The Andropov Succession

Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov; drawing by David Levine

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…

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