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The Soviets: Changing the Guard

21 minute read
Patricia Blake

After Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, the U.S.S.R. gets an enigmatic new leader

The first hint came at 7:15 p.m. Moscow time on Wednesday. Nikolai Shchelokov, the Minister for Public Order, had just delivered a brief television address to celebrate Militia Day, and millions of Soviet viewers were awaiting the live pop concert that was supposed to follow. Instead, without explanation, a film about Lenin was broadcast. Then, at 9, came Vremya (Time), the nightly news. The announcers, who usually dress informally, wore dark jackets or dresses. “I ran to my neighbors to find out if they knew what was going on,” a Moscow secretary said. “Everyone was excited. We all thought somebody had died, but nobody guessed it was Brezhnev. We had all seen him on television three days before, reviewing the military parade, and he looked all right.”

The initial speculation centered on Politburo Member Andrei Kirilenko, 76, who was rumored to be ailing and who was absent from the traditional Kremlin lineup at the Nov. 7 ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the October Revolution. After the news, the nationwide first channel aired an unscheduled program of war reminiscences. On the second channel, an ice hockey game was abruptly replaced by Tchaikovsky’s mournful “Pathétique” Symphony.

Only the next morning, at exactly 11, did Soviet radio and TV simultaneously broadcast the formal announcement: “The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. inform with deep sorrow the party and the entire Soviet people that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee and President of the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, died a sudden death at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 1982.”

Brezhnev, 75, who had held the most powerful post in the Soviet Union for 18 years, and who had been ill for nearly a decade, had died from complications of atherosclerosis affecting his heart and major vessels. He had actually died 26½ hours before the announcement was made.

A new era was beginning, one that would affect the destiny not just of the Soviet Union’s 270 million citizens but of the entire world. As Brezhnev’s surviving colleagues moved swiftly to fill the leadership void, they were eager to convey the impression of a smooth transition and lay to rest speculation about a power struggle.

Late Friday morning, black limousines began to converge on the Kremlin, bringing the nearly 300 bureaucrats, generals, diplomats, scientists, academicians and workers who make up the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Even before they entered the yellow-and-white Council of Ministers building, they knew what they were there to do. They would ratify the choice already made by the Politburo, that of Yuri Andropov, 68, to be Brezhnev’s successor as party chief. The post has been held by only five men since the Bolshevik Revolution: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Shortly after noon Friday, Andropov, the son of a railroad worker from the northern Caucasus, became the sixth.

Andropov was, to Western experts, by far the most controversial of the contenders. Stern and serious behind his thick spectacles, he was the Ambassador to Budapest during the Soviet army’s efficient repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. As head of the Committee for State Security (KGB) from 1967 to May 1982, he had also overseen the suppression of internal dissent. But at the same time, Andropov developed a reputation for pragmatism and sophistication, at least by Soviet standards.

As chairman of the committee designated to organize Brezhnev’s funeral, Andropov gave a brief oration extolling the dead leader, who lay in state less than a quarter-mile away in the House of Trade Unions’ Hall of Columns, a handsome neoclassical building that was once a club for the Russian aristocracy. “A most outstanding political leader of our times, our comrade and friend, a man with a big soul and heart, sympathetic and well-wishing, responsive and profoundly humane, is no more,” Andropov intoned. After calling for a minute of silence, he continued: “Leonid Ilyich said that not a single day in his life could be separated from the affairs of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet country. And that was really so.”

Konstantin Chernenko, 71, the silver-haired party chief administrator, then rose. As every Soviet citizen knew, Chernenko had been Andropov’s main competitor for the succession. Now, in a deft and effective political gesture, the rival was moving to nominate the winner, thus symbolizing the need to close ranks. “Dear Comrades, all of us are obviously aware that it is extremely difficult to repair the loss inflicted on us by the death of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev,” Chernenko said. “It is now twice, three times as important to conduct matters in the party collectively.” Chernenko, a close protege of Brezhnev’s, then proceeded to nominate Andropov, whom he described as “a selfless Communist” and, perhaps with some reticence, as Brezhnev’s “closest associate.” The delegates approved the choice unanimously. By 1 p.m. the meeting was over, and the entire Central Committee went to the Hall of Columns to open the period of national mourning, during which Brezhnev’s corpse would lie in state.

