Yuri Andropov: A Missed Opportunity For Reform Of The Soviet Union?

One of the forgotten names of recent history is Yuri Andropov, the fourth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the successor to Leonid Brezhnev.  In the West at least, his name seems to have become buried among the pile of relics that accumulated in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  As far as I can determine, there is still no comprehensive English language biography of him currently in print; what studies do exist were written years ago and do not incorporate the latest research.  This is unfortunate.  His career spanned an important period of Soviet history, and his policies have proven to be more influential than is generally believed.  The student of modern Russian history owes it to himself to examine his life and career diligently.

Andropov was in office for only fifteen months.  Yet a close look at his life and executive record strongly suggest that he was prepared to embark on a program of economic reform of the Soviet Union.  Had he been successful, it is even possible that something like the “China model” of economic development could have been implemented.  Perhaps the Soviet empire might have been permitted to evolve into some kind of cohesive economic federation, rather than descend into economic chaos.  Readers should keep an open mind when approaching this issue.  There is a tendency for observers of history to believe that things could not have happened in any other way than how they happened.  We see the progress of the past to the present time as inevitable, but forget that at any given juncture, history could have taken a different turn.

Born in 1914 in Nagutskaya, Andropov learned about hardship at an early age.  Orphaned at the age of thirteen, he became involved in politics in the 1930s and fought in the Second World War.  He must have learned to navigate the turbulent waters of the bureaucracy well, for by 1954 he was appointed the Soviet ambassador to Hungary.  The uprising that took place in Hungary in 1956 permanently colored his outlook and shaped his views of politics and reform.  By all accounts, he was shocked at the speed and violence of the Hungarian uprising, and was a prime advocate for its violent suppression.  His experiences in Budapest–much like the experiences of the Chinese elites in the wake of the 1989 protests–convinced him of two things:  (1)  that economic reforms must take place before political reform, and (2) that unless political reform proceeded slowly and deliberately, it could very easily spiral out of control.

In 1967 Andropov was appointed head of the KGB.  He was an intelligent and cultured man, a believer in the system that had trained and educated him, and was determined to preserve the cohesion of the Soviet empire.  He had little patience for dissidents and local nationalists, whom he saw as little more than tools used by the West to undermine the Soviet state.  In 1968 in Czechoslovakia, he was a firm advocate of repression as a way of dealing with the “Prague spring.” He also believed that the Soviet dissident movement of the 1970s and 1980s was little more than a contrivance of the Western powers; talk of “human rights,” he maintained, was a coordinated scheme to attack the foundation of the Soviet system.  By the early 1980s, Andropov’s KGB had learned to use a variety of countermeasures (e.g., psychiatric hospitals, expulsions, arrests) to suppress political dissidents.  Significantly, however, he opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, believing that the war would be a quagmire and that no critical national interest was at stake.

Despite these facts, we must remember that the Soviet Union was the world’s largest multi-ethnic and multi-national empire, occupying the largest land mass of any state on earth.  As the world appeared from Moscow, it was simply impossible that such a huge domain could be held together with benedictions and kindness alone.  The Soviet leaders, like the czars before them, understood exactly what was necessary to keep the huge ship afloat; and this did not take into account Western notions of democratic liberalism.  As film director and political commentator Andrei Konchalovsky stated in 2011:

As far as I can see, Andropov symbolized a wing of the Soviet “liberals,” to a certain extent anti-Stalinists, though of course he never revealed this publicly…The idea of reform and liberalization was entirely Andropov’s.  As head of the KGB, he was better informed than anyone else about the catastrophic economic situation in the USSR. When he became head of state, he was able to start putting into effect the plan he had been hatching for a long time.  I don’t think Andropov completely trusted Gorbachev.  He, Andropov, belonged to the older generation and was not intending to dismantle the system; the maximum he was prepared to consider was that a new type of person should be able to rule the country.

According to Konchalovsky, the idea of “openness” and reform did not originate at all with Gorbachev.  In fact, Gorbachev was clumsy and inept in practice:

Gorbachev certainly didn’t expect the course that events took, and for most of his time in power he was completely lost. The simple reason is that he didn’t have (nor could he have done!) any real political experience which would have enabled him to perceive the results of his actions. It’s unlikely that he could have imagined dismantling the system without being buried in the resulting wreckage. His lack of experience, education and intellectual potential meant that he had no idea of what was needed to embark on such a grandiose plan. Of course, it’s easy for us to say this now…His assumption that liberal reforms would bring democracy to the country were naïve and that was his fatal mistake.

Andropov was elected to head the Soviet state in 1982.  From his experience as a foreign diplomat, and as the head of the KGB, he knew that the Soviet empire was in dire need of reform.  At the same time, his experiences taught him the necessity of moving deliberately and in measured doses, so as not to lose control over the pace of events.  According to an August, 1983 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Andropov’s early economic reforms were these:

Now Yuri Andropov has begun to unveil his program for modernizing the stagnating Soviet economy. He has made four major moves in the eight months since he took office. They consist of one stick and three not very big carrots. Unless there are more decisive steps to come, Western specialists on the Soviet economy believe his modernization program may be undermined by the entrenched central planning bureaucracy. That was the fate of the Brezhnev-Kosygin economic reforms of 1965-70.

