Courtesy Reuters

When Yuri Andropov died in February 1984, the Central Committee waited four days to name his successor. It is not clear whether this resulted from a real struggle for power or was simply because of an intervening weekend. In either case, the delay symbolized the stagnation and even the retrogression during Konstantin Chernenko’s year in office.

In March 1985, the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary was announced just four hours after the announcement of Chernenko’s death, even though one Politburo member (Vladimir Shcherbitsky) was still in the United States. On the next day, all Soviet newspapers had the same format: page one contained a communiqué about the Central Committee session that had elected Gorbachev, a biography of the new general secretary and a large photograph of him; page two reported Chernenko’s death and carried his obituary and picture.

Even then, Gorbachev seemed to be signaling that he

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  • Jerry F. Hough is J. B. Duke Professor of Political Science at Duke University, and a staff member of the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming The Struggle for the Third World: Soviet Debates and American Options.
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