17 February 1984
Soviet President Andropov Dies after Long Illness; Chernenko Succeeds as Party General Secretary
New Leader Vows Continuity
Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, 69, died Feb. 9 of complications resulting from a chronic kidney ailment that had kept him out of public view since August 1983. Announcement of his death was delayed until the following day, as it had been after the demise of his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev. Andropov's death came only 15 months after he succeeded Brezhnev as general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, the most powerful position in the Soviet hierarchy. [See 1984 Andropov Answers Reagan, Asks 'Practical Deeds'; Sets Moderate Tone in Pravda Interview, 1982 Soviet President Brezhnev Dies...Speed of Succession Surprises West]
Konstantin U. Chernenko, a member of the ruling Politburo and a Central Committee secretary, was elected general secretary Feb. 13 by a unanimous vote in an emergency session of the full Central Committee. In his acceptance speech, Chernenko pledged to continue the program of economic and political reforms launched by his predecessor. Chernenko's selection as general secretary had been widely predicted after he was named Feb. 10 to head Andropov's funeral committee, an honor accorded Andropov following Brezhnev's death. [See 1983 Soviet Union: Economic 'Experiments' Unveiled]
Chernenko, 72, was the oldest man to become party leader and was rumored to suffer from emphysema caused by years of heavy smoking. He had a reputation as a loyal party regular, who had risen in the ranks primarily through a close alliance with his mentor, Brezhnev, that lasted more than 30 years. Brezhnev was widely believed to have favored his protege to succeed him, but as his health declined, his plans were thwarted by the skillful political maneuvering of Andropov, who began to distance himself from the KGB, the nation's intelligence and security agency he had headed for 15 years. Andropov's consolidation of a political power base that included the nation's military leadership apparently ensured his ascendancy after Brezhnev's death.
Western and Soviet observers described Chernenko as intellectually limited and a poor speaker, who lacked experience in any foreign or domestic policy area, having focused primarily on internal party politics, ideology and propaganda. However, the observers remarked on the political resiliency that had kept Chernenko in a prominent position throughout his rival's tenure. Other Brezhnev loyalists, the observers noted, had been purged in Andropov's crackdown on corruption and inefficiency in the government and party bureaucracies. The observers speculated that Chernenko had been chosen as a reliable interim leader who could be trusted to preserve the status quo until a strong contender emerged from among the younger members of the Kremlin's leadership. [See 1983 Andropov Adds Soviet Presidency to Party, Defense Posts; Chernenko Role Affirms Party Unity]
No successor was immediately named to fill Andropov's post as titular head of state, or chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (parliament). Following his election as general secretary, Andropov had let the presidency remain vacant for nearly a year before he added the title that Brezhnev had waited 13 years to assume. In 1983, Andropov had become chairman of the Defense Council, with authority over the nation's military. No successor was immediately chosen to head the Defense Council. [See 1983 Andropov Adds Soviet Presidency to Party, Defense Posts; Chernenko Role Affirms Party Unity, 1983 Soviet Union: Andropov Defense Post Disclosed]
Andropov Dialysis Confirmed
An official medical bulletin issued Feb. 10 contained the first detailed information on the nature of Andropov's illness, which had been the subject of intense speculation since he assumed office.
According to the medical bulletin, Andropov had "suffered nephritis, nephrosclerosis, secondary hypertension and sugar diabetes, which were worsened by chronic kidney insufficiency." The bulletin confirmed reports that the president had been receiving kidney dialysis therapy since his kidneys failed in February 1983. The bulletin said the dialysis had "insured satisfactory health and work capability, but at the end of January 1984 the condition worsened," leading to his death "of heart and vascular insufficiency and the cessation of breathing." The report made no mention of kidney transplant surgery. Andropov had been widely rumored to have undergone the operation, which was rarely performed on patients in their 60s.
The bulletin lifted the veil of mystery in which government officials had shrouded Andropov's condition. Even after his disappearance from public view in August 1983, Soviet authorities had persisted in denying that he was seriously ill. When he failed to appear at the annual Red Square parade commemorating the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, a government spokesman told reporters that the president was recovering from a cold, a claim subsequently reiterated by other Soviet officials. [See 1983 Soviet Union: Andropov Misses Party, State Meetings, 1983 Soviet Union: Andropov Ill, Misses Major Parade]
Indications that Andropov's health had taken a turn for the worse began to emerge Feb. 5, when Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, the defense minister, canceled a planned visit to India. However, many Western observers suggested that Ustinov, 75, was himself ailing.
On Feb. 9, national radio and television stations began playing solemn classical music instead of their previously scheduled programs. Similar musical selections had heralded the announcement of Brezhnev's death. [See 1982 Soviet President Brezhnev Dies...Facts on Andropov]
Chernenko Speech Backs Arms Policy
Premier Nikolai Tikhonov Feb. 13 nominated Chernenko before the Central Committee. Tikhonov assured the body of approximately 300 delegates that Chernenko's election as general secretary had received the unanimous endorsement of the 12 Politburo members. Tikhonov, 78, was the oldest Politburo member and, like Chernenko, closely associated with former President Brezhnev.
"I fully realize the enormous responsibility which is placed upon me," Chernenko told the Central Committee in his acceptance speech, which opened with a paean to Andropov. "Carrying on and further advancing by collective efforts the work started under the leadership of Yuri Vladimirovich is the best way of paying tribute to his memory, of insuring continuity in politics," Chernenko said. "Continuity is not an abstract notion, but a live, real cause."
