Old men helped cause the Soviet Union's collapse. Historians say it's a warning sign for the United States.

From left to right: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, Konstantine Chernenko, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
Wally McNamee/Getty; Photo 12/Getty; Brandon Bell /Getty; Michael M. Santiago/Getty; Anna Kim/Insider
  • The Soviet Union became a gerontocracy in its final years, contributing to its collapse.

  • Historians say it's a cautionary tale for the US, whose leaders have been in power for decades.

  • One Soviet historian told Insider these US politicians "seem to hold on to office like grim death."

  • Read more from Insider's "Red, White, and Gray" series.

President Ronald Reagan once joked that Soviet leaders "kept dying" on him during his first few years in office.

Though Reagan at the time was the oldest president to ever enter the White House — he was 69 at his inauguration in 1981 — the US didn't hold a candle to the Soviets when it came to geriatric leaders.

In 1981, the average age of the powerful 14-man Politburo that ruled over the USSR was 69 — a solid 13 years more senior than the average age of Reagan's Cabinet that same year.

And Reagan was right: Soviet leaders had consistently died on the job. Leonid Brezhnev, who led the USSR for 18 years, died at 75 in 1982. He was followed by Yuri Andropov, who died in 1984 at 69. Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985 at 73.

Fast-forward to 2022.

The United States' leadership has more parallels with the latter days of the USSR than those leaders might care to admit. President Joe Biden will soon turn 80. His predecessor, Donald Trump, entered office at 70 and six years later is considered a frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82. The average age in the Senate is 63, and the average age in the House is 58. Meanwhile, the median age in the US is 38. When it comes to age, Congress is not especially representative of the general population.

Yelena Biberman, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, told Insider that the age of an individual politician should be inconsequential because "mental and physical acuity varies greatly between individuals at old age." But she added that it's "very concerning" when there's "an entire cohort of very old politicians at the highest levels of the federal government."

During the final decades of the USSR, its corrupt, aging leaders embraced policies that derailed the Soviet economy as they continued to live in opulence. They refused to embrace large-scale changes and helped set the next generation up for failure.

Historians and political scientists say the Soviet Union's morphing into a gerontocracy toward its end contributed to its demise, arguing that this serves as a cautionary tale for other countries — particularly the US, at a time when many of its top leaders are well beyond the age of retirement typical in other fields.

Insider's "Red, White, and Gray" series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation's youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed.

Recent history from across oceans offers insight.

'Detached'

Leonid Brezhnev waving
The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow on May 9, 1981.Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he was the fourth leader the Soviet Union had seen in three years. At 54, he was also the youngest Soviet leader in years. Within six years, he would oversee the downfall of a superpower.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR was largely controlled by old men who were increasingly detached from the public and whose calcified rule left Gorbachev with a mountain of problems that he ultimately failed to overcome. Gorbachev desperately tried to reform the Soviet system via perestroika and glasnost, vying to pump life into the stagnant economy by introducing elements of free-market capitalism while opening the door to increased freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

But the changes could not repair the damage. As Gorbachev put it in his resignation address in December 1991, "the old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working, and the crisis in the society became even more acute."

Biberman, a Russia scholar who's an associate professor at Skidmore College, said the Soviet gerontocracy wasn't the main reason the USSR dissolved but was intrinsically tied to the problems underpinning the collapse.

Economic stagnation and "unsustainable levels of military spending" were probably far more to blame, Biberman said, but there was also a general sense that "the world-historical mission that motivated the early cadres of the Soviet state" wasn't worth believing in anymore. It made Soviet politics "a very stale affair which didn't inspire the younger generations and ossified the ruling caste in place," Biberman said.

Biberman pointed to similarities in the US system now.

"There is an aging — and already quite old — cadre of American politicians at the federal level who seem to hold on to office like grim death," Biberman said, adding that this "stagnant caste" of US politicians has been "quite detached from the material concerns of ordinary citizens since perhaps the end of the Cold War."

Much like the Soviet Union's leaders, these politicians — on both sides of the aisle — aren't offering society much in the way of "new ideas or political motivation," Biberman added.

Susan Grunewald, a historian of the Soviet Union at Louisiana State University, told Insider that she'd be hesitant to directly compare the US and USSR but that "you can certainly see parallels."

"It doesn't matter whether it's the Soviet Union or the United States — there's always a clash" between older and younger generations, Grunewald said.

The older generation is grounded in years of experience and years in power, meaning those people "don't necessarily want to change or radically alter the status quo," Grunewald said. "And the youth has a different life experience. They have different approaches. They look at everything with a different perspective. And so naturally there's going to be a disagreement."

'They clung to power'

Vladislav Zubok, a top Soviet historian at the London School of Economics who grew up in the USSR, told Insider that there was no single thing that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. But he emphasized that during that era of gerontocracy, "we were all aware of something going deeply wrong."

"It looked like the generation of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and all of them — they clung to power. They were afraid to let it go," said Zubok, the author of "Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union."

The Soviet government in those days was a subject of ridicule, Zubok said. "When people began to realize, for instance, that Brezhnev couldn't quite speak properly, he quickly became a comical person," he added.

