The Soviets: Changing the Guard

After Brezhnev's 18-year rule, the U.S.S.R. gets an enigmatic new leader

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After Brezhnev's 18-year rule, the U.S.S.R. gets an enigmatic new leader

The first hint came at 7:15 p.m. Moscow time on Wednesday. Nikolai Shchelokov, the Minister for Public Order, had just delivered a brief television address to celebrate Militia Day, and millions of Soviet viewers were awaiting the live pop concert that was supposed to follow. Instead, without explanation, a film about Lenin was broadcast. Then, at 9, came Vremya (Time), the nightly news. The announcers, who usually dress informally, wore dark jackets or dresses. "I ran to my neighbors to find out if they knew what was going on," a Moscow secretary said. "Everyone was excited. We all thought somebody had died, but nobody guessed it was Brezhnev. We had all seen him on television three days before, reviewing the military parade, and he looked all right."

The initial speculation centered on Politburo Member Andrei Kirilenko, 76, who was rumored to be ailing and who was absent from the traditional Kremlin lineup at the Nov. 7 ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the October Revolution. After the news, the nationwide first channel aired an unscheduled program of war reminiscences. On the second channel, an ice hockey game was abruptly replaced by Tchaikovsky's mournful "Pathétique" Symphony.

Only the next morning, at exactly 11, did Soviet radio and TV simultaneously broadcast the formal announcement: "The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers of the U.S.S.R. inform with deep sorrow the party and the entire Soviet people that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee and President of the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, died a sudden death at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 1982."

Brezhnev, 75, who had held the most powerful post in the Soviet Union for 18 years, and who had been ill for nearly a decade, had died from complications of atherosclerosis affecting his heart and major vessels. He had actually died 26½ hours before the announcement was made.

A new era was beginning, one that would affect the destiny not just of the Soviet Union's 270 million citizens but of the entire world. As Brezhnev's surviving colleagues moved swiftly to fill the leadership void, they were eager to convey the impression of a smooth transition and lay to rest speculation about a power struggle.

Late Friday morning, black limousines began to converge on the Kremlin, bringing the nearly 300 bureaucrats, generals, diplomats, scientists, academicians and workers who make up the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Even before they entered the yellow-and-white Council of Ministers building, they knew what they were there to do. They would ratify the choice already made by the Politburo, that of Yuri Andropov, 68, to be Brezhnev's successor as party chief. The post has been held by only five men since the Bolshevik Revolution: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Shortly after noon Friday, Andropov, the son of a railroad worker from the northern Caucasus, became the sixth.

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