by Zhores Medvedev.
Blackwell, 227 pp., £7.50, June 1983, 0 631 13401 8
Show More
Andropov in Power: From Komsomol to Kremlin 
by Jonathan Steele and Eric Abraham.
Martin Robertson, 216 pp., £9.95, November 1983, 0 85520 641 1
Show More
Life in Russia 
by Michael Binyon.
Hamish Hamilton, 286 pp., £9.95, November 1983, 0 241 10982 5
Show More
The Soviet Union after Brezhnev 
edited by Martin McCauley.
Heinemann, 160 pp., £14.50, November 1983, 0 8419 0918 0
Show More
Yuri Andropov: A Secret Passage into the Kremlin 
by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, translated by Guy Daniels.
Robert Hale, 302 pp., £11.50, February 1984, 0 7090 1630 1
Show More
Show More

If success in predicting the future is any criterion of analytical accuracy, Sovietology must be among the least exact of social science disciplines. The record of Western specialists on Soviet affairs in forecasting the direction of change in the USSR has been remarkably poor. The imminent overthrow of Lenin’s government in 1917, the victory of the Whites in the Civil War; the natural reversion to capitalism in the 1920s, the impossibility of modernising through a centrally-planned economy in the 1930s, the weakness of the Red Army on the eve of the Second World War, and Soviet technological backwardness in the 1950s, before Sputnik and Gagarin inaugurated the space age, are only a few of the discarded orthodoxies about the Soviet Union over past decades. Predictions of leadership changes have been even less successful. On Lenin’s death the natural successor was held to be Trotsky or Zinoviev. (The inconspicuous Stalin was then and for some time regarded as a cautious moderate far more acceptable to the West than his more prominent rivals.) When Stalin died, the consensus of expert opinion was that more of the same individual despotism was likely, with Beria, Malenkov or Molotov as the new dictator. Surprise at the outsider Khrushchev’s rise to power was exceeded only by that at his sudden fall in 1964. Brezhnev, on the other hand, gave observers plenty of time to identify his successor. Shelepin, Suslov, Mazurov, Kirilenko and Chernenko were among the candidates favoured at various times by the Western media, though not as it happened by the Politburo. One name was notable for its absence from speculation about the succession until the very end of the Brezhnev era. The orthodox view was that the Soviet leader could not possibly be a man who had been head of the KGB for as long as Yuri Andropov.

At least the latter’s election as General Secretary of the Party Central Committee settled one question for Kremlinologists. The man defeated in the latest power struggle, Konstantin Chernenko, was clearly destined for the rubbish heap of Soviet history. Now that he no longer had the advantage of being Brezhnev’s heir apparent, his departure from high office could only be a matter of time. Assessments made over the past year of the man whom the Politburo was soon to choose as its leader provide interesting reading. According to Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, Chernenko is noted for his ‘simple-mindedness ... and lack of cleverness in intrigues’. They attributed to Georgi Arbatov, a leading Politburo adviser on world affairs, the statement that ‘as a Soviet leader, Chernenko was impossible and even indecent.’ According to Zhores Medvedev, ‘Chernenko had no authority among the party leaders ... everyone knew that he would be no more than Brezhnev’s ghost.’ Martin McCauley predicted that Andropov would ‘wish to replace his defeated rival as soon as possible’ as head of the general department of the Central Committee, which he did, though giving him an equally responsible role. Jonathan Steele and Eric Abraham characterised Chernenko as a ‘classic apparatchik’ who was ‘nothing but a Brezhnev associate’. But they also noted signs of his ‘continuing power’, and in particular the possibility that his being given the important task of making the opening speech at the Central Committee Plenum of June 1983 was ‘a recognition of Chernenko’s considerable power’. From last autumn, as Andropov’s disappearance seemed increasingly likely to be permanent, speculation about the succession resumed, with the younger men Gorbachev and Romanov being strongly tipped. It was only after Andropov had died, however, that the idea began to gain currency that Chernenko might be the new leader.

