Arnold Beichman and Mikhail S. Bernstarn: Andropov: New Challenge to the West; Stein and Day; New York.
Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova: Yuri Andropov: A Secret Passage into the Kremlin; Macmillan; New York.
by T. Mark Kulish
On November 15, 1982, an overcast and cold day in Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev was buried. The new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov eulogized him from atop Lenin’s tomb then led his fellow Politburo members to the other side of the mausoleum, where Brezhnev’s wife and daughter bent over his corpse before the lid was fastened onto his coffin. Konstantin Chernenko, Brezhnev’s close comrade and presumably his chosen heir, peered pathetically between the shoulders of Andropov and Premier Nikolai Tikhonov and muttered in an indecorous manner. Andropov, apparently in response to Chernenko’s indignant entreaty, motioned the latter forward to stand nearly abreast with him.
As he glimpsed the visage of his ally and protector for the last time, the manifestly distraught Chernenko repeatedly puffed out his cheeks, and seemed to address Brezhnev directly. After the casket was lowered, the assembled dignitaries each cast a handful of earth into the grave. Most did so with a show of proper respect. Andropov, however, scooped up some earth and threw it upon Brezhnev’s coffin with one quick, perfunctory gesture. Then he wheeled around, and strode briskly away.
What all this meant, one could only guess. How did Andropov emerge victorious? What were his political intentions? In the broad sweep of Soviet history, what did his accession signify? Did it mean nothing more than a continuation of stolid, bureaucratic totalitarianism, or was there something novel in the air?
Part of the answer lay hidden within the chambers of the Kremlin and within the minds of Andropov and his colleagues. Their respective ambitions, purposes, passions, and mutual rivalries remained a matter of careful and tentative speculation, since most of the available evidence was cryptic and ambiguous. Most of it, in fact, was rumor and gossip—but not all. There were, after all, certain facts and circumstances which could be established by sound research, facts no less revelatory for their being historically attestable.
The stated aims of Messrs. Beichman and Bernstam is to place the fragmentary and sparse available facts about Andropov’s career into the context of the political and social history of the Soviet Union. Their success, given the difficulties and obstacles in theirpatl1, is remark able, even if it extends only to the late 1950’s. The final part of their narrative, concerning Andropov’s career in the 1960’s and 1970’s, is sketchy and brief. It must be supplemented, for want of a better alternative, by the tendentious and rumor-mongering, though at times discerning, book by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova.
The central concern of Beichman and Bernstam is Andropov’s place in the politics of the final phase of the Stalin era. They carefully delineate the genesis and ultimate rise to prominence of what they refer to as “the Brotherhood,” a group of Soviet apparatchiki which included among its ranks Andropov, Mikhail Suslov, and Leonid Brezhnev. These men owed their collective ascent to two things: Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930’s, and the preparation of the scheme which Stalin conceived in the last phase of his life (1945-1953), and which, had he lived, he intended to realize in the mid- to late-1950’s. Stalin planned to use these relatively young men to rebuild the war-ravaged communist party as a disciplined and far-flung instrument of totalitarian power. At the same time, he intended to use them to counterbalance and, ultimately, to eliminate the “old guard” of the existing Politburo, a group which he regarded with increasingly dark suspicion: Andrei Zhdanov, Georgi Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lavrenti Beria, Kliment Voroshilov, Nikita Khrushchev, et al. Stalin desired a dependable elite of loyalists to effect his ultimate plans for the Communist Party and for Soviet society: a second Great Purge of the party, a new drive to further collectivize agriculture ( i.e., a new mass terror directed against the already decimated peasantry), a renewed attempt to establish a fully monolithic command economy, and, last but not least, a mass terror directed against Jews in the Soviet empire. The “discovery” of the fabricated “Zionist Doctors’ Plot” in late 1952 and early 1953 was the harbinger of the new Great Terror to follow, a grisly enterprise whose first rank of overseers would have included Yuri Andropov.
Stalin’s death in March 1953 derailed the scheme. The “old guard,” animated first and foremost by the instinct of self-preservation, was quick to seize control and to disband and disperse, if only partially, the Brotherhood. Khrushchev gradually emerged as the preeminent figure among the new leaders, but the increasing vigor of his destalinization campaign and a fear of its possible consequences, as well as his personal desire for supreme power, aroused the hostility of his colleagues. In June 1957, Khrushchev, averting his own over throw, deposed these colleagues, the “anti-party group,” and sent them packing. Yet Khrushchev’s victory was a Pyrrhic one. In overcoming the opposition of those with whom he had shared a mortal fear of Stalin’s mounting distrust, Khrushchev was compelled to call upon the very men whom Stalin would have used to annihilate him, his erstwhile colleagues. In 1957 the Brotherhood emerged from its partial eclipse, albeit in less cohesive form than when it had been guided by a single overpowering figure. Brezhnev, for one, joined Suslov in Khrushchev’s ruling circle, and Suslov’s influence expanded to fill the vacuum left by the departed “anti-party group.” Andropov, thanks to his success in facilitating the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 (during what was supposed to have been his diplomatic exile in Budapest), was given, at Suslov’s instigation, the task of supervising relations with ruling communist parties in the Soviet bloc, China, and Korea. Andropov remained on the fringe of that ruling circle until 1967, when his appointment to the position of KGB chairman brought him de facto the status he was to assume de jure when named a full member of the Politburo in 1973.
