The Andropov perestroika: a view from below

Paralysis up top. Waiting for people to die seems to have been the main occupation in the last years of Brezhnev's rule, particularly at the heart of the system. A friend of my wife's from her stay in Pakistan back in the '60s, a KGB colonel from some sort of think tank close to the very top, had gruesome stories to tell of how they were discouraged from activity of any sort by the fact that nothing was happening topside. The guy himself had traveled to Afghanistan, covered every corner of it at grave personal risk, gathered information, analyzed it, drew conclusions, wrote memos, submitted them to the proper people through channels - and nothing happened. Nothing at all. It looked as if the sole purpose of all that strenuous activity was to fill some pigeonhole in the archives on top of other memos gathering dust there. No new tasks were set before the team; they came to their plush offices punctually at nine - to kill time in small talk, petty intrigues, and plans for more memos to write.

Sure, there was continual jockeying for position among the top echelon in the Party and government, only mere scraps of gossip about this percolated from those elevated sphere down to the more sophisticated intelligentsia, while the population at large had to listen glumly to the legends dished out by the Agitprop and, in the nature of things, ignore them.

Musical chairs. Those were the years when people you'd never see near the Conservatory developed a taste for classical music. Whenever lightweight entertainment on TV and radio was hurriedly replaced by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, those harbingers of state mourning, folks sat up and took notice. Phones started jangling all over Moscow, and countless cryptic conversations were held which, however, were crystal clear to everyone, including the eavesdropping KGB: "Heard anything?" "Da..." "Which, First?" "Second." "Definite?" "Yeah." "When?" "Yesterday." "And in his place?" "A., I guess. But tune in at ten." Decoded, this meant that the questioned individual had got to his short-wave radio first and had heard through the jamming some vrazhiy golos ("enemy voice") report that No. 2 in the Politburo hierarchy, Mikhail Suslov, had died the day before and that his place would most likely be taken by Yuri Andropov.

This musical event actually occurred on, or around, January 25, 1982. For the vast majority of the people, it had no meaning whatsoever - just a shifting shadow on the opaque surface of vlast', the power system. For samizdat readers and "enemy voice" listeners - and there were millions of them - it was much clearer but not much more inspiring. It meant that one Stalinist "ideologue," Mikhail Suslov, would be replaced by another, Yuri Andropov - with a fifteen-year long history of heading the KGB which was primarily engaged, so far as one could tell, in persecuting the more active dissidents - spying on them, framing them up, and sending them into emigration or to prisons, labor camps, and psikhushki "loony bins." The more passive ones were simply kept informed, through various not very subtle means, that they had better toe the line, however hypocritically - or else.

Yuri Andropov was also known to have taken a big hand in suppressing the Hungarian troubles in 1956 and Czechoslovak ones in 1968, and the intelligentsia had a very definite opinion of him, if only on these counts.

Given that his move to the late Suslov's office, next to Brezhnev's on the fifth floor of that dreaded building on Staraya Ploshchad' (Old Square), set him straight on course for the top rung, the intelligentsia braced itself for a whole era of zakruchivaniye gayek "tightening the screws" after Brezhnev's death. No one expected him to turn out a Stalin-like ogre, it was just not on the cards, but a mini-Stalin seemed quite likely.

Interlude at Brezhnev's funeral. There were signs of this right from the start of his short-lived rule. In November 1982, as Brezhnev's coffin was being lowered into the grave by the Kremlin wall, the awkward - or ritually drunk - undertakers apparently dropped it with an audible bump, and the whole country could see Andropov furiously bawling out someone for this unseemly display of slackness, with gestures that left no one in doubt about his feelings. Here was a new master who would not stand any nonsense. A tiny episode - but the people had little else to go by in their judgment on the new leader. Official biographies, even if one bothered to read them, were clearly exercises in the art of propaganda and thus not amenable even to reading between the lines.

True, it was only from such an official biography that I learned that Andropov came from Nagutskaya, one of my hunting haunts in Stavropolye, not far from my ancestral home. I thought then that this explained his Greek nose and Greek surname (obviously derived from anthropos). There were plenty of Greeks in that area of Stavropol Territory; at one time I spent about a month at Grecheskoye (Greek Village) not far from his birthplace, and the Greeks there counted Andropov as one of their own. This didn't explain much, though: the locals were drunkards and thieves to a man, apparently quite unlike their compatriot. From what little trickled down to the lower strata of the intelligentsia, Andropov had a reputation for austerity, honesty, education and intellect that seemed titanic in comparison to the collection of semi-literate nonentities around Brezhnev.