As an orchestra played Tchaikovsky, the committee members lined up in front of the catafalque where Brezhnev lay amid wreaths and flowers, with row upon row of medals pinned to cushions below his feet. After a brief formal tribute, Andropov led the Politburo members toward the dead man’s family. He bent over and kissed Brezhnev’s widow Victoria, 75, through her veil. She lifted a hand to her cheek to wipe away tears. Andropov bent to kiss her again, then kissed Brezhnev’s daughter Galina. Kirilenko, a leading contender for the succession until sidelined in the past year, burst into tears as he spoke to Brezhnev’s widow.

World leaders sent messages of condolence to the Kremlin that varied in tone. President Reagan, who had been awakened at 3:35 a.m. Thursday by National Security Adviser William P. Clark with the news of Brezhnev’s death, sent a respectful two-paragraph message calling Brezhnev “one of the world’s most important figures for nearly two decades” and expressing his hope for improved U.S.-Soviet relations. Pope John Paul II promised “a particular thought for the memory of the illustrious departed one.” Declared former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “His death leaves a gap in international politics that will be painfully felt.” The Chinese government dispatched a terse message to Moscow conveying “deep condolences.” Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose country has received much of its modern weaponry from the Soviet Union, paid effusive tribute to Brezhnev, saying that “he stood by us in our moment of need.”

The police soon sealed off all of downtown Moscow. The tight security allowed mourners to move three abreast through unimpeded streets. The capital’s huge avenues were guarded by long ranks of militiamen in their metal-color greatcoats with blue shoulder boards. Soldiers wearing black-edged red armbands stood at attention outside the House of Trade Unions, whose light-green-and-white facade had been freshly painted for the occasion. Red flags and streamers bordered in black hung limply on the building.

Inside the hall, mourners shuffled up a marble staircase beneath chandeliers draped in black gauze. On the stage, amid a veritable garden of flowers, a complete symphony orchestra in black tailcoats played classical music. Brezhnev’s embalmed body, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black-and-red tie, faced the long queue of mourners. His face was drained of color, distant and alabaster in death. The mourners could not pause.

They turned their faces toward Brezhnev’s head for a moment of silent communion, then filed out, past the honor guard.

People leaving the hall and heading for the subway stopped to express regrets and reminiscences. “I’m really sorry for him,” said a grandmother. “The poor man didn’t even have time to play with his grandchildren.” Said an engineer: “We used to complain some, bitch about this and that, and tell jokes about the old man. But now that Brezhnev is dead I feel sad because he conveyed a sense of security and stability.” One middle-aged Russian intellectual recalled a different scene, when Stalin lay in state in the House of Trade Unions. Then the streets outside were packed with an unruly mob of people pushing their way toward the hall. “Stalin was like a god to them,” he explained. “They were swarming around trying to see the dead god. But Brezhnev was human, and people are calm now.”

While many world leaders, including French Premier Pierre Mauroy and Indian Prime Minister Gandhi, announced that they planned to attend Brezhnev’s funeral, Reagan rejected the arguments made by Secretary of State George Shultz, National Security Adviser Clark and CIA Director William Casey that the President’s presence would be a gesture of conciliation toward the new Soviet leadership. Instead, Reagan decided to send a delegation headed by Shultz and Vice President George Bush, who interrupted a seven-nation visit to Africa. The decision drew immediate criticism. Reagan’s failure to go to Moscow, said Massachusetts Democratic Senator Paul Tsongas, represents “a lost opportunity” to make a dramatic gesture.

