Andropov


Title:                      Andropov

Author:                  Arnold Beichman

Beichman, Arnold (1983) and Mikhail S. Bernstam. Andropov: New Challenge to the West. A Political Biography. New York: Stein & Day

LOC:       83042830

DK275.A53 B44 1983

Date Posted:      April 5, 2013

In April 1982 Yuri Andropov became the only chairman of the KGB to be elected secretary-general of the Communist party of the Soviet Union[1]. He had established his reputation as a hard-liner during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was appointed to lead the KGB in April 1967. An uncompromising cold warrior, Andropov had been incapacitated through ill health for more than a year before his death from renal failure in 1984.

“The Emergence of Yuri Andropov,” by John M. Burns, The New York Times (November 6, 1983)

A number of recent books deal with the end of Brezhnev and the ascension of Andropov. Among them are: After Brezhnev: Sources of Soviet Conduct in the 1980s, edited by Robert F. Byrnes (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press); Andropov, by Zhores Medvedev. New York: W. W. Norton & Co; The Andropov File: The Life and Ideas of Yuri V. Andropov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, by Martin Ebon. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.; Yuri Andropov: A Secret Passage Into the Kremlin, by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

On Thursday [November 6, 1983] it [was] a year since Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union for 18 years, rose from the breakfast table in his Moscow apartment to fetch something from his study, pitched forward onto the floor and died of a heart seizure. Within 54 hours, he was replaced by Yuri V. Andropov. Since the death of Lenin, each transition in leadership has been followed by important changes in the way the Kremlin does business. Even when Brezhnev succeeded Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, people everywhere, not only in the Soviet Union, sensed the importance of the change. By 1982, the reach of Soviet power was greater, and Brezhnev’s leadership had become stultifyingly passive; there can have been few nations that did not recognize the impact a new leader in the Kremlin could have on the world as well as his own country.

So there was real urgency in Russia and abroad to find out more about Mr. Andropov. However, in a system that penalizes divergence from prevailing orthodoxies, predicting how one or another candidate for succession might handle the top job is a murky business. In Mr. Andropov’s case, the problem was compounded by his emergence from 15 years in the shadows as the chief of the K.G.B. and by the skillful dissemination of glossy images of their former boss by K.G.B. personnel and Moscow officials with career links to Mr. Andropov. The notion they put out, of the former secret police chief as a closet liberal with Americanized tastes and a sneaking regard for dissidents, did not last long. But after he had opened his tenure by intensifying pressures on dissidents, tightening controls on culture and cracking down on the work force, there remained a range of questions about the new leader and his course in the long term.

Five new [in 1983] books attempt[ed] some answers, and they are not encouraging. For those who have been hoping that under Mr. Andropov the country might become a more congenial member of the international community or move toward a domestic society in which human values weigh more heavily in the calculus of the state, all the authors offer a depressing view. Their message is that the Andropov era will be a time of tightening discipline for Russians, which, coupled with limited industrial and agricultural reforms, may improve somewhat the dismal economic performance of the later Brezhnev years. But if the world is looking for a gradual turning away from a bankrupt ideology, from an elitist system to one of opportunity, from a police state to one that celebrates a noble conscience, these books firmly predict its hopes will be defeated. On these major points, there is virtually no divergence John M. Burns is the Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times among writers with widely differing viewpoints. After Brezhnev consists of eight monographs by some of the most eminent American academic experts on the Soviet Union. Their conclusions are a distillation of a wider cooperative study that took 18 months and involved 35 men and women from 20 universities in the United States and Britain. The academics offer an analytical view based more on a knowledge of Soviet history, past transitions and the inner workings of the Soviet system than on a detailed study of the new leader, but their conclusions are little different from those of other writers, who take a biographical and anecdotal approach. If anything, the biographies, probing some of the darker corners of Mr. Andropov’s past, offer a gloomier view. Four of the biographers are Soviet émigrés, each in his way a casualty of Mr. Andropov’s time at the K.G.B. Zhores A. Medvedev, the author of Andropov, the best of these personalized studies, is a biologist who fell afoul of the system, spent time as the K.G.B.’s guest in a psychiatric institution and now lives in London. Any personal bias he has is more than offset by the insights an educated Russian can offer and up-to-date material relayed to him by his twin brother, Roy, a dissident historian still living in Moscow, and by other Soviet sources.

Mikhail S. Bernstam is another émigré whose departure from his homeland owed something to Mr. Andropov’s policies at the K.G.B.—specifically, his substitution of forcible or “encouraged” exile for the more brutal methods of suppression favored by earlier secret police chiefs. Mr. Bernstam, who came to the United States in 1976, is now a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, as is his collaborator, Arnold Beichman. In Andropov: New Challenge to the West, they offer some original research into Mr. Andropov’s early career, which has been largely obscure until now. From their book we learn much of the ruthlessness and duplicity that enabled the former Volga boatman and film projectionist to catch the eyes of Stalin’s henchmen and secure a major foothold in the Communist Party hierarchy before he was 40.

