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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According to Columbia University Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer, the old guard under Andropov will be characterized, while it lasts, by "reticence and restraint." Bialer believes that Andropov will not immediately have sufficient authority to try a fresh approach to Soviet foreign and domestic policy, let alone undertake the radical economic reforms that are needed to boost the U.S.S.R.'s declining growth rate. To achieve the degree of personal power exercised by Brezhnev, the new leader will have to build a potent coalition of supporters among the younger men in the party Central Committee who are straining to share power at the top. The process of forging political alliances will take time, skill and stamina.

Under Andropov, the Politburo will be on its guard against any attempt by Washington to take advantage of uncertainty at the top in Moscow. Says former British Prime Minister James Callaghan: "This is a time for caution in the West and particularly in Washington. We must be moderate in our language and discard counterproductive rhetoric."

One of the reasons for Brezhnev's popularity among his colleagues was that he guaranteed them lifetime job security. With the exception of a few who personally ran afoul of Brezhnev, most Soviet top officials did not resign; they died in office. Now Andropov will have to start replacing as many as 6,000 top officials in every important governing institution in the country, including the Politburo, the Secretariat of the Central Committee, the Presidium of the Council of Ministers, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Such a vast change of politicians and administrators has not occurred in the Soviet Union since the great purges of the late 1930s, when thousands of powerful bureaucrats were shot or dispatched to the gulag on Stalin's orders. This time, however, the scourge is not a paranoid and murderous dictator. It is old age. Most top officials in the country's ruling bodies are the same age as the majority of Politburo members: in their 60s and 70s. Roy Medvedev, the independent-minded Marxist historian living in Moscow, believes that younger men will move into top positions around the time of the 27th Communist Party Congress in 1985. "The political wheels grind very slowly in our country," he says. "A man who suddenly comes out of nowhere, like Jimmy Carter, is an American phenomenon. Here it's like the army. You rise through the ranks, and nobody's going to put a general's uniform on you simply because you're capable of leadership."

In an exclusive interview with TIME last week, Vladimir Kuzichkin, the former KGB major who defected to Britain last June, stressed the difference between Andropov and other top Soviet leaders. Said Kuzichkin: "With the progress of time it will become clear that Andropov is his own man. Although he made his name as the KGB boss, he was not a professional policeman, having much wider interests. He owed his KGB job to Brezhnev, but he was never Brezhnev's creature."

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