On the whole, as I said, there was very little known, even to the best informed intellectuals, about the new General Secretary's background at the time of his rise to power. Absolutely in the spirit of a closed society, Andropov's Jewish origins were kept secret until late into the Perestroika years. It then came out that his father, Vladimir Liberman, had changed his name to Andropov after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, which helped his son's career a great deal in view of the anti-Semitism widespread in the Soviet Union since Stalin's later years in power. His mother, Evgenia Faynshteyn (Flekenshteyn, according to other sources), died when Andropov was still a little boy.

Andropov comes in fighting. Unaware of these or any other facts, the great Russian people still had an excellent source of character appraisal - their infallible instinct. Their judgment was expressed in the usual way, through anekdoty. In one of these perspicacious parables Andropov is asked what must be done to improve the situation in agriculture, and the General Secretary replies heatedly: Sazhat', sazhat' i sazhat', ne dozhidayas' vesny! "Plant them all, without waiting for the spring!" - an apparently silly bit of advice, if one doesn't know that sazhat' in Russian can mean not only "to plant" but also "to throw behind bars." Later, an ending to that anekdot was tacked on: I snimat'. ne dozhidayas' oseni "And harvest them without waiting for the fall" - the pun is on the word snimat', which literally means "harvest," "pick," but also "fire," "discharge," "kick out of office."

This indeed seemed to be Andropov's panacea for the country's many ills: slackness, graft, corruption, drunkenness, thievery, nepotism, pokazukha "window-dressing." The timorous intelligentsia, it turned out, need not have felt scared by Andropov's rise to power: it wasn't singled out as the principal scapegoat. Andropov's prime target proved to be the various "mafias." Even before his accession to the throne, he kicked from office First Secretary Medunov of Krasnodar Territory, one of the country's worst mafiosi - and dear Comrade Brezhnev's personal friend. This was later followed by arrests of corrupt officials and shady dealers on a massive scale, in a fierce attempt to clean the Augean stables at one go - a sort of non-political mini-1937.

All of a sudden there were plenty of empty mansions, apparently owned by no one, at the Caucasian Spa health resort where my mother lived. These were guarded by the Army - it looked like the police weren't entirely reliable, the force being corrupt through and through. The simple eighteen-year-old kids in uniform who stood guard over those riches sometimes hospitably invited passersby to step in and "see how Soviet millionaires lived" - in mansions complete with gold-plated toilet seats, as the rumor went.

Andropov's encroachment on the Social Contract. This earned Andropov heartfelt support from the masses, especially in areas where people were more used to outhouses than to toilet seats, gold-plated or otherwise. But these feelings were short-lived, as Andropov soon showed that he was bent on tightening all kinds of screws, and the proletarians' mass absenteeism was also one of his prime targets. As all things worth having - food, clothes, furniture, whatever - were defitsit, in short supply, people were forced to spend long hours in queues, including during working hours. Besides, there were countless offices and "research institutes" where nothing worth doing (except inspired collective boozing) was ever done, so that a great many of their staff made only token appearances at workplaces, spending their days any way they pleased - mostly in lines, too. And, of course, there was that most insurmountable of obstacles to getting to work on time or at all, a morning after the night before, especially Mondays.

Andropov decided to put an end to this, too, and thousands of police and KGB agents swooped on shops, hairdressers, bath-houses, metro stations, cinemas, beer joints - the whole place crawled with them, demanding people's papers, dragging them to police stations, writing denunciations (for some reason, the things were called telega, or "cart" in Russian slang) to their place of work with instructions to punish the culprits. Each such telega meant boring public séances of accusations, lying excuses, settling of old personal scores at Party, Komsomol, and trade-union meetings, loss of bonuses or places on waiting lists for anything, from apartments to refrigerators to holidays in summer, and other Soviet-style unpleasantness.

