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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Andropov was, to Western experts, by far the most controversial of the contenders. Stern and serious behind his thick spectacles, he was the Ambassador to Budapest during the Soviet army's efficient repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. As head of the Committee for State Security (KGB) from 1967 to May 1982, he had also overseen the suppression of internal dissent. But at the same time, Andropov developed a reputation for pragmatism and sophistication, at least by Soviet standards.

As chairman of the committee designated to organize Brezhnev's funeral, Andropov gave a brief oration extolling the dead leader, who lay in state less than a quarter-mile away in the House of Trade Unions' Hall of Columns, a handsome neoclassical building that was once a club for the Russian aristocracy. "A most outstanding political leader of our times, our comrade and friend, a man with a big soul and heart, sympathetic and well-wishing, responsive and profoundly humane, is no more," Andropov intoned. After calling for a minute of silence, he continued: "Leonid Ilyich said that not a single day in his life could be separated from the affairs of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the entire Soviet country. And that was really so."

Konstantin Chernenko, 71, the silver-haired party chief administrator, then rose. As every Soviet citizen knew, Chernenko had been Andropov's main competitor for the succession. Now, in a deft and effective political gesture, the rival was moving to nominate the winner, thus symbolizing the need to close ranks. "Dear Comrades, all of us are obviously aware that it is extremely difficult to repair the loss inflicted on us by the death of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev," Chernenko said. "It is now twice, three times as important to conduct matters in the party collectively." Chernenko, a close protege of Brezhnev's, then proceeded to nominate Andropov, whom he described as "a selfless Communist" and, perhaps with some reticence, as Brezhnev's "closest associate." The delegates approved the choice unanimously. By 1 p.m. the meeting was over, and the entire Central Committee went to the Hall of Columns to open the period of national mourning, during which Brezhnev's corpse would lie in state.

As an orchestra played Tchaikovsky, the committee members lined up in front of the catafalque where Brezhnev lay amid wreaths and flowers, with row upon row of medals pinned to cushions below his feet. After a brief formal tribute, Andropov led the Politburo members toward the dead man's family. He bent over and kissed Brezhnev's widow Victoria, 75, through her veil. She lifted a hand to her cheek to wipe away tears. Andropov bent to kiss her again, then kissed Brezhnev's daughter Galina. Kirilenko, a leading contender for the succession until sidelined in the past year, burst into tears as he spoke to Brezhnev's widow.

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