Defending the decision, a Shultz aide said, “We don’t think the succession itself requires a major reassessment of the U.S. position.” At a press conference on the day Brezhnev’s death was announced, Reagan said that he had no intention of modifying his stern stance toward the Soviets without any give on their part. “We shouldn’t delude ourselves,” he declared. “Peace is the product of strength, not of weakness, effacing reality and not believing in false hopes.” The President went on, “For ten years, detente was based on words from them and not on any deeds to back those words up.” Said he, “It takes two to tango,” and the U.S. needs some sign “that they want to tango also.”

Much the same sentiment was expressed by Andropov. Addressing the Central Committee, he said, “We know well that the imperialists cannot be talked into peace. It must be defended by relying on the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces.” The speech echoed Brezhnev’s last public words. Surveying a Soviet military parade three days before his death, he had promised to deal any aggressor “a crushing retaliatory strike.”

Thus even before Brezhnev could be properly buried it was clear that the most important issue facing the new Soviet leadership was the dangerous deterioration in Soviet-American relations. The Kremlin has been concerned that the Reagan Administration may be bent not just on containing the U.S.S.R. but on defeating and destroying the Soviet system. Soviet officials say their leaders have been dismayed by four themes in Administration policy: repeated declarations by Reagan and his aides that Soviet Communism is destined to end up on the ash heap of history, combined with a presidential call for a crusade against Communism; the Administration’s military buildup; official statements and leaked documents suggesting that the Administration is seriously preparing for the possibility of nuclear war; reports of stepped-up covert action by the CIA against Soviet clients around the world.

In response, the Soviet leadership is all the more determined not to give up any part of what will doubtless be remembered as Brezhnev’s most lasting legacy, an unprecedented defense buildup that has, for the first time, put the Soviet Union roughly on a par with the U.S. militarily. Some Americans, including Reagan, argue that the Soviets under Brezhnev actually achieved a position of strategic superiority that seriously threatens the U.S. in the years ahead. Still, many specialists in the U.S. and Western Europe believe that the transfer of power in the Kremlin presents an opportunity to relieve tensions and, ultimately, to reduce the level of nuclear and conventional forces on both sides. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expects Andropov to make friendly overtures to the West as he attempts to consolidate his authority. “The major impact Brezhnev’s death will have on the Soviet Union is that the country will be preoccupied for the next months, maybe years, by leadership problems,” says Kissinger. “Thus we may be facing a peace offensive in which they will try to get some of the immediate tensions out of the way.”

The other important foreign policy problem inherited by Andropov is the Soviet Union’s deep, longstanding quarrel with China. In the months before his death, Brezhnev made several speeches that signaled a willingness to reduce tension, but neither country is under any illusion that a breakthrough will be possible on major points of contention.

At home, Andropov faces an economy plagued by mismanagement, low labor productivity and sluggish technological progress. The economic growth rate has been steadily declining, and food shortages are growing more acute.

How will Andropov deal with these challenges? U.S. officials believe that the very fact of replacing an ailing leader who was apparently not well enough to devote more than a few hours a day to his responsibilities will make a big difference. Says a senior Administration expert: “Andropov is a far more decisive man than Brezhnev had been for some years.”

Most experts agree that Andropov does not yet possess and may never achieve the power necessary to effect profound changes in the Soviet Union. It took several years before Khrushchev and Brezhnev were able to assert themselves as the Soviet Union’s unchallenged leaders. Says Harvard’s Adam Ulam: “The process of succession does not begin with the death of a leader, nor does it end with the designation of his successor.”

Though Andropov may soon be able to add one or two younger supporters to the Politburo, it may be some time before significant changes in policy are evident because the old guard is solidly entrenched. In the last years of his stewardship, Brezhnev was unwilling to dilute his power by infusing new blood into a Politburo that was packed mostly with his longtime comrades and cronies. When Brezhnev died, only two of the voting members of the Politburo represented the younger generation of leaders: Grigori Romanov, 59, and Mikhail Gorbachev, 51.