When the Brotherhood toppled Khrushchev in 1964, it acquired the position of unhindered power that Stalin had planned, but it dared not carry out Stalin’s final plan. Like Lenin’s War Communism of 1917-1921, and like the collectivization, industrialization, and mass terror of the l 930’s, the scheme which Stalin contemplated from 1946 to 1953 was one of creating totalitarianism, the act of forcing history and humanity into the mold of ideology. The Brotherhood lacked the fervor to attempt it anew. Instead they aimed to preserve what had already been established: the bureaucratic machinery of totalitarian coercion already in place. This preservative animus prevailed throughout most of the so-called “Brezhnev era,” a period distinguished less by the preeminence of one purposeful leader than by the rule of a small oligarchy, in which Mikhail Suslov’s influence was at least comparable to that of Brezhnev, the titular leader.
For Andropov, Suslov’s death in January 1982 appears to have been the catalyst for a plan to disrupt that oligarchy and to establish an order wherein the secret police would decisively prevail over the Communist Party. Beichman and Bernstam demonstrate that Andropov’s associations with the system of concentration and slave-labor camps and with the state security apparatus were intimate after the 1930’s, when he joined the Communist Youth League, or Komsomol—not just after he became KGB chairman in 1967. In 1982, Andropov was consciously fulfilling aspirations he had cherished throughout his career. He had tried out these aspirations in microcosm in the 1970’s, by fostering the replacement of corrupt party regimes in Georgia and Azerbaijan with new rulers from the ranks of the KGB. One of the few sound achievements of Solovyov and Klepikova is to describe in some detail these “experiments in the Caucasus” and to establish that Andropov instigated them.
If these “experiments” were any indication of Andropov’s plans for the Soviet Union as a whole, it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that Andropov, as one of the few remaining people full cognizant of what Stalin wished to accomplish in the 1950’s, intended to pick up where Stalin had left off. Still, Andropov was not so timid as his brethren had been after Khrushchev’s full. While he did not attempt a revival of War Communism, Andropov, like his minions in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the 1970’s, proceeded to use terror to attempt to restore discipline and to reduce corruption in the bureaucracy and among the citizenry. Terror was used to reinvigorate totalitarianism. Andropov’s terror, though not as massive and pervasive as Stalin’s, was a pronounced departure from the oligarchy’s tolerance of sloth and venality.
To speculate on the ends of this style of ruling, one must begin by considering what motivated it. It is highly unlikely that Andropov was moved by a sincere dedication to Marxism-Leninism. Andropov and his brethren were, of course, the beneficiaries of the ideological zeal of Bolshevism, the inheritors of its totalitarian state apparatus, and they could only damage their own positions by allowing Marxism-Leninism to die a natural death. Yet it is unlikely that any of them, with the possible exception of Suslov, sincerely believed in that ideology. Andropov may have wished to appear a truer and more zealous Leninist than Brezhnev and his associates, but it was only the appearance that mattered. What lay beneath it? Great Russian nationalism? Not even Solovyov and Klepikova, who glibly account for the nature of the Soviet regime at its worst by asserting that it answers, by some ineffable and mystical mechanism, to the deepest yearnings of the Russian people, consider Andropov a Russian nationalist. Andropov’s purpose, they believe, was naught else than the aggrandizement of immense power, with no further end in view.
This lack of fervent ideological or nationalistic purpose within the Soviet leadership and an all-consuming infatuation with power for its own sake was the ultimate consequence of the Brotherhood’s ascent. Andropov, because of his roots in the security apparatus, was a complete embodiment of a devolution whose possible effects remain ominous in his absence. When simple power becomes the sole object of aspiration, the corruption which threatens to disintegrate the structure underlying that power cannot be measured by any standard to which the rulers might appeal, certainly not by that inhuman ideological standard to which they now pay only lip service. The exterminators of society’s corruption themselves become corrupt in precisely the same vulgar sense as the society beneath them. This process, according to Solovyov and Klepikova, was already apparent in Georgia and Azerbaijan by the late 1970’s. Such a tendency, if sustained, might set the stage for the disintegration, be it gradual or abrupt, of totalitarianism. An absence of integral, binding purpose at the center might engender a shift of power to a myriad of individuals who possess force and the will to use it purely for their own ends.
The emergence of such a state of affairs in the Soviet Union should come as no surprise. It is part and parcel of the human reality created from the beginning, at lower levels than the political stratosphere, by an ideological state striving to create a totalitarian social order. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes how the apparatus of terror created by the Communist Party to achieve its lofty ideological aims came to depend, at the level of the camps, on the blatnye, the “toughs,” most of them thugs with no other passion than to lord it over their fellow inmates. The metaphysical corruption of communism was (to use a classic Marxist phrase) “inevitably reduced to” the mundane corruption of a simple, brutal lust for domination.
Was Andropov’s rise to power, with its the obvious subordination, at least for the moment, of the party to the KGB, the signal of a new phase in Soviet history? Perhaps even the penultimate stage? What might follow? A prolonged continuation of the stagnant status quo? A collapse into anarchy? An attempt to minister to decay within by pursuing a course of expansion without, based upon an appeal to the supposedly dependable nationalism of the Russian people, in spite of all their misery and deprivation? The death of Andropov and his replacement by Chernenko have done nothing to clarify the answers to these questions, partly because the true character of the Russian people is still unknowable. It is hidden beneath a cloak of fear and isolation, woven by the methods, not so much of a Russian tradition of autocracy, as of totalitarianism—hidden even from the Russians themselves. After so many decades of fearing to speak what they think, how can each know what the others are thinking, or even what he himself thinks? Is the Soviet regime any more a natural manifestation of the Russian national character than the Khmer Rouge was a natural manifestation of the Kampuchean national character? However, one cannot overlook the possibility, suggested by Leszek Kolakowski, among others, that, dangerous though such a course of events might prove, “the collapse of the Soviet empire, far from being the ruin of Russia, is the necessary condition of her cultural rebirth.”
Mr. Kulish writes from Denver, Colorado.