During the period of Brezhnev's leadership, the term "Era of Stagnation" was not used. Instead Brezhnev used the term "period of developed socialism" (Russian: период развитого социализма) for the period which started in 1971. This term stemmed from Khrushchev's promise in 1961 of reaching communism in 20 years. It was in the 1980s that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev coined the term "Era of Stagnation" to describe the economic difficulties that developed when Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. Scholars have subsequently disagreed on the dates, significance and causes of the stagnation. Supporters of Gorbachev have criticised Brezhnev, and the Brezhnev administration in general, for being too conservative and failing to change with the times.
The 1964–82 period in the Soviet Union began hopefully but devolved into disillusionment. Social stagnation began following Brezhnev's rise to power, when he revoked several of the relatively liberal reforms of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, and partially rehabilitated Stalinist policies. Some commentators regard the start of social stagnation as being the Sinyavsky–Daniel trial in 1966, which marked the end of Nikita Khrushchev's "Thaw", while others place it at the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. The period's political stagnation is associated with the establishment of gerontocracy, which came into being as part of the policy of stability.
The majority of scholars set the starting year for economic stagnation at 1975, although some claim that it began as early as the 1960s. Industrial growth rates declined during the 1970s as heavy industry and the arms industry were prioritised while Soviet consumer goods were neglected. The value of all consumer goods manufactured in 1972 in retail prices was about 118 billion rubles ($530 billion). Historians, scholars, and specialists are uncertain what caused the stagnation, with some arguing that the planned economy suffered from systemic flaws which inhibited growth. Others have argued that the lack of reform, or the high expenditures on defense, led to stagnation.
Brezhnev has been criticised posthumously for doing too little to improve the economic situation. Throughout his rule, no major reforms were initiated and the few proposed reforms were either very modest or opposed by the majority of the Soviet leadership. The reform-minded Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Government), Alexei Kosygin, introduced two modest reforms in the 1970s after the failure of his more radical 1965 reform, and attempted to reverse the trend of declining growth. By the 1970s, Brezhnev had consolidated enough power to stop any "radical" reform-minded attempts by Kosygin.
When Brezhnev died in November 1982, the Soviet Union he handed over to his successor, Yuri Andropov, was much less dynamic than when he assumed power. During his short rule, Andropov introduced modest reforms; he died little more than a year later in February 1984. Konstantin Chernenko, his successor, continued much of Andropov's policies. The economic problems that began under Brezhnev persisted into these short administrations and scholars still debate whether the reform policies that were followed improved the economic situation in the country.
The Era of Stagnation ended with Gorbachev's rise to power during which political and social life was democratised even though the economy was still stagnating. Under Gorbachev's leadership the Communist Party began efforts to accelerate development in 1985 through massive injections of finance into heavy industry (Uskoreniye). When these failed, the Communist Party restructured (perestroika) the Soviet economy and government by introducing quasi-capitalist (Khozraschyot) and democratic (demokratizatsiya) reforms. These were intended to re-energize the Soviet Union but inadvertently led to its dissolution in 1991.
Robert Service, author of the History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century, claims that with mounting economic problems worker discipline decreased, which the Government could not counter effectively because of the full employment policy. According to Service, this policy led to government industries, such as factories, mines and offices, being staffed by undisciplined and unproductive personnel ultimately leading to a "work-shy workforce" among Soviet workers and administrators. While the Soviet Union under Brezhnev had the "second greatest industrial capacity" after the United States, and produced more "steel, oil, pig-iron, cement and tractors" than any other country in the world, Service treats the problems of agriculture during the Brezhnev era as proof of the need for decollectivization. In short, Service considers the Soviet economy to have become "static" during this time period, and Brezhnev's policy of stability was a "recipe for political disaster".