuriating and charming. She writes: "Sometimes after hearing his pronouncements, I'd say with great solemnity: 'I thank you for this talk. It has been an incredibly important and interesting experience for me.' He would burst into such hearty laughter that I had to laugh too."

Brezhnev, however, knew little of how much his brother and niece shared the cynicism of so many ordinary Soviet citizens. On the way to visit her uncle one day in the Central Committee building, Brezhneva joked to her father that the leader's suite No. 6 should be called ward No. 6 after Chekhov's story about an insane asylum. "That joke had better stay between the two of us," her father cautioned, moments before they entered the office to be bear-hugged by Brezhnev.

As Brezhneva describes him, Brezhnev paid in later life for his ambition and rise to power. He never recovered emotionally from choosing his career over the one true love of his life. And his greedy wife and children badgered and pained him, sometimes to tears.

During Brezhnev's later years, constant questioning about his deteriorating health made him think that everyone was waiting for him to die, Brezhneva writes. The truth was the opposite, but just as depressing. For the leader's death would bring an end to the abuse of power and lifestyle of privilege which his closest relatives and aides had indulged in and so they dreaded it.

"The World I Left Behind" is a readable and intimate account of the Brezhnev years. And while Brezhneva may have little light to shed on the politics of the period, her personal portrait humanizes Brezhnev. As she tells it, life as a member of the first family of the Soviet Union did not being happiness to anyone; anonymity would have been preferable.

"The World I left Behind: Pieces of a Past" by Luba Brezhneva. Random House, 373 pages, $25, Available at the new Post International book shop 1/20 Petrovskiye Linii.