In The Andropov File, Martin Ebon, a veteran American chronicler of Communist regimes and their leaders, leans heavily on his past works, and it shows. There is little here about Mr. Andropov that has not come from newspaper clippings or other secondary sources. Yet Mr. Ebon’s experience as a Kremlin watcher has led him to conclude that the Andropov era is a transitional period at best and more basic changes in Soviet society will come only in the future, if at all.

While Mr. Medvedev’s is perhaps the most balanced of these portraits, the most provocative and in many ways most disturbing is provided by two more recent émigrés, Valdimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova. Until the mid-1970s, this husband and wife team worked at the center of the privileged world of Moscow literati, writing for the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, which has close K.G.B. connections, and the prestigious literary journal Novy Mir. But they were ousted from the magic circle and, after establishing a short-lived “independent news agency” in Russia, went into exile in the United States in 1977.

Theirs is a sinister profile of an Andropov who schemed and plotted over 30 years to gain mastery of the Kremlin and along the way played the key role in almost all of Moscow’s nastiest business. They have him masterminding the building of the Berlin Wall, ordering the K.G.B. to fake automobile accidents, heart attacks and suicides, eliminating rivals for the top job. planning the abortive assassination of the Pope in 1981 and finally plotting the death of Brezhnev.

Fascinating as this is, much of it is circumstantial at best and at worst the stuff of the rumors and gossip that sweep Moscow like the winter snows. Again and again, the reader finds himself asking about details in the Solovyov-Klepikova account – how would they know? By their own account, Mr. Andropov is the most secretive figure in the Soviet hierarchy in the last two decades. Yet we’re asked to accept at face value their assertion that it was he more than any other leader who was responsible for the military intervention in Afghanistan, the repressive Soviet reaction to the rise of Solidarity in Poland and even the mysterious “suicide” in 1982 of Brezhnev’s brother-in-law, Gen. Semyon Tsvigun, who was Mr. Andropov’s deputy at the K.G.B. All this could be true, and if it is not, given the way the Soviet Union operates, we may never know. But for the sake of the Russians and for the prospects of any sort of accommodation between the Andropov leadership and the West, one can only hope that the most chilling of these revelations are apocryphal.

All these accounts were completed by last spring, within months of the Andropov takeover, and “After Brezhnev,” the academic study, was substantially complete while Brezhnev was still alive. It tells one something about the static nature of Soviet society – as well as about the powers of scholarship – that the writers would have little cause to revise their forecasts in the light of what has happened during the past year as the Soviet leader has consolidated his power and mapped out his policies.

The event most likely to be remembered from his first year is the shooting down by a Soviet fighter of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on Sept. 1, with the loss of 269 lives. Dismay at the Kremlin’s callous handling of the affair is likely to infect East- West relations for some time, but readers of the Medvedev and Beichman-Bernstam biographies could have forecast that the Kremlin under Mr. Andropov would be no more likely to acknowledge error than under any of his predecessors. The new Soviet leader has attracted attention with speeches at Communist Party gatherings that stress the need to face matters as they are, to acknowledge shortcomings and shun empty rhetoric. But if we accept the evidence offered in these biographies, he is a man for whom words and promises have always been subordinated to political and personal ends, whose ambitions have repeatedly demanded the sacrifice of others’ careers, if not lives, and who proved sufficiently adroit to prosper equally under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Mr. Beichman and Mr. Bernstam show us the making of the future secret police chief in wartime Karelia in the northwest part of the Soviet Union, where, first as local boss of the Komsomol, or Young Communist League, and later as a party functionary, he worked closely with the N.K.G.B., as the K.G.B. was then known, in the supervision of the forced labor system. This was at a time when thousands were dying in the remote and brutal labor camps. According to his official biography, at that time Mr. Andropov was “an active participant” in the partisan war being fought behind Finnish lines, but neither Mr. Beichman and Mr. Bernstam nor Mr. Medvedev can find any evidence he ever joined the guerrillas in their forays into enemy territory.

The same implacable serving of devious ends, with an overlay of charm he did not need in the labor camps, is evident in accounts of Mr. Andropov’s period as Soviet Ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 uprising. Mr. Medvedev offers a scene in which the future Soviet leader hastens to the Budapest parliamentary office of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister, as Soviet tanks head for the capital. He used his host’s telephone to play out a charade, assuring Nagy that there must have been some ghastly mistake. There was no mistake, and Nagy, among others who trusted the Ambassador’s word, died before a firing squad. For Mr. Andropov, Budapest was a steppingstone back to Moscow and promotion.