Why is it apparently so difficult to predict change in Soviet politics accurately? The political and ideological gulf dividing East and West is a major obstacle to objective analysis. The fact that the USSR is generally perceived in the West as the main threat to its security and its way of life inevitably distorts the perspective from which Soviet society is viewed, if only because the focus of attention is naturally on the most negative features of the Soviet system. (By contrast, comment about China, seen as much less of a danger, tends to be considerably more sympathetic.) But the practical problems of analysing Soviet affairs are also substantial. One problem is the lack of detailed information about policy-making and implementation, or about any of the leading political figures. As a result, much of what passes for analysis of Soviet politics consists of imaginative guesses, though understandably few commentators are willing to acknowledge this. The absence of well-informed and objective domestic analysis for foreign observers to draw on is another serious obstacle, for it means that most comment is provided by people whose knowledge of the culture, history, structure and problems of this huge and immensely varied country is inevitably limited. Emigré writing only partially remedies this deficiency, for much of it is, not surprisingly, tendentious. Given all this, perhaps the best approach to analysing the Soviet Union is that which begins by recognising the limits of the available knowledge and the tentative nature of any conclusion. The warning given by Michael Binyon in his fascinating account of Russian life, which provides an invaluable background to an understanding of Soviet politics, is very apt. After four and a half years as the Times correspondent in Moscow, he writes: ‘When you are confident that you really know how Russians think and react, then is the time to beware, for you can be mightily deceived.’

Both Andropov’s election and his radical impact as General Secretary took observers by surprise. One reason was that the initial image of a ruthless secret police chief presented in the Western media was an inadequate summary of his political record and a misleading guide to his likely behaviour in office. The biographies by Medvedev and Steele and Abraham provide a much fuller picture of the man. It is interesting that until his appointment as head of the KGB in 1967, Andropov had tended to be associated with the more reformist wing of the Soviet establishment. The young Andropov was a protégé of Otto Kuusinen, one of the more moderate members of the Soviet leadership in the 1940s and 1950s. It was Kuusinen, according to Steele and Abraham, who saved him when he was implicated in the Karelian scandal of 1949. Subsequently, his career flourished during the years of Khrushchev’s liberalisation of Soviet society. Elected to the Central Committee in 1961 at the 22nd Party Congress, the most radical in the Party’s modern history, he was made a secretary of the Central Committee by Khrushchev a year later. His first major public appearance came in April 1964, only six months before Khrushchev’s fall, when he delivered the prestigious speech marking the anniversary of Lenin’s birth. Two years later he was said to have been among leading figures resisting a return to Stalinist policies.

Another notable feature of Andropov’s career was the variety of his political experience: as a provincial party official in Soviet Karelia, an organiser of partisan operations during the war, ambassador in Hungary during the 1956 uprising, a senior official in the Central Committee apparatus handling relations with other Communist countries, and then from 1967 to 1982 head of the KGB. The last post, moreover, involved Andropov in more than the suppression of dissidents and the gathering of foreign intelligence reports. The scope of the KGB’s activities, involving diplomatic, economic and military, as well as political affairs, would have given him a good understanding of Soviet society. As Martin McCauley notes, ‘the political police, unlike the party and state apparatuses, have no incentive to camouflage the reality of everyday problems.’ While head of the KGB, Andropov earned, according to Zhores Medvedev, the reputation of ‘the most successful, the most sophisticated and the most legalistic head in the history of that organisation’ – a remarkable tribute from a man whose own exile to the West must have been a direct result of Andropov’s policies. Though the campaign against dissidents attracted most attention abroad, the KGB’s drive against corruption among the élite – from the dismissal of the Azerbaijan and Georgian republics’ leaderships in 1969 and 1971 respectively to the arrest of close associates of the Brezhnev family in the last year of the old leader’s life – made a greater impact in the USSR itself. It certainly did a lot for Andropov’s image as defender of party and state interests.

