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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World leaders sent messages of condolence to the Kremlin that varied in tone. President Reagan, who had been awakened at 3:35 a.m. Thursday by National Security Adviser William P. Clark with the news of Brezhnev's death, sent a respectful two-paragraph message calling Brezhnev "one of the world's most important figures for nearly two decades" and expressing his hope for improved U.S.-Soviet relations. Pope John Paul II promised "a particular thought for the memory of the illustrious departed one." Declared former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: "His death leaves a gap in international politics that will be painfully felt." The Chinese government dispatched a terse message to Moscow conveying "deep condolences." Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose country has received much of its modern weaponry from the Soviet Union, paid effusive tribute to Brezhnev, saying that "he stood by us in our moment of need."

The police soon sealed off all of downtown Moscow. The tight security allowed mourners to move three abreast through unimpeded streets. The capital's huge avenues were guarded by long ranks of militiamen in their metal-color greatcoats with blue shoulder boards. Soldiers wearing black-edged red armbands stood at attention outside the House of Trade Unions, whose light-green-and-white facade had been freshly painted for the occasion. Red flags and streamers bordered in black hung limply on the building.

Inside the hall, mourners shuffled up a marble staircase beneath chandeliers draped in black gauze. On the stage, amid a veritable garden of flowers, a complete symphony orchestra in black tailcoats played classical music. Brezhnev's embalmed body, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black-and-red tie, faced the long queue of mourners. His face was drained of color, distant and alabaster in death. The mourners could not pause.

They turned their faces toward Brezhnev's head for a moment of silent communion, then filed out, past the honor guard.

People leaving the hall and heading for the subway stopped to express regrets and reminiscences. "I'm really sorry for him," said a grandmother. "The poor man didn't even have time to play with his grandchildren." Said an engineer: "We used to complain some, bitch about this and that, and tell jokes about the old man. But now that Brezhnev is dead I feel sad because he conveyed a sense of security and stability." One middle-aged Russian intellectual recalled a different scene, when Stalin lay in state in the House of Trade Unions. Then the streets outside were packed with an unruly mob of people pushing their way toward the hall. "Stalin was like a god to them," he explained. "They were swarming around trying to see the dead god. But Brezhnev was human, and people are calm now."

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