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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Given his age, Andropov could prove to be a transitional leader for the Soviets, with the power moving on by decade's end to men like Gorbachev and Vladimir Dolgikh, 57, who are not well known in the Soviet Union, let alone in the U.S. Totally obscure, of course, are the thousands of other politicians and administrators who are seeking to climb upward from their present middle-level party positions. Almost all are male and in their 50s, but hardly anything is known about the personalities or views of these people.

Sovietologists who have analyzed the backgrounds of the rising generation of leaders have drawn a number of conclusions about them. Unlike their predecessors, the upcoming leaders entered politics after Stalin's death in 1953, thus escaping the paralyzing effects of mass police terror and participation in the dictator's crimes. As a result, they may be less fearful, more self-confident and assertive, than the Brezhnev generation. Though the younger men are completely loyal to the Soviet system, they are less suspicious and more curious about the outside world. Better educated than the old rulers, many of whom attended only vocational schools, they are more aware of the shortcomings and the backwardness of Soviet society. At the same time they are more confident of their ability to put the Communist system to rights.

Most experts agree that the new leadership will be less dogmatic and more pragmatic, but just as tough as the old. Cautions George Breslauer of the University of California at Berkeley: "I completely reject the view that younger Soviet leaders are reformists. They are equally hard line."

Nonetheless, any aspiring party chief, whatever his personal views, must be responsive to the aspirations of the Soviet political elite who constitute his power base. What will the political elite seek in the post-Brezhnev era? Certainly it wants to unclog the avenues of advancement that Brezhnev and his gerontocrats have blocked. Beyond that, the top priority is to get the country moving, after the sharp economic slowdown that has set in during the past three years. In the next generation's struggle for power, "the domestic economy has to be the major issue," says the Rand Corporation's Thane Gustafson. Careers will be made or broken and alliances concluded or undone over new proposals to revitalize the economy. But change will not come easily. Brezhnev's most unwelcome legacy has been the debacle down on the farm. Says a Soviet journalist: "The new man in the Kremlin will have instant popular support if he can solve the food problems." But unless truly radical changes are made in the centrally planned collective farm system, agriculture is probably doomed to remain the disaster area of the economy.

Compounding the new leadership's economic worries is a growing shortage of skilled labor that will become critical by the year 2000. Because of a rising death rate and a plummeting birth rate, the annual net increase of the working-age population is expected to drop from its 1976 high of 2.7 million to only 285,000 by 1986.

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