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 was a man in a hurry; events since confirm this impression. As we approach an important summit meeting in Geneva, it is time to give serious thought to who Gorbachev is and where he is going.
It would be a grave mistake to dismiss Gorbachev as only another typical party apparatchik, especially if such a judgment is combined with the more fundamental mistake of seeing the party apparatus as the opponent of change and the technocratic state as the proponent. Gorbachev was the most atypical regional party first secretary in the Soviet Union of the 1970s.
Nearly all of the provincial party secretaries in the Russian Republic and the Ukraine (excluding the autonomous republics based on other nationalities) were engineers or agronomists. Indeed, in the 25 most populous and politically important regions in 1981, 80 percent of the first secretaries had engineering backgrounds, with an average of nine years’ work in industry, construction, transportation or administration. With years of subsequent work in the party, they have had a chance to broaden their perspective beyond the narrow production focus of the Soviet manager; but
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