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SOVIET UNION: Rumors of Death

2 minute read

Absences spark stones

Leonid Brezhnev was not at the airport to greet Syrian President Hafez Assad when he arrived in Moscow last week for a three-day state visit. Nor did the Soviet President and Party Chief show up for a Kremlin dinner in Assad’s honor. Both absences were grave breaches of protocol. Since nothing is seriously amiss with Syrian-Soviet relations, Brezhnev’s non-appearances quickly led to speculation that he was seriously ill.

More than that, in midweek a rumor flashed round the world: Brezhnev was dying or, indeed, was already dead. As had occurred half a dozen times in the past five years, the story spread that the Soviet leader had succumbed to one of his many ailments, which allegedly include emphysema, cancer of the jaw, heart disease, gout and leukemia. Kremlinologists pointed out that Brezhnev had not been seen in public since his return to Moscow two weeks ago from a state visit to East Germany. There observers had been shocked by the Soviet leader’s shuffling walk, slurred speech and a paralyzed left cheek that suggested a recent stroke.

On several occasions he could walk only with the help of aides.

The stories of Brezhnev’s demise gathered momentum when Agence France Presse reported from Brussels that Moscow’s regular evening news program had been canceled for important state reasons; the press agency speculated that an announcement about Brezhnev’s health was imminent. In fact, the Moscow news show went on as scheduled. Meanwhile, Soviet embassies in the world’s capitals were flooded with inquiries—especially after it was learned that three American specialists had performed eye surgery on a se nior Kremlin leader. (He was not Brezhnev but probably Politburo Member Mikhail Suslov, 76.) In New York City, Wall Street brokers picked up the tale of Brezhnev’s death, passing it on to the New York banking community. On Capitol Hill, Senators went from office to office discussing the rumors.

At week’s end, Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoli Dobrynin formally assured Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that Brezhnev was alive, if not entirely well, in the Kremlin. Quipped a Communist Party official in Moscow: “With rumors like that, Brezhnev should live for a hundred years.”

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