Chernenko called for "a clear distinction between the functions of party committees and the tasks of state and economic bodies, elimination of duplication in their performance," a goal he described as a "major issue of political significance," that had not "been properly adjusted." He pledged to pursue "the measures adopted by the party with a view to enhancing labor, production, planning and state discipline and strengthening socialist legality," measures he said had "evoked nationwide approval." He vowed to continue recent efforts toward a "serious restructuring" of the "system of economic management, the whole of our economic machinery." These reforms, which had thus far "only been started," Chernenko said, were justified "in the name of increasing the effectiveness of the economy and insuring a rise in the living standards of the people."
Chernenko's remarks on relations with the West generally avoided the harsh rhetoric that had come to characterize Andropov's pronouncements. The new leader rejected the need for "military superiority" and urged "peaceful coexistence of states with different social systems." However, he warned that he would not "permit the military equilibrium that has been achieved to be upset, and let nobody have even the slightest doubt about that." Chernenko said he would "further see to it that our country's defense capacity be strengthened, that we should have enough means to cool the hot heads of military adventurists."
Moscow was seeking to "cooperate in full measure with all states which are prepared to assist through practical deeds in lessening international tensions and creating an atmosphere of trust in the world," Chernenko said, "in other words, with those who will really lead things, not to preparation for war, but to a strengthening of fundamentals of peace."
Funeral Held in Red Square
Andropov was buried Feb. 14 in a nationally televised ceremony marked by a lavish display of military pomp. The funeral, in Moscow's Red Square, was attended by more than 60 government leaders and heads of state and representatives from 111 countries. [See 1982 Brezhnev Buried: Andropov Delivers Eulogy]
Andropov's fellow Politburo members, his daughter, Irina, and son, Igor, accompanied the coffin into the square from the House of Unions, where the president had lain in state during four days of national mourning. Before the Lenin Mausoleum, the procession was joined by Andropov's widow, Tatyana, who had not appeared in public prior to her husband's death.
Chernenko, Defense Minister Ustinov and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko delivered eulogies before the open coffin. Chernenko, who appeared out of breath after mounting the mausoleum steps, described Andropov as a "leader of Leninist type," who had exhibited "faithfulness to communist ideals, unbending will, modesty and business ability, concern for the working man," all of which had "won him immense prestige in the party and people." His predecessor's death, Chernenko declared, had "evoked deep sorrow in the hearts of Soviet people."
"In today's extremely tense international situation, we are also clearly stating that the Soviet Union will continue its policy of peace, a lasting and just peace for all the nations," Chernenko said. "We are also reiterating our readiness for talks, but for honest talks on the basis of equality and equal security."
Andropov was interred behind the Lenin Mausoleum between the graves of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the nation's secret police, and Mikhail Kalinin, chief of state between 1919 and 1946.
Chernenko Sees Bush
After a reception following the funeral, Chernenko held brief meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President George Bush. Bush, who was representing President Reagan, as he had at Brezhnev's funeral in 1982, met for 30 minutes with the new Soviet leader. [See 1982 Brezhnev Buried: Andropov Delivers Eulogy]
With Chernenko at the talks was Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. Bush was accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R, Tenn.) and Arthur Hartman, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow.
Bush declined to reveal details of his talks with the Soviet leader, but said "the mood was good; the spirit was excellent, and we are grateful to the general secretary and Mr. Gromyko and the others for that tone. It signals that we can go on from there." Bush said he had delivered to Chernenko a letter from Reagan that had "conveyed the President's determination to move forward in all areas of our relationship with the Soviets and our readiness for concrete, productive discussions for every one of them."
Chernenko "obviously ran the meeting with full authority," Bush said. "He looked well and was very gracious, and beyond that it's hard to draw conclusions in this very short time. In this meeting he was running the agenda, responding without notes in the end, and clearly self-assured in his dealings with us."
Bush told reporters that the U.S. was "dedicated to arms reduction and to peace in all regions of the world. And after my conversation with General Secretary Chernenko, I will report to the President that he agrees about the need to place our relationship upon a more constructive path, in the interests of peace." Diplomatic observers noted that Bush had delivered a similarly optimistic assessment following his first meeting with Andropov.
The Soviet account of the meeting between Chernenko and Bush issued by the official news agency, Tass, said "views were exchanged in a principled plane on the present state of the international situation and Soviet-American relations." Tass said Chernenko had indicated that it would be possible "to start the rightening of relations between the two countries" if the U.S. displayed "practical readiness" to accept principles of "equality and equal security."
President Reagan, answering questions at a news conference Feb. 15, said Chernenko had not retreated "from the basic Soviet positions," but had at the same time "expressed a desire for better relations." Reagan said the Soviet leader had told Bush that both nations must "take a part in seeing that regional conflicts did not get out of control, that there should be safeguards against any inadvertent use of nuclear weapons." Reagan said Chernenko's "whole tone and his words were such that indicated that he believed that there was an area for us to come to an agreement."
Reagan said he hoped to use "quiet diplomacy" in dealing with the Soviets. "We seek whatever channels will be the most productive to us," he added. He appeared to rule out an imminent meeting with Chernenko, saying talks should be concrete and well prepared. Reagan was asked about a suggestion by former President Nixon that a meeting might serve to dispel Reagan's image as a "reckless cowboy." The President replied that he did not "know whether they really believe that I'm a 'reckless cowboy' or not. I only got to play in a couple of westerns. I liked riding the horses. But maybe I could send them a print of Bedtime for Bonzo.