After Andropov

John Barber

  • Andropov by Zhores Medvedev
    Blackwell, 227 pp, £7.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 631 13401 8
  • Andropov in Power: From Komsomol to Kremlin by Jonathan Steele and Eric Abraham
    Martin Robertson, 216 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 85520 641 1
  • Life in Russia by Michael Binyon
    Hamish Hamilton, 286 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 241 10982 5
  • The Soviet Union after Brezhnev edited by Martin McCauley
    Heinemann, 160 pp, £14.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 8419 0918 0
  • 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, ISBN 0 7090 1630 1

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.

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