Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Volkogonov on Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov was sixty-eight years old when Brezhnev died and he ascended to the role of Party Leader. He lived only fifteen months after that, but his short reign as the Soviet boss reveals a great deal about the Soviet political experiment. Andropov’s rise to the top Party job reveals the close ties between the political hierarchy and the security apparatus. The Soviet Union was awash in security officials and paid informers, people who existed at every level of Russian society and regularly received small stipends for their services, so it was only natural for Brezhnev’s Politburo to place its faith in the head of the KGB.
Under Andropov, the KGB had become less brutal but no less efficient or even powerful. Andropov referred to his men as “Chekists” (a term that connoted a certain level of cold-bloodiness to those who had experienced the early years of the Bolshevik regime ) and was sometimes called a “Liberal Chekist,” insofar as he believed that the security organs could often fight heterodoxy at the level of ideas more often than it relied on the naked threat of physical coercion. Volkogonov points out that Andropov spent half his life as a Party apparatchik, and the other half as a KGB leader.
Andropov –calm, secretive, desk-bound, humble, and hard-working-- shared Brezhnev’s basic political outlook. The two men were conservatives who believed wholeheartedly in the basic tenants of the Soviet political system and command economy. Unlike Brezhnev, Andropov was well-read and extremely intelligent, if fairly orthodox in his approach to the growing problems that confronted the Soviet Union, including its troubles in Afghanistan, ailing economy, strained relations with China, and expensive arms race with the United States. According to Volkogonov, Andropov had a powerful intellect but failed to creatively address the basic flaws in the Soviet system. The answer to all pressing problems was greater Party discipline, more police surveillance, and more perfect control over the economy.
While Andropov made cosmetic proposals to alter the formal composition of the Supreme Soviet, took on a few regional bosses on issues related to corruption, and talked about new “brigade contracts” to incentivize work at least one some level, he entertained no thoughts that would have affected the Party’s monopoly of power. Indeed, under Andropov, the Politburo continued to make all decisions, no matter how big or small. In a single day, a few old men (and usually, only one old man, namely Andropov) would decide the future of Soviet foreign policy as well as which pig breeders deserved to be awarded prizes for their accomplishments.
Andropov’s rule was marked by debilitating illness. Volkogonov is impressed with Andropov’s capacity for work in the face of advancing physical infirmity, but notes with sadness that no Soviet leader even considered giving up power, no matter how incapacitated. The darkest moment of Andropov’s reign came in 1985, when the Soviets shot down a commercial Korean airliner, killing 269, and showed no remorse (and some deceit) over the incident.