Crackdown on absenteeism.  Andropov’s first stick-and-carrot came last winter. The stick was his crackdown on worker absenteeism and malingering. His first carrot was an increased supply of consumer goods in the stores (brought in largely from Eastern Europe).  The second and third carrots were unveiled last week.

Carrot No. 2:  a new labor-reform law, put into effect Monday, which allows factory-worker brigades to vote for their own leaders, distribute production bonuses, and have some say in factory planning.

Carrot No. 3:  a managerial reform, announced last week, that is to begin Jan. 1, 1984. It decentralizes management and allows use of profits at the plant level – but only in a few selected industries….

Mr. Andropov appears to have strong support from most of his Politburo colleagues.  US analysts believe this support is largely a product of Leonid Brezhnev’s longevity in office.  A State Department specialist observes quietly that ”Brezhnev’s stagnant hand weighed on the hierarchy for so long that all Kremlin factions knew some new ideas had to be tried.  So they are relatively united behind Andropov’s program.”

These reforms were not insignificant.  Had they been carried through, they might very well have led to additional steps to open up the economy.  Of course, this view is not shared by all.  There are some who believe that the evidence for Andropov as a genuine reformer is too speculative, and that he died too soon for us predict what might have been.  Some also cast doubt on whether Andropov had the requisite progressive personality to carry through with genuine reform.

There is some merit to this view.  However, I believe it overlooks important considerations.  The first is that there is no contradiction in history with an authoritarian leader also being a reformer.  In fact, I would submit that, as far as Russian history is concerned, only an authoritarian leader is capable of carrying out reforms.  A man cannot be a progressive unless he is first and foremost a man of order and discipline.  Changing any entrenched system requires a firm hand and resolute navigation.  It cannot be otherwise.

Konchalovksy perhaps says it best when he quotes the Russian statesman Pyotr Stolypin, who knew that liberal reforms in Russia were impossible unless a strong hand were guiding the ship of state:

Gorbachev would probably not have known the wise words of the outstanding Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, but perhaps it is worth repeating them here:  “In Russia liberal reforms can only be possible if the regime first clamps down, because for a Russian any relaxation in the system represents weakness.”  To wrest control of the economy from the party, it was essential to strengthen the control of both the party and the state.  Gorbachev didn’t do this…For Gorbachev [was] neither popular nor understood, and rejected by his own people as a “man of no guts,” and “hiding behind his wife’s skirts.”

In failing to establish any control over society and within the party, Gorbachev allowed it to splinter into factions over which he no longer had any say. This gave rise to strong groups, and in particular to the Yeltsin bloc.

Clearly, political and economic reforms are unthinkable unless they are accompanied by strong, unyielding leadership.  This has been true not just of Russian history, but true with regard to the histories of nearly all nations and empires.  Human nature instinctively desires order; and when old rules are replaced by very new ones, the common man can easily become confused and bewildered without being pointed in the right direction.  Besides his reformist impulses, Andropov also displayed a canny awareness of public relations that was unusual for Soviet leaders of his era.  As a boy in the early 1980s, I distinctly remember how much media attention was devoted to his open invitation to American schoolgirl Samantha Smith to visit Russia and “see how we live here.”  While it is easy to scoff at such gestures, the fact remains that this was an adroit public relations move that revealed a man willing to think in terms of the new media age of the 1980s.  Andropov had the experience, the control of the political apparatus, and clearly the will to undertake meaningful reform.

Andropov died in 1984 of renal failure at the age of sixty-nine.  His plans for reform went with him to the grave; his successors proved unable to cope with the task of reforming and modernizing the Soviet system.  What would modern Europe have looked like if the Soviet Union reformed itself gradually, shed its economic encumbrances, and evolved into some new kind of confederation?  We do not know.  While more research is needed on Andropov’s life and policies, it is clear that he represents one of those great “might have beens” in modern European history.  At the very least, he deserves his own full-length biography by a scholar having access to the latest sources and materials.


Read more about politics, character, and historical forces in my On Duties or in my new translation of Sallust:

2 thoughts on “Yuri Andropov: A Missed Opportunity For Reform Of The Soviet Union?

  1. I’ve always been intrigued by Andropov and wondered how much better for the USSR had he stayed in office longer. Anyways, seeing you do a write up on him is pleasing, not much has been said about an important and often over looked figure such as him. Good stuff as always.


    • It’s unbelievable that there is no authoritative biography of him in English. When I was doing research for this article, I consulted Brian Crozier’s “The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire” and was shocked to find almost nothing of any substance in it about Yuri Andropov. Nothing about his background, policies, administration, ideas. Nothing. The whole book reads like a neocon screed.


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