To those aware of other, capitalistic means of inculcating workplace discipline, all this seemed a farce. For a while, I thought it a useful sort of farce, having once been forced to wait for an hour and a half for my second course at a restaurant while the waitress skipped over to a neighboring shop to join in the melee for some sandals that made a brief appearance there. I soon learned from bitter experience, however, that I myself was the easiest kind of prey for these fighters for "socialist discipline," as it proved completely impossible to translate into Russian the notion of freelance writer/translator to those simple-hearted cops. "Member of the Writers Union" they might understand, just barely, only I couldn't very well say that I wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with a membership card thereof. Luckily, I still had my Associate Professor's ID, whose validity I extended by judicious use of eraser and ink.

Curiously, it is this futile attempt to inculcate shop-floor discipline that the people mostly remember Andropov for. Some have even forgotten "andropovka," fairly good vodka, and cheap at the price (four rubles twelve kopeks) but not the police raids. My explanation is that the raids, apart from the sheer incongruity of the measure, were taken as an infringement on the unwritten "You pretend to pay us, we pretend to work" social contract. I don't know if Andropov realized this, but he soon gave up the attempt - though not before the people came up with yet another anekdot encapsulating the relationship between the masses and the rulers: At an imaginary question-and-answer session, an anonymous questioner sends Andropov a note to ask, "Isn't it true that fish starts to rot at the head?" "Sure," Andropov replies, "but I would remind esteemed Comrade Ivanov, fifth row, seat thirteen, that one starts to clean fish at the tail!" Real KGB-style repartee.

Moves to reform the economy. It would be wrong to say, however, that Andropov did nothing but sic the police on the people, to improve the economic situation. In 1982, for the first time since World War II, the growth of the population's real income stopped. Goskomstat (State Committee on Statistics) showed just a fat zero. It was clear that the Brezhnevist formula - stepping up propaganda to the effect that all was fine in the best of possible worlds, the Soviet one - would not work any longer. Something would have to be done with the economy, not "ideology." Andropov resolved the problem in the only way a Party bureaucrat could. He set up an Economics Department at the Central Committee. According to Gorbachev, he himself had mooted that idea long before that, and even got Brezhnev's imprimatur on it, but it was Andropov who put it into practice, appointing Nikolai Ryzhkov, the future Soviet premier, to head the department directly under Gorbachev.

This was the first attempt, after the abortive Kosygin reforms, to take the economy out of the hands of "ideologists" and entrust the running of it to economists . This was a definite change from the attitudes of the Brezhnev times, when politics held undivided sway and Party politicians treated economic managers like Kosygin with suspicion and animosity. It was at that time that Ryzhkov and Gorbachev involved the future stars of Gorbachev's perestroika - Academicians Aganbegyan, Arbatov, Bogomolov, Zaslavskaya, and others like Abalkin, Belousov, Petrakov, Sitaryan - in drafting Central Committee and government resolutions of July 1983, which expanded the rights of individual enterprises at the expense of rigid central planning.

However, Nikolai Ryzhkov himself writes that those were merely the first timid, half-hearted attempts to break through rusty "ideological barriers" . And the extent of the "seriousness" of Andropov's intention to reform the economy can be judged from an episode recounted by Gorbachev. At one time, Ryzhkov and Gorbachev said they needed to understand the state budget situation, but Andropov merely laughed: "You don't want much, do you. No, I'm not letting you into the budget [secrets]" . Planning reforms without a budget - that takes some beating, doesn't it.

So all that Andropov managed to do in this area was initiate some bureaucratic changes in the management of the economy, not reforms in the economy as such.

Start of the "cadre reform." Andropov also initiated movement on yet another front, which later became the hallmark of Gorbachev's perestroika: the cadre revolution. On November 22, 1982, at the very first plenary session of the Central Committee which he held as the new General Secretary, Andropov broke with the Brezhnev tradition of toothless gassing at these meetings and lashed into the individuals heading the ministries of transport, metallurgy and construction, where the situation was even worse than in other sectors. The ministers in question were soon dismissed, and this marked the beginning of the end of Brezhnevite "stability."

Andropov entrusted the Party's "cadre policy" to the youngest member of the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, together with Yegor Ligachev, an obscure but zealous Party bureaucrat brought for the purpose from the Siberian boondocks. These two fired, with Andropov's blessing, some 20 percent of the regional party bosses and ministers, some of them entrenched in their positions since Stalin's times. The operation was conducted entirely as an internal Party affair without creating a ripple on the surface of society, and was totally quashed under Chernenko, that Brezhnevite relic who came to rule the land after Andropov, but by that time some important changes had been effected at the very top, too - within the Politburo and Party Secretariat.

