We should not be surprised that, in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s Russia, Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov –born a hundred years ago, on June 15, 1914– enjoys an ever-growing mini-cult following, shaped and upheld from the very top. For Putin and the mafia surrounding him – all characters coming from the middle-level structures of the KGB– Yuri Andropov represents the strength of a system which, they believe, was not meant to collapse. In Andropov, they admire the virility, vitality, stamina, robustness of the system that collapsed in December 1991. Worshiping Andropov, they lionize their own youth.
The triumphalist fantasies of the Soviet years continue to haunt the Kremlin’s imagination. Resorting to the myth of Andropov is in fact an attempt at legitimization by way of history. Obviously, what we are dealing with is a history forged, doctored, counterfeited. In short, a history rigged, distorted, and mystified.
According to this secret police worldview, Andropov’s reforms – carefully supervised by their initiators in the party and security apparatus – were unlikely to lead to a massive breakdown of the ideocratic party-state institutional structure. Andropov was a bureaucrat hardened during the Stalinist purges following WWII. He was a true believer in the USSR’s mission as a “bastion of world socialism.” Like so many other apparatchiks, he had adored Stalin. He had been the protégé of Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov, the most dogmatic of the official ideologues. Andropov’s election in November 1982 as General Secretary of the CC of the CPSU and president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, thus nominal head of the Soviet state, was a big change in the pattern of succession. This was the first time that a former chief of the secret police had made it to the helm of the totalitarian regime called the USSR. Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria had come within reach of this position, but – as we well know – he was finished off before being able to fill it. Arrested in June 1953, a few months after Stalin’s death, Beria was executed as a spy in December of that same year.
Andropov’s career began under the auspices of Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov, the supreme ideologue of Stalinism unleashed. Zhdanov was directly in charge of the Karelian-Finnish Autonomous Republic, where Andropov steeply climbed up the party hierarchy. I emphasize this because Zhdanov was the most influential exponent of the Leningrad faction, brutally purged after his death in 1948. The political mythology of Leningrad’s communists matters a great deal in this particular version of history. Vladimir Putin himself comes from that town, as do many members of his close entourage.
After a stage as a Central Committee bureaucrat, Andropov was sent to Hungary as an ambassador, where he was given the particularly sensitive mission to oversee political dynamics throughout the crucial year 1956. Presumably Andropov himself had suffered a shock following the disclosures in Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev’s “Secret Report” at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. On the other hand, ideologically speaking, his convictions were shatterproof and unflinching, made of reinforced concrete. He was not a man of doubts, he lacked the courage to question the thorniest issues in the history of the party that he had served with perinde ac cadaver devotion. He was a fanatic communist, a true believer.
In the Soviet Embassy in Budapest, in 1956, one of Andropov’s subordinates was KGB officer under diplomatic cover, Vladimir Kryuchkov, who later became himself head of the State Security Committee. Astutely friendly and seemingly benevolent, Andropov played the openness card and thus managed to put the suspicions of Imre Nagy and the other reformist group members to sleep. When the revolution broke out on October 23, 1956, Andropov simulated a conciliatory stance and accepted the claims issued by the new government. He was calm and affable, a world-class impersonator. The friendly act was in fact hiding the huge anxiety of Moscow’s envoy.
In truth, Andropov was one of the most adamant activists; he strongly supported the idea of Soviet military intervention. He then gave the legal government members assurances that, if they were to come out of the Yugoslav embassy’s building where they had taken refuge after the second Soviet military intervention, on November 3, 1956, they would be granted freedom and would be able to go home with their families. Right after Nagy and his friends left the embassy premises, giving credence to Andropov’s promises, they were captured, thrown into Soviet trucks, and shipped to Romania. The official story was that they had requested political asylum. In reality, the whole thing was a gangster-like operation, namely the kidnapping of still legitimate officials of a state which had dared to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Andropov was also the one who convinced János Kádár to break with Nagy and form the so-called “Workers’-Peasants’” Quisling government.
