Friday, January 15, 2010

Volkogonov on Chernenko

Rightly or wrongly, Volkogonov is more contemptuous of Chernenko than any of the other six Soviet leaders. His Chernenko is a mumbling sycophant without political stature, real-world experience, or interest in the world outside of the Kremlin. According to Volkogonov, Chernenko, who reached the top post at age 72 by riding on Brezhnev’s coattails, was a Party bureaucrat to the core, and one without Andropov’s character, curiosity, practical experience, or intelligence. While presiding over a period of deepening malaise, Chernenko made no effort whatsoever to effect change.

Under Chernenko, the Soviet Union purchased ever greater quantities of foreign grain, lost more men in the maelstrom of Afghanistan, and became more deeply committed to propping up disreputable regimes like that of Angola, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Syria. As Rome burned, Chernenko busily crafted decrees about how governmental reports should be formatted, or spent time picking out presents for the North Korean dictator.

Kim Jong Il & Family

Chernenko had little genuine familiarity with the burdens of regional or national government. After all, he gained power by befriending Brezhnev early in his career and presiding over his personal office and even Brezhnev’s personal affairs. While Volkogonov has almost nothing positive to say about the man, Chernenko was obviously well organized, hard-working and extremely knowledgeable about political procedures and the individual men who made up the Party leadership. As such, he helped first Brezhnev, and later Andropov, to maintain important political relationships. He was a man who knew people’s birthdays, and knew all of the latest gossip before anybody else did.

Chernenko’s rise to power had little to do with either the Soviet people or indeed the Soviet Party. The patronage of a single man, Brezhnev, brought him into the heart of Soviet politics and kept him there for 18 years as the head of the “general department.” Following Berezhev’s death, Chernenko was out maneuvered by Andropov, but soon ended up chairing meetings in his absence. Apparently Andropov recognized Chernenko’s greatest virtue: loyalty.

Chernenko’s short reign is notable insofar as it served as a foil to the excitement of the Gorbachev era of reform that succeeded it. The contrast was stark. As the Soviet economy began to disintegrate, and the Soviet people became increasingly cynical about their experience with communism, Chernenko still agonized over which meaningless Marxist-Leninist slogan the government needed to employ to mobilize public opinion. Nothing—not the decline of agriculture, not increasing evidence of technological stagnation, not the rise of nationalism in the republics, not the inhumanity of his government toward human rights activists such as Sakharov —could convince him to try to change the course of the ship of state.

In his final days, Chernenko became increasingly ill but, like all previous Soviet leaders, he clung to power, flattered by everybody around him to remain in office right up until he died. The author relates one particularly embarrassing moment, when the old man was pulled from his hospital bed to vote, his hand visibly weak in front of the camera that projected the pathetic image to the nation at large.

Mikhail Suslov in England


  1. It not too absurd to say that Chernenko was better than Gorbachev! Maybe he had to be elected earlier ad chief of CPSU!! There is a positive, uncritic, prejudice towards Gorbachev and a negative prejudice towards Chernenko! Gorbachev made much more disasters when he was a young party officer in his region and then as responsuble of the agriculture!

  2. Thanks for the post... I probably need to read other books on both Chernenko and Gorbachev to get a more balanced perspective....Anything you'd recommend on Chernenko?