Mr. Medvedev shows how Mr. Andropov substituted “moral and political terror” for the physical brutality meted out by most of his 12 predecessors as head of the secret police, hounding dissidents into psychiatric hospitals, labor camps or exile and overseeing a rapid expansion of the organization’s abilities to penetrate the governmental and industrial secrets of the West. That the new Kremlin chief lacked nothing in the art of demagoguery is evident from Mr. Medvedev’s summary of his 1977 speech to a gathering marking the centenary of the birth of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the Pole who founded the Bolshevik secret police. Mr. Andropov castigated Soviet dissidents—he referred to them as “so- called dissidents”—“for their cowardice in not taking their case to meetings of workers and peasants,” where, he said, “they know very well that they would be thrown out.” For his part, Mr. Andropov knew well that many dissidents would have welcomed such an opportunity, and the K.G.B. made it its business to see that one never arose.

From the Medvedev and Beichman-Bernstam biographies, we can judge that Mr. Andropov is a man thoroughly schooled by the Soviet system and the ruling Politburo was taking few chances when it named him the nation’s leader. It is also clear he is more energetic than Brezhnev, more skilled than Khrushchev and a good deal saner than Stalin. His character, his training and his conduct during his rise to power made it possible for these writers to foresee his insistence on greater discipline in the workplace, his crackdown on corruption in the bureaucracy and his advocacy of limited decentralization in the economy once he came to power.

American scholars demonstrate how little room for maneuver there is for any Soviet leader, particularly a new one who is 69 years old and in poor health. In the book’s opening essay, Seweryn Bialer, who teaches at Columbia University, suggests the system may have become so stultified that it will take a crisis threatening the foundation of Soviet power to push the Kremlin oligarchy toward the kinds of radical solutions needed to cure the country’s spiritual and economic malaise. Mr. Bialer, writing before Brezhnev died, foresaw more drama in the struggle over succession than actually occurred. Mr. Andropov inherited the Brezhnev Politburo, a group of men with powerful bureaucratic bases of their own, and he has not moved to create a new majority made up of people loyal to him. As he enters his second year, all but a handful of his personnel shifts have been in the second echelon of power, in ministerial and regional appointments or party jobs below the Politburo and the party’s central committee secretariat.[2]

Mr. Medvedev’s account suggests why a reshuffle has not been necessary. He offers an insider’s look at the way the K.G.B. and the armed forces, represented by Mr. Andropov and Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov respectively, secured the top party job for Mr. Andropov within hours of Brezhnev’s death. With the backing of the country’s coercive powers, the new leader might have felt it necessary to secure his position by a purge of the Government and the party. But Mr. Bialer’s essay hints that being Communist Party general secretary and being able to dominate the system are far from synonymous. His analysis suggests that the idiosyncratic and reformist Khrushchev may have been the last Soviet leader able to challenge the entrenched powers of the party bureaucracy and the armed forces without resort to Stalinist terror; the only other force that could move them would be a popular upheaval.

The best of the other essays in After Brezhnev, including a look at possible future Soviet foreign policy by Adam B. Ulam of Harvard University and at the economy by Robert W. Campbell of Indiana University, also suggest a continuation for the most part of the policies of the Brezhnev era, with economic experimentation occurring on a strictly limited scale. The expectation seems to be that anything more radical must await the Kremlin’s “second succession” of the 1980’s, after Mr. Andropov is replaced[3], perhaps by a member of the generation of leaders who are now in their 50s, such as Mikhail Gorbachev[4] or Vladimir Dolgikh.

The last word may belong to Mr. Ebon, the author of The Andropov File. “Yuri Andropov,” he writes, “does not have much time. He belongs to an interim generation, still trapped in the adulation of an ideology that does not recognize human nature, that ignores the needs of the human spirit. Andropov can succeed within the narrow confines in which he finds himself; another man, another generation, will have a better chance to join the rest of mankind.”


[1] West, Nigel (2006). Historical Dictionary of International Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p. 13

[2] Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov (Russian: Ю́рий Влади́мирович Андро́пов, tr. Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov; 15 June [O.S. 2 June] 1914 – 9 February 1984) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 12 November 1982 until his death fifteen months later.

[3] Andropov’s health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he became the first Soviet leader to miss the anniversary celebrations of the 1917 revolution that November. He died in February 1984 of kidney failure after disappearing from public view for several months.

[4] The history of the Soviet Union from 1982 through 1991, spans the period from Leonid Brezhnev’s death and funeral until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Due to the years of Soviet military buildup at the expense of domestic development, economic growth stagnated. Failed attempts at reform, a standstill economy, and the success of the United States against the Soviet Union’s forces in the war in Afghanistan led to a general feeling of discontent, especially in the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe.

Greater political and social freedoms, instituted by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, created an atmosphere of open criticism of the communist regime. The dramatic drop of the price of oil in 1985 and 1986, and consequent lack of foreign exchange reserves in following years to purchase grain profoundly influenced actions of the Soviet leadership.[2]

Nikolai Tikhonov, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, was succeeded by Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Vasili Kuznetsov, the acting Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, was succeeded by Andrei Gromyko, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Several Soviet Socialist Republics began resisting central control, and increasing democratization led to a weakening of the central government. The USSR’s trade gap progressively emptied the coffers of the union, leading to eventual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of a failed coup that had attempted to topple reform-minded Gorbachev.

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