As a reward for his contribution to destroying what the communist propaganda called “the Hungarian counter-revolution,” Andropov was put in charge of the CPSU’s international relations department, a position from which he struggled to maintain Soviet hegemony within the world communist movement. As secretary of the CC, he collaborated with Suslov for the consolidation of a hardline ideology. He was one of the most active critics of the Chinese Communist Party, accused of political adventurism, as well as Yugoslav “revisionism.” He loathed any deviation from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. The 1968 Prague Spring gave him nightmares, he fervently supported military intervention to suppress what has gone down in history as the attempt to pursue with a human face. He tried unsuccessfully to organize a world communist conference to excommunicate Mao’s party. He had become the Kremlin’s most sophisticated expert in world communist affairs.
Precisely because he was a most reliable, disciplined, and faithful apparatchik, Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin – the tandem who ended up at the pinnacle of the Soviet dictatorship after Khrushchev’s departure (in October 1964) – appointed Andropov succeed Vladimir Semichastny’s as chairman of the KGB in 1967. Maximum efficiency was needed and Andropov had proven that he was a highly effective defender of the nomenclature.
The one who suggested his appointment as chief-policeman of the USSR was red cardinal Mikhail Suslov, the ideological pontiff who had sensed the risk of the official monolithic doctrine’s disintegration. Andropov’s main mission was to suppress the human rights movement, to nip in the bud any dissident initiative. He was a champion of the most abject misinformation and recklessly cultivated criminal “special methods.”
As shown by dissident intellectual Yuri Glazov in his illuminating writings, Andropov was a paradigmatic Homo Sovieticus. His main opponents were the great dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. He personally conducted disinformation campaigns against them. He also handled the terrorist actions against Pope John Paul II. In the history of the Cold War, the methodically stubborn bureaucrat Andropov endures as one of the most sinister characters.
When he became secretary general, the KGB started a disinformation campaign in the Western media which sought to advertise him as a secret reformist, “a closet liberal”, a man who, in his heart of hearts, admired Western cultural values, loved jazz, and was by no means the tenacious, obtuse, and dogmatic monster described in previous accounts. In fact, the inflexible Yuri Andropov came to power an exhausted and seriously ill individual– as exhausted and seriously ill as the system that he so badly wished to save. His reforms were modest, half-hearted, lacking vigor and vision, and mainly targeted at strengthening discipline in factories. They did not transcend some trivial doctrinal touch-ups. His formula was “acceleration” (uskorenie).
Andropov was definitely not tempted to encourage the transparency which, under Gorbachev, would become known as glasnost. As secretary general – we learn from Kryuchkov’s memoirs – he opposed the return of the anti-Stalinist party intellectual Aleksandr Yakovlev from the Canadian diplomatic exile. As far as party intellectuals go, he was close to Yevgeny Primakov and Georgy Arbatov, whom he deemed trustworthy not only for party leadership, but also for the KGB. Primakov, the future prime minister of Russia between 1998 and 1999, was probably even an undercover KGB officer.
Andropov personally conducted the frenzied reactions of the official propaganda after the downing of the South Korean airliner in 1983. He died in 1984, mourned by no one except his former KGB underlings, including, most likely, the up-and-coming Vladimir Putin. Perhaps his only merit was promoting Gorbachev, thus speeding up – involuntarily, of course – the ruin of a despotic regime, a totalitarian experiment responsible for the death of over twenty million human beings.
In a rare moment of honesty, Andropov said that there can be no greater error than reopening the public debate on the “accursed question.” He was referring to the Stalin question. Forced by the logic of the struggle for power, Gorbachev reopened this Pandora box and expedited the USSR’s downfall. This denouement was something the KGB abhorred. Years later, Andropov’s fan Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant-colonel, spoke about the end of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe in the history of the twentieth century.”
This essay was broadcast by the Moldovan service of Radio Free Europe. It was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.
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