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Before Gorbachev : Part – II

In the USSR, the 1980s began with big news. The Soviet armies had entered Afghanistan in the last week of 1979 on the pretext of a request by the new government in Kabul led by Babrak Karmal. Other accounts maintain that it was actually the Soviet army that killed Hafeezullah Amin and installed the new leader who was more loyal to the Russians than Amin.

Leonid Brezhnev had been in power since 1964, and under his leadership the Soviet national production increased manifold, especially in the industrial sector. Agriculture witnessed a modest growth as harvests were poor, and the real figures were suppressed. The consumption of fish, fruit, and meat per head also increased in comparison with bread and potatoes. In 1980, the USSR had diplomatic relations with nearly 140 countries compared with just 75 in 1960; it traded with 145 foreign states compared with just 45 three decades earlier. Meanwhile, the ‘collective leadership’ of Brezhnev, Kosygin and Podgorny had become a leadership by Comrade Brezhnev.

After 1964, the Politburo was listed in alphabetical order to emphasize its collective character; in just 10 years – after KGB head Yuri Andropov joined the Politburo – Brezhnev’s name started appearing first in violation of the order. In strict order, Andropov’s name should have come first; rumour had it that he voluntarily refused to be listed first to please the party chief. In 1976, at the 25th Party Congress Brezhnev also became the party’s ‘universally acclaimed leader’ and vozhd (chief), which was previously used for Stalin alone. Brezhnev also became a marshal of the Soviet Union and had a bronze bust installed in his birthplace.

By the late 1970s, he became the head of state too and added the gold medal of Karl Marx, the highest award of the Academy of Science, for his ‘outstanding’ contribution to the development of Marxist-Leninist theory. He also received the Order of Victory for his wartime services and the Lenin Prize for Literature for his memoirs. If Winston Churchill could get the Nobel Prize in literature, why couldn’t Brezhnev get a prize in literature? By the 1980s, the personality cult of the party chief, which the Soviet Communist Party had vowed to avoid after Stalin and Khrushchev, had once again taken root.

At the 26th Party Congress in 1981, Brezhnev was hailed as a true continuer of Lenin’s great cause and also an ardent fighter for communism. According to Politburo member V V Grishin – who was also the Moscow Party chief from 1967 to 1985 – Comrade Brezhnev’s speech at the Congress was punctuated 78 times by applause and 40 times by prolonged applause. Brezhnev’s son and son-in-law became deputy ministers of foreign trade and internal affairs respectively. The boss was pleased; the entire Politburo and Secretariat including Brezhnev were reelected without any change.

Half of the Politburo members were over 70 and died in quick succession in the 1980s. The 21-member Politburo was as usual overwhelmingly European with 12 Russians and four Ukrainians. It had one member each from Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Eight of the 15 republics of the USSR had no representation in the highest decision-making body of the Soviet Communist Party. Of the 14 candidate members of the 26th Politburo, nine were from Russia and one each from Azerbaijan, Belorussia, Georgia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. This means that of the 35 candidates and full members of the Politburo, 21 were from Russia and five from Ukraine.

In December 1981, it was Brezhnev’s 75th birthday that brought new tributes for him. Seven of Pravda’s eight pages on December 19 were wholly or partly devoted to the event. Brezhnev received a series of distinctions by the leaders of east European communist states, who had come to Moscow for the occasion. The Soviet awards included the seventh Order of Lenin and the fourth Hero of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev’s life was also turned into a film, ‘Story of a Communist’, and his wartime exploits in the Caucasus were presented as a decisive turning point against the Nazis.

At the time of his death, Brezhnev had more medals and orders than Khrushchev and Stalin combined. Having had more military distinctions than Marshal Zhukov, the party chief was the most decorated person in Soviet history. Gradually, he was unable to work; his speech slurred and writing impaired. With his laboured breathing, his concentration was limited and unkind jokes began to circulate. In January 1982, two senior party leaders died. Brezhnev’s close friend and his deputy in the party, Politburo member 80-year-old Mikhail Suslov died and left Brezhnev devastated. This was a crucial loss for him.

KGB deputy chief Semyon Tsvigun was found dead with a gunshot just at the age of 65. It’s still unknown whether he committed suicide or was shot dead on the orders of his KGB chief Andropov. Stories circulated that Tsvigun had unearthed a corruption and smuggling scandal involving Brezhnev’s daughter and son-in-law. Whatever the reason, the two episodes shattered Brezhnev. In Suslov’s place, Andropov became Brezhnev’s deputy in the party putting him clearly in line to succeed as party chief. In November 1982, Brezhnev appeared in the reviewing box at the anniversary parade at Red Square; perhaps this undermined his health further and he died three days later on Nov 10.

The Politburo decided to appoint Andropov as the new leader; he was 68 and his closest rival was Chernenko at age 71. The Central Committee unanimously approved the name proposed by the Politburo. In six months, Andropov became the chairperson of the defence council of the USSR and assumed the vacant state presidency as well. He quickly appointed some reform-minded technocrats, showing that he wanted to depart from some old policies. But, his health was rapidly deteriorating as he dealt with heart and kidney problems. He was last seen in public in August 1983 and failed to attend the anniversary parade in November.

He missed the Central Committee plenum and the Supreme Soviet session. Rumours circulated that he was on dialysis, but officially it was always the ‘common cold’ and other ‘temporary causes’. After just 15 months in power in February 1984, the central press reported that Andropov had died two days earlier after a ‘long illness’. Now for the first time, Mikhail Gorbachev also emerged as one of the two principal contenders with Konstantin Chernenko.

The Politburo was apparently in two camps: an older faction of mostly over-70, comprising Tikhonov (PM) Kunaev (Kazakh party leader) and Grishin (Moscow party chief) supported Chernenko, and a younger faction of relatively reform-minded members promoted under Andropov, including the deputy PM of the USSR Aliyev and prime minister of the Russian Federation Vorotnikov who supported Gorbachev.

The older group won and the choice fell on Chernenko, preferring experience and seniority. Gorbachev was just 52 and nearly 20 years younger than Chernenko, and had been a full member of the Politburo for less than four years. Gorbachev emerged as a de facto second secretary of the party representing the younger faction of the Politburo. Soon enough, Chernenko also assumed the chairmanship of the Defence Council and of the Supreme Soviet.

Anyway the momentum of reform that Andropov might have carried forward lost its momentum. At 72, Chernenko was the oldest party chief to assume office. Suffering from lung disease, he faced difficulty in breathing and was clearly a transitory head of the party from the outset. Though he initiated educational and land-improvement reforms, he made no changes to the membership of the Central Committee, Politburo or Secretariat. He died in March 1985, which marked the beginning of the Gorbachev era.


Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Before Gorbachev : Part – II," The News. 2022-09-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Soviet armies , Political history , diplomatic , Hafeezullah Amin , Leonid Brezhnev , Azerbaijan , Belorussia , USSR , KGB