So, in retrospect, it is clear that Andropov became General Secretary quite simply because he was particularly well qualified for the job. By virtue of his wide experience, his proven ability for effective action, and his lack of responsibility for the failures of Brezhnev’s last years (only in May 1982 did he leave the KGB to return to the Central Committee Secretariat), he was able to win the support of the Politburo majority. This was vital, for the Soviet leadership is composed of a group of powerful men, each heading huge apparatuses, enjoying a long tenure of office (Gromyko, for instance, has been foreign minister for 27 years), and accumulating a great deal of influence in the process. Since the death of Stalin, no Soviet leader has been able to command their loyalty through terror. He has to gain and maintain their support through his policies and performance. Khrushchev in his later years ignored the opinions of his colleagues, who removed him when his policies failed. Brezhnev, the consensus politician par excellence, despite numerous reverses and growing incapacity, retained the Politburo’s support and was allowed to die in office.

The oligarchic character of the Soviet leadership is well illustrated in Zhores Medvedev’s biography of Andropov. His account of the struggles among the élite during the Brezhnev years shows the real constraints on a Soviet leader’s freedom of action in taking political initiatives or making appointments – considerably greater, probably, than for an American president or a British prime minister. His book provides many valuable insights into Soviet politics over the last two decades. Besides being based on the author’s own considerable knowledge of Soviet society and his close reading of the Soviet press, it clearly benefits from comment and information received from his brother, Roy Medvedev, the dissident historian who still lives and works in Moscow. The portrait of Andropov, however, is far from hostile. On the contrary, he is favourably compared with his predecessor, and there is a distinct if guarded optimism about the chances for reform.

Like Zhores Medvedev, Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova are Soviet émigrés: but that is all they have in common. Their own book contains a denunciation of Medvedev which is a fine example of the political culture they have left behind, though obviously not entirely. His book is a ‘fairy-tale ... an omnium gatherum of all the myths Andropov has spread about himself’. Its ‘fulsome flattery ... makes this book absurd’, they declare, misquoting Medvedev to prove their case. The author, it seems, is being manipulated by the Kremlin, or worse: ‘a cruder version is not ruled out.’ In fact, their book is a good illustration of the reasons why Sovietology has such a poor reputation. Its main sources, the authors frankly admit, consist of rumours ‘so persistent that they could be taken as fact – not only because nothing more reliable was available to us but because they fit into the context of events’. On this basis they reconstruct, for example, conversations between Brezhnev and Andropov, Khrushchev and Gomulka, Beria and Rakosi, and give details of voting in the Politburo. Similarly, they attribute responsibility to Andropov for Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, for the building of the Berlin Wall, the rise of Russian nationalism and anti-semitism, and a myriad of other perfidious actions leading up to Andropov’s supposed proclamation of ‘the ideal of a police state’ in November 1982. Some of these rumours may conceivably be true, but which if any the authors certainly cannot know. Presenting such speculation as fact is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty.

By contrast, Jonathan Steele’s and Eric Abraham’s biography is a model of careful research. Using a wide range of published sources and numerous interviews with a variety of informants, it presents a very useful account of Andropov’s career, and an admirably balanced assessment of the greater part of his short term as General Secretary. Completed in September 1983, the book will need only minor revision, together with the addition of a final chapter, to make it the definitive study of Andropov. The authors’ positive view of their subject is quite clear. He was a man, they write, with ‘the intellectual ability to recognise problems, the common sense and realism to admit them (at least some of them) publicly, the imagination to look for, or to ask aides to look for, workable solutions, and the political will to try to implement them’. As they show, he presented a striking contrast to his predecessor’s complacency. ‘Inertia and conservatism are still dominant,’ he declared in his first speech as Party leader in November 1982. ‘Some people just do not know how to set about doing the job properly.’ Virtually every bulletin issued after the Politburo’s weekly meeting (an innovation of Andropov’s) gave a short statement of achievements in the area discussed, followed by a long list of failings and shortcomings and a set of proposed remedies. Criticism from below was also encouraged. A recent letter in Party Life, for instance, attacked the idea that officials should not be criticised publicly. ‘It is necessary to speak directly of faults in order to eliminate them more quickly. And it is necessary to criticise any Communist justly, regardless of person.’