According to Columbia University Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer, the old guard under Andropov will be characterized, while it lasts, by “reticence and restraint.” Bialer believes that Andropov will not immediately have sufficient authority to try a fresh approach to Soviet foreign and domestic policy, let alone undertake the radical economic reforms that are needed to boost the U.S.S.R.’s declining growth rate. To achieve the degree of personal power exercised by Brezhnev, the new leader will have to build a potent coalition of supporters among the younger men in the party Central Committee who are straining to share power at the top. The process of forging political alliances will take time, skill and stamina.

Under Andropov, the Politburo will be on its guard against any attempt by Washington to take advantage of uncertainty at the top in Moscow. Says former British Prime Minister James Callaghan: “This is a time for caution in the West and particularly in Washington. We must be moderate in our language and discard counterproductive rhetoric.”

One of the reasons for Brezhnev’s popularity among his colleagues was that he guaranteed them lifetime job security. With the exception of a few who personally ran afoul of Brezhnev, most Soviet top officials did not resign; they died in office. Now Andropov will have to start replacing as many as 6,000 top officials in every important governing institution in the country, including the Politburo, the Secretariat of the Central Committee, the Presidium of the Council of Ministers, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Such a vast change of politicians and administrators has not occurred in the Soviet Union since the great purges of the late 1930s, when thousands of powerful bureaucrats were shot or dispatched to the gulag on Stalin’s orders. This time, however, the scourge is not a paranoid and murderous dictator. It is old age. Most top officials in the country’s ruling bodies are the same age as the majority of Politburo members: in their 60s and 70s. Roy Medvedev, the independent-minded Marxist historian living in Moscow, believes that younger men will move into top positions around the time of the 27th Communist Party Congress in 1985. “The political wheels grind very slowly in our country,” he says. “A man who suddenly comes out of nowhere, like Jimmy Carter, is an American phenomenon. Here it’s like the army. You rise through the ranks, and nobody’s going to put a general’s uniform on you simply because you’re capable of leadership.”

In an exclusive interview with TIME last week, Vladimir Kuzichkin, the former KGB major who defected to Britain last June, stressed the difference between Andropov and other top Soviet leaders. Said Kuzichkin: “With the progress of time it will become clear that Andropov is his own man. Although he made his name as the KGB boss, he was not a professional policeman, having much wider interests. He owed his KGB job to Brezhnev, but he was never Brezhnev’s creature.”

Given his age, Andropov could prove to be a transitional leader for the Soviets, with the power moving on by decade’s end to men like Gorbachev and Vladimir Dolgikh, 57, who are not well known in the Soviet Union, let alone in the U.S. Totally obscure, of course, are the thousands of other politicians and administrators who are seeking to climb upward from their present middle-level party positions. Almost all are male and in their 50s, but hardly anything is known about the personalities or views of these people.

Sovietologists who have analyzed the backgrounds of the rising generation of leaders have drawn a number of conclusions about them. Unlike their predecessors, the upcoming leaders entered politics after Stalin’s death in 1953, thus escaping the paralyzing effects of mass police terror and participation in the dictator’s crimes. As a result, they may be less fearful, more self-confident and assertive, than the Brezhnev generation. Though the younger men are completely loyal to the Soviet system, they are less suspicious and more curious about the outside world. Better educated than the old rulers, many of whom attended only vocational schools, they are more aware of the shortcomings and the backwardness of Soviet society. At the same time they are more confident of their ability to put the Communist system to rights.

Most experts agree that the new leadership will be less dogmatic and more pragmatic, but just as tough as the old. Cautions George Breslauer of the University of California at Berkeley: “I completely reject the view that younger Soviet leaders are reformists. They are equally hard line.”

