Early life and career
Brezhnev was born on 19 December 1906 in Kamenskoye, Yekaterinoslav Governorate, Russian Empire (now Kamianske, Ukraine), to metalworker Ilya Yakovlevich Brezhnev and his wife, Natalia Denisovna Mazalova. His parents lived in Brezhnevo (Kursky District, Kursk Oblast, Russia) before moving to Kamenskoe. Brezhnev's ethnicity was given as Ukrainian in some documents, including his passport, and Russian in others.
Like many youths in the years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, he received a technical education, at first in land management and then in metallurgy. He graduated from the Kamenskoye Metallurgical Technicum in 1935 and became a metallurgical engineer in the iron and steel industries of eastern Ukraine.
Brezhnev joined the Communist Party youth organisation, the Komsomol, in 1923, and the Party itself in 1929. In 1935 and 1936 he served his compulsory military service, and after taking courses at a tank school, he served as a political commissar in a tank factory. Later in 1936, he became director of the Dniprodzerzhynsk Metallurgical Technicum (a technical college; in 1936 Kamenskoye was renamed Dniprodzerzhynsk) and was transferred to the regional center of Dnipropetrovsk. In 1939 he became Party Secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, in charge of the city's defence industries. As a survivor of Stalin's Great Purge of 1937–39, he was able to advance quickly, as the purges created numerous openings in the senior and middle ranks of the Party and state governments.
World War II (1941–1945)
Brigade commissar Brezhnev (right) presents a Communist Party membership card to a soldier on the Eastern Front
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Brezhnev was, like most middle-ranking Party officials, immediately drafted. He worked to evacuate Dnipropetrovsk's industries to the eastern Soviet Union before the city fell to the Germans on 26 August, and then was assigned as a political commissar. In October Brezhnev was made deputy of political administration for the Southern Front, with the rank of Brigade-Commissar (Colonel).
When the Germans occupied Ukraine in 1942, Brezhnev was sent to the Caucasus as deputy head of political administration of the Transcaucasian Front. In April 1943 he became head of the Political Department of the 18th Army. Later that year, the 18th Army became part of the 1st Ukrainian Front, as the Red Army regained the initiative and advanced westward through Ukraine. The Front's senior political commissar was Nikita Khrushchev, who had supported Brezhnev's career since the prewar years. Brezhnev had met Khrushchev in 1931, shortly after joining the Party, and as he continued his rise through the ranks, he became Khrushchev's protégé. At the end of the war in Europe, Brezhnev was chief political commissar of the 4th Ukrainian Front, which entered Prague in May 1945, after the German surrender.