But as Andropov observed in his last public speech in August 1983, ‘it isn’t possible to achieve things with words alone, even with the finest words.’ So what actions were taken? His strategy appeared to have two main components. First, a number of shock measures to end the drift of recent years, to galvanise administrators, managers and workers to greater efforts; then a systematic search for new methods, new structures, new policies. Numerous ministers and high-ranking party officials were sacked. Several cases of corruption in high places were exposed, with arrests, trials, even executions following. Men with reputations for organisational efficiency and economic expertise, such as Aliev, Dolgikh, Gorbachev, Romanov, Ryzhkov and Vorotnikov, were promoted. In industry, emphasis was put on forming work brigades, groups of people in the same part of the production process, organising their work themselves and being paid by results. Last summer, five industrial ministries were selected for an experimental decentralisation of economic control and encouragement of managerial autonomy, along the lines of Kosygin’s abortive reform of 1965, and after several months’ preparation, the experiment began in January of this year. And in his last major statement, his message to the Central Committee Plenum of December 1983, Andropov called for a wide-ranging discussion of economic policy. Particularly considering that almost from the start he was a sick man (it is now acknowledged that he was receiving dialysis treatment from February 1983) and by last September was too ill to appear in public, Andropov made a remarkable impact as Soviet leader.

But whether these innovations represent the initial phase of an era of reform or merely a brief interruption in a long process of stagnation and decay remains to be seen. Much will depend on the progress of Andropov’s policies under his successor. Initial Western reactions to Chernenko’s election as General Secretary were to portray it as the victory of conservatism over reform, of the older Politburo members over the younger. The evidence for this judgment was that Chernenko had been Brezhnev’s closest aide, that his political experience had been entirely confined to the party apparatus, and that at 72 he was the oldest man ever to be elected General Secretary. None of this, however, makes a return to Brezhnevite policies inevitable. There is no guarantee that a leader’s right-hand man will continue with the same policies once he himself is in power: it depends on his character and the conditions at the time. Stalin, after all, diverged from Lenin’s policies in a number of crucial respects. Chernenko’s career as a party official tells us nothing about the range of his former duties, of which little is known. His close association with Brezhnev in any case may well have been a valuable training in government for a future leader. His age, moreover, says nothing about his capacity for decisive leadership, as the example of many 20th-century leaders, from De Gaulle and Adenauer to Mao and Khomeini, shows.

There is one further problem about interpreting Chernenko’s election as a return to conservatism – namely, that he was chosen by essentially the same Politburo which only 15 months earlier had elected Andropov. The changes in its composition meanwhile had strengthened the younger and more reformist elements in it. Why should the Politburo have opted for radical change in November 1982, only to abandon it in February 1984? It seems more plausible to suppose that Chernenko was chosen because he could be trusted to continue with the policies begun by Andropov. A number of factors point to this conclusion. It now appears that he headed the Politburo for some while before Andropov’s death, during which time there was no sign of any change of direction. So far in his speeches he has stressed the need for reform much as his predecessor did. And the recent promotion of Gorbachev, the Politburo’s leading advocate of economic reform, to the post of Chernenko’s deputy would also suggest that reform is still at the top of the policy agenda.

In a few months’ time there will be clearer indications of the direction events are taking: when the first results of the industrial ministries’ experiment are known and the next steps are decided, and when more changes in the leadership have occurred. (The 78-year-old Tikhonov may be replaced as prime minister by Aliev if the pressure for change continues.) It is too soon to say. But the possibility certainly exists that Andropov was the harbinger of a new period of radical change in Soviet society. The celebrations at his passing on the part of Soviet bureaucrats hoping for a quiet life and of Western strategists hoping for Soviet decline may well have been premature.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences