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The Andropov Succession

Much uncertainty surrounds the emergence of Yuri Andropov as general secretary of the Communist Party, the likely heir of four formidable predecessors during the sixty-five years of Soviet history. Lenin led his party through revolution and consolidation of power. Stalin revolutionized the Soviet political system and society through unbridled use of coercion and terror. Khrushchev shook the Stalinist mold, made Soviet foreign policy more active, and ended the country’s self-imposed autarchic isolation. Brezhnev attempted to institutionalize the bureaucratic process of policy making. In domestic affairs he achieved a degree of stability hitherto unknown under the Soviet political system, notwithstanding serious failures of the economy. Internationally, he supervised the transformation of the Soviet Union into a truly global power.

What can we expect of Andropov? Here I propose to review the principal problems and difficulties Andropov has inherited and to suggest how these are likely to affect the direction of Soviet internal and foreign policy.


Brezhnev occupied the office of first and then general secretary for eighteen years, longer than any other Soviet leader except Stalin. His rule was less dramatic and convulsive than that of his predecessors, but he left a strong mark on the entire Soviet system. His major achievements took place during the first decade of his rule. His last six years were marked by domestic stagnation, resistance to change, and foreign adventures that were dubious for the Soviet Union’s long-term interests and destructive of détente in the short run. He occupied office well beyond the point of usefulness to his colleagues, the ruling establishment, and the Soviet people. His experience illustrates once again that the absence of an established and accepted mechanism for transferring power is a costly luxury for a modern state with global ambitions.

Brezhnev aimed at first to reverse certain of Khrushchev’s experimental and iconoclastic policies in the interest of Party harmony and social and political stability. He sought to avoid confrontations among the top Soviet leaders and to provide both a higher standard of living for the population and the resources necessary to meet the demands of the “functional elites” in charge of the Party, the military, industry, and agriculture. In foreign affairs he wanted to translate strategic parity with the United States into equality on a global basis. In domestic matters Brezhnev’s years will be seen as the most predictable and quiescent of Soviet history; in foreign affairs he was more ambitious and unpredictable than any other Soviet ruler. He leaves a mixed legacy of achievements and failures that will weigh heavily on Andropov’s regime.

Brezhnev’s greatest domestic achievement was his ability to preserve Soviet social and political stability without resorting to mass terror, notwithstanding major economic, social, and political problems. For the leaders, the open Soviet dissenters were more an international embarrassment than an internal danger. Brezhnev succeeded in preventing large numbers of professional people from becoming a vocal opposition. The vastly expanded Soviet professional and educational class was brought into the bureaucracy; its members became pre-occupied with professional questions and committed to their careers.

Urban workers under Brezhnev remained docile except for isolated incidents of unrest and strikes. The peasants, crushed under Stalin by collectivization, began to enter Soviet society;as, for example, when they were granted passports for free internal travel and given access to the social security program. Finally, the Soviet “internal” empire, the multinational state, remained remarkably quiet at a time when ethnic politics and ethnic separatism created difficulties for both Western and third world nations. In the non-Russian regions of the USSR, most people identify more with their ethnic group than with the Soviet state and in those regions cultural nationalism has been strong. Still, among non-Russian elites there have been very few overt signs of political nationalism or of a quest for greater autonomy, not to speak of separatism.

The remarkable social and political stability under Brezhnev, particularly between 1965 and 1975, depended above all on the colossal Soviet repressive apparatus which regained status and effectiveness after Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaigns. No one should underestimate the continuing toughness and tenacity of this apparatus, with its system of surveillance and censorship, its prison camps and punitive psychiatric hospitals. No less significant, however, was the simultaneous and successful pursuit of economic growth, in industrial investment, in military spending, and in consumer goods—which thereby satisfied Brezhnev’s main constituencies. During Brezhnev’s first ten years, increased production for the consumer economy, especially of durable goods, raised the Soviet standard of living in the city and countryside. Moreover, Brezhnev sought greater equality in distributing real income; the growth of consumer spending benefited particularly the lowest third of the population.

During the same decade, moreover, an increasing number of workers were able to gain higher status than that of their parents. More people took part in local self-government, such as the municipal soviets. Equally important was the continuing indifference of workers to “high” politics. In the “internal” empire, consisting of non-Russian republics, policies of repression and Russian administrative controls were combined with considerable cultural autonomy and private economic activity. Most of these regions had a standard of living higher than that enjoyed by the Russians, especially in the countryside.

Brezhnev’s second major domestic achievement was in Soviet decision making and in reducing conflict among the elites. In contrast to the cruel personal dictatorship of Stalin and the erratic confrontational style of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, for the first time in Soviet history, brought elites from all the major institutions into the top decision-making body, the Politburo. He reversed Khrushchev’s practice of frequently replacing high officials. While Khrushchev gave Soviet elites a sense that their lives were secure from terror, Brezhnev gave them security of office. Conflicts among elites responsible for such “functions” as agriculture and industry and those responsible for governing regions were resolved through bargaining and compromise. Brezhnev’s authority was unquestioned, but it remained low-key, with a stress on conciliation.

Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union also scored its greatest international triumph—strategic parity with the US and the Western alliance. For the first time in Russian and Soviet history, the Soviet Union became invulnerable to foreign attack. Thus was accomplished the main goal proclaimed by all Soviet leaders, the goal in whose name countless millions suffered want, cruelty, and terror. The steadily growing and shrewdly balanced military program brought not only security from attack but the means to project forces far beyond Soviet borders. The Soviet Union’s global status was established.

The failures of Brezhnev’s regime are no less visible, especially in the Soviet economy. At his death in 1982, the gap between the Soviet gross national product and that of the US and Western Europe almost matched the gap when Stalin died in 1953. Two years ago, Japan overtook the USSR in industrial production and replaced it as the second largest economy in the world. Except possibly for military technology, Soviet technological development is now probably further behind that of the West than it was under Khrushchev. The Soviet economy has entered a period of deep noncyclical economic crisis, seemingly without remedy.

Until the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union used steadily increasing amounts of labor, capital, land, and cheap natural resources to ensure an annual growth rate of about 5 percent. The system is no longer able to muster these forces at the same rate. The economy has reached a stage where the traditional Soviet methods of mobilizing workers and capital will no longer yield sustained rapid growth.

Other factors make the situation worse. First, the Soviet system of management—central planning, crudely defined incentives, and mass mobilization—is poorly prepared to meet the requirements of intensive growth, which depends on increased productivity of labor and capital, on innovation and the diffusion of technology. Second, the “forced” industrialization of earlier decades proceeded without developing the basic systems of transportation, communication, storage, distribution, and services that would keep pace with the growth of manufacturing, mining, and agriculture. Soviet leaders will be forced to spend enormous sums on such “infrastructure” at the expense of precious capital that could otherwise be used to improve the productivity of labor and energy.

Third, the Soviet Union in the 1980s faces unfavorable demographic trend—a rapid overall decline in the number of new workers, an increasingly large proportion of whom will be non-Russian. Soviet authorities will either have to force a migration of non-Russian, predominantly Central Asian, labor to European Russia and Siberia, where most industry and new mineral resources are located, or else they will have to invest at great cost in the industrial development of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Either solution would exacerbate ethnic tensions.

Fourth, the Soviet Union faces the near exhaustion of cheap natural resources such as oil, timber, iron, and other minerals. Production costs rise dramatically as such resources are extracted from increasingly remote areas in the north or far east. In addition, the need to replace aged machine stocks with advanced machinery, essential at a time of labor scarcity, will be affected by the inefficiency of the machine industry and the shortage of investment capital. The Brezhnev leadership repeatedly postponed to some unspecified date the vital technological renovation of Soviet industry in favor of traditional methods of growth. To Andropov’s great misfortune that time has come. Finally, agriculture remains the most vulnerable part of the economy, notwithstanding the enormous investments of the Brezhnev era.

Without major renovation of the economy, a lower growth rate will have a serious and unpredictable impact on social stability. Living standards of Soviet workers during the 1980s can at best remain constant and at worst decline. This will be a new experience for the very large majority of Soviet citizens who did not know the postwar years of hunger and repression under Stalin. Moreover, the movement of their children into the middle-level and professional occupations will decline as a consequence of sagging industrial growth, lower spending on education, and stiffer competition from children of the new middle class. Soviet leaders cannot know how workers will react to a period of prolonged austerity.

Yet another source of serious conflict in the 1980s may be deteriorating relations between the dominant Russians and the other nations of the USSR. Tension in the non-Russian regions will increase if the central government cannot maintain a rising standard of living and ceases to tolerate private economic activity. In this situation the aspirations of the ordinary working population could fuse with the growing ambitions of well-educated non-Russian elites who may seek greater freedom from Russian controls.

As the stability achieved during Brezhnev’s first decade became ossified during his last years, the older generation of Soviet elites, like its chief, clearly outlived its usefulness. Unable to deal adequately with the accumulated and growing ills of the economy, the old guard still refuses to give way to younger officials whose expectations of upward mobility have been frustrated by Brezhnev’s gift to top leaders—security in office. Ordinary Soviet consumers still live in a drab world, a world of shoddy goods and chronic shortages. Not only did the standard of living stagnate or decline in Brezhnev’s last years, but the economic achievements of the 1960s and early 1970s could not hide the moral decay and corruption that now pervade the entire society. Andropov inherits a situation in which bribery, fraud, and theft are an accepted way of life, even instruments for redistributing national income. The working class lacks motivation to work hard and its record of absenteeism and alcoholism is the highest of any industrialized nation.

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