Brezhnev's health took a turn for the worse after a stroke in 1976, but he remained in power for years. The historian Roy Medvedev claimed in 1988 that Brezhnev had suffered clinical death in 1976 and went on to rule in a daze for the rest of his tenure.

"Many people in his entourage who were influential but totally wallowing in corruption needed Brezhnev to appear from time to time in public as at least a formal head of state. They literally led him around by the hand," Medvedev said at the time.

Zubok said the Soviet gerontocracy was largely derived from the generation who fought World War II and felt they had a "special credibility" to rule, but by clogging up the system for so long they made it difficult to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. They also resisted reforms that might have improved citizens' quality of life, a period that Gorbachev called the "era of stagnation."

By the time Gorbachev took over, Zubok said, he'd "inherited so many systemic problems converging at the same time."

Gorbachev's lack of experience created within him the impression that he was there to change history and made him more willing to take risks, Zubok said, adding: "He began to experiment without sufficient knowledge of how these experiments might backfire but with great idealism. And that did become a central factor in the demise of the Soviet Union."

'Pernicious role of money'

A protest against the influence of money in US politics
People hold signs and cheer during a rally calling for an end to corporate money in politics on January 21, 2015, in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Though the political systems of the US and the USSR are drastically different, Zubok underscored that what happened in the Soviet Union still serves as a warning. The fact the US is a democracy makes it even "more painful" to see it move toward being gerontocratic, Zubok said, laying much of the blame on the "pernicious role of money" in the seemingly nonstop cycle of elections.

With no congressional term limits, incumbents in Congress are offered ample opportunity to consolidate power and influence. This often translates to congressional incumbents raising more money than their opponents and helps explain why they win most races each election.

For the past 40 years, incumbent reelection rates in the US House have hovered between 85% and 98%, according to the nonpartisan research organization OpenSecrets. In the Senate, reelection rates for officeholders have ranged from 75% to 96%. And while some lawmakers choose to quit in their primes, others stay well into advanced age amid questions about their abilities to carry out their duties.

In short, it's very difficult to defeat a congressional candidate who's already in Congress. And it's a large part of the reason some congressional lawmakers remain in their seats for decades.

Even with "periodic elections" in the US, Zubok said, it's still ending up with "the same kind of people who grow old" in power. Biden is just one example of current leaders in Washington who've served in powerful roles for decades. He became a senator at 30 in 1973; half a century later, he's in the White House. Pelosi, meanwhile, has been in Congress for 35 years.

'People who don't know when to go'

Brezhnev's birthday celebration in Moscow in 1981
Brezhnev's 75th-birthday celebration at the Grand Kremlin Palace in December 1981.Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia advisor on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said that "of course" the gerontocracy in the Soviet Union contributed to its ruin.

But she also cautioned against writing off the elderly or succumbing to ageism, saying that "some of our greatest thinkers have come into their own late in life."

Even so, Hill said that in the US, some groups seem to "have been bypassed in the political system," and Americans have to ask why that is.

Joe Biden when he was a young senator
Joe Biden in 1978, when he was a US senator representing Delaware.Getty Images

Hill said the issue with politicians like Biden is not so much their age but how long they've been in power, which is why many voters turned against political dynasties like the Bush family or the Clintons in recent election cycles. "People were looking for something fresh and new," she said, emphasizing that the problem is the "ossification of the system."

Political institutions in the US "just seem to be dominated by people who don't know when to go" and appear to view their positions as "lifetime appointments," Hill said, creating the perception that it's "an arena that is so out of touch with reality, and increasingly so."

A system with clogged arteries

A gerontocratic government is not necessarily an inherent sign of democratic decline — but in a country like the US, it can point to deep flaws in the system.

"The American gerontocracy is composed of a group that has for decades refused to relinquish power," Biberman said. "A healthy mix of generations in political office would have its advantages."

Countries with younger leaders have been applauded for their approaches to major issues. Finland, led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, 36, was ranked the happiest country in the world for the fifth consecutive year in 2022. As economic powerhouses with older leaders like the US struggled with their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, 42, was lauded for her measured approach that helped prevent the virus' spread.

Finish Prime Minister Sanna Mirella Marin arrives for an EU Summit on July 17, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin arrives for a European Union summit in Brussels on July 17, 2020.Photo by Pool/Getty Images

That's not to say that countries with older leaders cannot be innovative or that nations with young leaders are always prosperous. But there are few examples in the past century of countries ruled by a gerontocracy where the leadership adopted reforms that increased economic competitiveness or improved their citizens' quality of life.

Now, countries with older leaders clinging to power tend to be autocratic. The Chinese leader Xi Jinping, for example, turned 69 in June, breaking the customary age limit of 68 for top leaders in the Communist Party. He's overseen the elimination of presidential term limits and is on the verge of an unprecedented third term. That Xi broke from China's past efforts to prevent gerontocracy is one of many signs of the country becoming increasingly authoritarian under his rule. It's clear he intends to rule for life.

A country led by people who have been in power for decades — regardless of whether its government is authoritarian or democratic — points to underlying problems that can induce stagnation and instability.

"It shows that the system does not perform well, that the arteries get clogged at some point," Zubok said. "Instead of pushing new blood up upwards, they're clogged."

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