If Andropov hadn't rooted out some of the worst Brezhnevites at the very top, like the senile Politburo member and Central Committee Secretary Andrei Kirilenko, the corrupt Interior Minister Shchelokov, and quite a few others; if he hadn't put in their place his own men, like Ryzhkov, Aliyev, Chebrikov, Ligachev, etc., a Brezhnevite counter-offensive after Andropov's death would have been much more thorough, and Gorbachev's perestroika would have been delayed by God knows how many years.

Andropov's terminal illness. Yuri Andropov seems to have been the first Soviet leader to care about his public image or at least to do something active and positive about it without appearing utterly ridiculous, like Brezhnev with his literary exploits at a time when he couldn't put two words together in public without a crib. Andropov had all the resources of the KGB and the huge propaganda machine at his disposal for that purpose. Thus rumors began to circulate - supposedly originating with the KGB - about Andropov's love for jazz, whisky, and poetry. This effort to humanize the austere dweller of the Soviet Olympic heights with a rather dubious and even blood-bespattered KGB past went to unheard-of lengths, like the appearance in Pravda (or was it Izvestia?) of actual quotations from Andropov's verse or even whole poems - a compliment to the status of poetry, or what passed for poetry, in Soviet society rather than evidence of Andropov's genius, or that of whoever wrote the lines. They weren't even really awful, those lines - not worse, at least, than the tons of similar stuff that thousands of graphomaniacs in and outside the subsidized Writers Union churned out daily.

Curiously, this effort to romanticize the "Party and state leader" extended even to such an unseemly side of anyone's life as illness. As we know from numerous accounts now, Andropov had terminal kidney trouble even as he was assuming the role of top leader and would have done much better to retire into private life and take care of his health (true, this applied to about 90 percent of the then top leadership, and such a simple, human move would therefore have been viewed as something extraordinary and even treacherous by the Brezhnevite Old Guard, I guess). Nothing about his illness was generally known even in Moscow at the time, and people began to notice that something was amiss only when Andropov skipped some of the functions at which the General Secretary's presence was an absolute must, like the 7 November parade in Red Square on the occasion of the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

It must have been at that time that I first heard the rumor, originating with a young lady next door who had a boyfriend in the KGB or some such outfit, of the mythical attempt on Andropov's life, complete with elaborate detail. The assassination attempt was supposed to have taken place on the road from Moscow to Zavidovo, a dacha complex for Kremlin dwellers about a hundred kilometers north-west of Moscow. Andropov's limousine was said to have come under intense fire, and it was only the driver's evasive action and a burst of speed he put on that saved Andropov's life, but he came out of the episode with a kidney injury.

The whole story looked definitely fishy to me, on technical grounds above all. ZIL limos were not called "tanks in coat-tails" for nothing. They were armor-plated, it would take a pretty heavy sort of bazooka to pierce the armor, and it could only be provided by some mighty department of the government, which would amount to a coup. In the rumor, the bullet was said to have come through a ventilator grill - but that again pointed to a degree of marksmanship and knowledge of the limo's structure entirely unattainable outside a powerful military or security establishment. Involvement of such an establishment in or outside the Soviet Union would be sure to leak out - but nothing ever did. So I diagnosed the rumor as an attempt to turn a wretched kidney trouble into something more romantic and guaranteed to win the victim the heartfelt sympathy of the notoriously easily-moved Russian people. It was also a sign that things might start breaking pretty soon.

Well, they did. Early in February 1984 the "game of musical chairs" resumed, and it was not long before the country was informed of the demise of yet another of its leaders. With feelings ranging from acute depression to cynicism to indifference the people heard the name of that total bureaucratic nonentity, Konstantin Chernenko, mentioned as head of the funeral commission and, ipso facto, the future General Secretary. The old, Brezhnevite guard won yet another rearguard battle, only they were not fighting against upstarts like Gorbachev or Ryzhkov - they were up against Father Time, and that victory, if victory it was, proved very short-lived.

As for the late, and by many lamented, Yuri Andropov, he left the country to grapple with a fairly insoluble puzzle - what would have happened (or not happened), had it not been for that unfortunate kidney trouble, had the man lived for another ten or fifteen years? Would the Soviet Union have still been on the map of the world? What would the world look like these days?

The easiest answer lies, of course, in that platitude: History does not know the Subjunctive Mood... For better, for worse.

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