Nonetheless, any aspiring party chief, whatever his personal views, must be responsive to the aspirations of the Soviet political elite who constitute his power base. What will the political elite seek in the post-Brezhnev era? Certainly it wants to unclog the avenues of advancement that Brezhnev and his gerontocrats have blocked. Beyond that, the top priority is to get the country moving, after the sharp economic slowdown that has set in during the past three years. In the next generation’s struggle for power, “the domestic economy has to be the major issue,” says the Rand Corporation’s Thane Gustafson. Careers will be made or broken and alliances concluded or undone over new proposals to revitalize the economy. But change will not come easily. Brezhnev’s most unwelcome legacy has been the debacle down on the farm. Says a Soviet journalist: “The new man in the Kremlin will have instant popular support if he can solve the food problems.” But unless truly radical changes are made in the centrally planned collective farm system, agriculture is probably doomed to remain the disaster area of the economy.

Compounding the new leadership’s economic worries is a growing shortage of skilled labor that will become critical by the year 2000. Because of a rising death rate and a plummeting birth rate, the annual net increase of the working-age population is expected to drop from its 1976 high of 2.7 million to only 285,000 by 1986.

Murray Feshbach, America’s leading expert on Soviet population trends, believes that the present 2% rate of Soviet economic growth could drop to zero or even go into the minus column because of more shortages of skilled labor, especially in European Russia, where most of the country’s industry is situated.

Diverse groups within the society will be struggling for their share of shrinking national resources in the post-Brezhnev era. The Soviet leadership under Andropov is expected to maintain Soviet military spending at its present high levels, estimated to be 12% to 14% of the G.N.P. What is left will have to be spread more thinly. Says Robert Legvold, an expert on East-West problems at the Council on Foreign Relations: “The Soviet Union simply does not have the resources to invest in all the necessary sectors. The leadership is going to have to make tough decisions on allocations of capital, raw materials and labor.”

The loser in this battle for allocations will be the Soviet consumer. Accustomed to a steady, though scarcely dramatic, rise in the standard of living under Brezhnev, Soviet citizens may have to settle for no further improvement in the 1980s. But they are not likely to rebel openly. Lacking any genuine forum in which to express dissatisfaction, Soviet consumers will probably do little more than grumble. Andropov, with his KGB background, may deal more harshly with strikes or other eruptions of anger that might occur. Says Historian Walter Laqueur: “Expect tighter discipline rather than liberalism, but expect some economic reforms.”

At the same time, the new regime may be obliged to use intimidation or raw force in Eastern Europe, where it might face unrest and rebellion, similar to that in Poland, during the rest of the 1980s. “The Soviet imperial system is suffering from a sickness, a deep systemic crisis,” says Bialer. “For the Kremlin, Poland is not a cold, but pneumonia.” With their stagnant economy, the Soviets will not be able to apply the balm of aid to their satellite states. This, in turn, could plunge the fragile economies of Eastern Europe into even deeper trouble.

Therein lies the irony of the Brezhnev legacy: all of the Soviet Union’s gigantic military might has not proved sufficient to convince its leaders that they can depend on enjoying either domestic tranquillity or genuine security along the country’s borders, even those it shares with Communist neighbors. On the contrary, insofar as the military sector has drained off resources from the civilian economy, the U.S.S.R.’s war machine has weakened the country. According to some reports, a number of party officials and theoreticians have even begun asking whether, as a result, their country ought to shift its concept of strength and security from a narrow, strictly military definition to a broader one, embracing economic strength and social stability as well. In other words, should the classic guns-vs.-butter conflict be resolved, for once, in a way that gives at least equal emphasis to butter?

It would take a true optimist to give butter the edge in this debate or to predict that Andropov will have the power, the time, or even the inclination to push through the reforms that are necessary to turn the Soviet economy around. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the enduring strength of the gigantic industrial machine that Brezhnev helped build. Moreover, the often cumbersome Soviet political system is still flexible enough to allow a new generation of leaders to make crucial decisions on the allocation of resources, industrial growth and military spending that will assure the Soviet Union’s survival as a formidable superpower.

—By Patricia Blake. Reported by Erik Amfitheatrof/Moscow, with other bureaus

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