Yury Andropov: Turning Over Pages of Life...

When Andropov came to power after the death of Leonid Brezhnev and launched a real crusade against corruption, society instantly gave him a good welcome. He did not spare even top-ranking government officials. So could Andropov have become a Soviet Deng Xiaoping, as some analysts called him after his demise or was it all a myth?

Former CPSU General Secretary Yury Andropov would have been 100 in mid-June. People remember him primarily because his advent to power gave them hope, albeit modest, for positive change in the country. By that time, the Soviet command economy had fulfilled its tasks and approached the limit of its capability. Stagnation set in and not only in the economy. Empty shelves in stores, a shortage of everything and lines were accompanied by endless televised protocol speeches, trite ideological clichés and reports about successes… Society was becoming increasingly indifferent and apathetic. It treated the powers that be as something foreign, something that deserved, at least, a waspish joke, if not angry criticism.

When that elderly, albeit resolute, man came to power after the death of Leonid Brezhnev and launched a real crusade against corruption (although this word was not broadly known in the Soviet Union), society instantly gave him a good welcome. Andropov did not spare even top-ranking government officials and dealt blows to Minister of the Interior Nikolai Shchyolokov, his First Deputy Yury Churbanov (Brezhnev’s son-in-law), and Nikolai Tregubov, who was in charge of retail trade in Moscow… It was after all the cops and traffickers whom common people blamed for many misfortunes. For the umpteenth time, they were ready to believe that the authorities would finally meet their needs and punish the offenders. The market appearance of a new cheap vodka brand that was instantly dubbed “Andropovka” made the new leader even more popular.

Meanwhile, there were few real changes. Shelves in stores remained empty, but it was now permissible to discuss this in the official press. The authorities even found the culprits – spongers and profiteers – and launched a war against them.

Andropov did not suggest any serious economic programs. (Some believe, however, that he didn’t have enough time for this.) Despite a number of promising statements that he made and even Politburo resolutions regarding the need to speed up economic development and modernize enterprises, everything was reduced to what was called “the rule of thumb” at the time – reshuffles in government bodies and measures “to tighten the discipline.” It is sufficient to recall the notorious roundups in shops, movie theatres and saunas during office hours. True, the government also started some pilot projects in management, cost accounting and remuneration, but it is impossible to assess their efficiency or prospects.

So could Andropov have become a Soviet Deng Xiaoping, as some analysts called him after his demise or was it all a myth? Could anything in his biography have motivated him to play such a role?

Since his youth and for many years, Andropov was a party functionary who was well-versed in all trends of the establishment. He was extremely cautious and observed the main law of the Soviet nomenklatura – “initiative is punishable.” At the same time, he belonged to the category of Soviet “political fighters,” for whom ideological work and control was the backbone of their activities and, in fact, of the Soviet system as such.

They were convinced that the slackening of the party and ideological dictate threatened the system with collapse (the Budapest events in 1956 became a tragic lesson for Andropov), while permanent “ideological mobilization” was the only possible policy in respect of the “working masses.” Incidentally, all of this did not prevent Andropov himself from being an intellectual, composing verses or sneering at the system’s drawbacks in a narrow circle of soul-mates.

Andropov headed the KGB for 15 years and this was the central episode in his career. He made many positive changes in this role, and quickly became a professional, winning the respect of his colleagues. He consolidated the KGB and established new units and a research institute, placing emphasis on special training. To sum up, he carried out a long overdue modernization. Andropov set forth the constructive idea to enhance the prestige of the Soviet secret services by using “advanced foreign experience.” This was when the most popular movies about the secret service were made. Suffice it to recall “The Dead Season” or “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” the Soviet response to Agent 007.

At the same time, Andropov spared no effort to enhance the ideological control. The entire notorious saga of the “struggle against dissidents” is directly linked to his name. This makes one wonder whether the KGB head could really consider them the gravest problem for the country at the time?

As the head of this powerful organization, Andropov was the most informed man in the Soviet Union, both as regards the domestic and international situation. He was well-informed about the total shortages, exaggerated production reports, scientific and technological backslide and corruption chains leading to the very top… Yet he took no action. Many analysts believe that he was bidding his time. But when his time came, he had neither strength, nor health for the effort.

What he really achieved in the last few months of his life at the top of the pyramid of power was to infuse fresh blood into the Party, bringing several regional hopefuls to the top party leadership. One of them was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.