Commentary Magazine


Andropov: New Challenge to the West, by Arnold Beichman and Mikhail S. Bernstam

Policeman and Bureaucrat

Andropov: New Challenge to the West. A Political Biography.
by Arnold Beichman and Mikhail S. Bernstam.
Introduction by Robert Conquest. Stein & Day. 255 pp. $16.95.

Yuri Andropov’s accession to power in the wake of Leonid Brezhnev’s death on November 10, 1982, has understandably resulted in the appearance of several English-language books sketching out the career of the new Soviet leader. Inevitably, all are marred by telltale signs of hasty writing. Curiously, though, the research, hampered less by editorial deadlines than by Soviet secretiveness, is reasonably complete. This is particularly true of the most satisfactory study to appear to date, Arnold Beichman’s and Mikhail S. Bernstam’s Andropov. Often cliché-ridden and hardly free of purple prose, it is nevertheless to be welcomed as a closely reasoned treatment of an elusive subject whose importance hardly requires proof.

Of the book’s authors, Arnold Beichman, a political journalist known above all for his Nine Lies About America, a brilliant debunking of chic articles of faith among a large segment of American opinion-makers, presumably supplied the general historical background. The impressive research in often obscure Soviet sources, it is safe to guess, was primarily carried out by Mikhail S. Bernstam, a young historian recently arrived here from the USSR. The book is solid testimony to the fruitfulness of such collaboration, accomplishing well what its authors set out to do: to put “into the context of the political and social history of the Soviet Union the dispersed bits and pieces of data about the political life of Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov. . . .”

Apparently, the need to know these facts is not as self-evident as one might have hoped. As Robert Conquest points out in his introduction,

there are those in the West who would . . . pay no attention to the fact that [Andropov] and those like him are the products of a history quite alien to our own and are the exemplars of a political psychology hardly seen in the West outside small sects of millenarian psychopaths. Indeed, though in the Soviet case the fact is disguised by Western-type vocabulary, the record and the motivations of a man like Andropov are as different from our own as those of any Ayatollah.

This book thus comes as a useful corrective to the image of Andropov fostered at first by Western media, which depicted the longtime head of the Soviet secret police as a closet liberal, a lover of American jazz, a debonair bon vivant with “Western tastes, a man of intellectual discrimination and tolerance.”

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Andropov was born in 1914, just weeks before the outbreak of World War I, in the southern Russian city of Stavropol; nothing is known (so far) about his family. At age eighteen he moved to the northern province of Yaroslavl where, six years later (1938), he became First Secretary of the Young Communist League. As such, he was (together with Nikolai S. Patolichev, a future Soviet Minister of Foreign Trade) one of the two political bosses of the province. The third, significantly, was the man in charge of the half-million prisoners employed at the Volga Construction Project, then the country’s largest undertaking under secret-police auspices. Thus, at twenty-four, “Andropov assisted in the administration of the province, half of which could be regarded as a Russian Auschwitz minus the gas chambers.”

The war found Andropov in another northern province, the Karelo-Finnish Republic. But “Andropov himself never participated in any military actions, either as part of the regular army or in guerrilla operations.” His war experiences were of a rather different nature. A week after the Nazi attack on the USSR, on June 22, 1941, Finland’s military forces crossed the Soviet frontier and proceeded to re-occupy the territory seized from it by the Soviet Union two years earlier. That goal was achieved by September 1, but Finnish troops pressed on for another month, occupying also Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Soviet Karelo-Finnish Republic. Beichman and Bernstam write:

In fact, the entire Republic ceased to exist, and what was left unoccupied by the Finns overlapped with the White Sea-Baltic kombinat, the chain of forced-labor camps. The Soviets established a new capital in the remnants of the Karelo-Finnish Republic in Belomorsk, which at the same time was the administrative headquarters of the kombinat. The Soviet military headquarters also retreated to Belomorsk. In other words, the central committee of the Karelo-Finnish Republic Communist party, the government of the Republic, the Supreme Soviet, the Komsomol, and the military leadership for three years until 1944, resided within the territory of the prison camp.

These circumstances placed Andropov, then the Republic’s secretary of the Young Communist League, and a number of other Soviet dignitaries, in an unusual physical setting:

They were living in a prison camp with forced laborers. Unlike other party officials who knew of the Gulag archipelago from a distance and who, ideologically, accepted forced-labor camps as necessary, Andropov lived side by side with the Gulag system and saw it in operation each day.

It was during these years that Andropov may also have helped betray to the Finns a party comrade operating behind enemy lines.

Such was, in sum, Andropov’s background prior to his eventual elevation to chairmanship of the USSR Council of Ministers State Security Committee, better known by its Russian acronym KGB. He was to hold this position for fifteen years, longer than any predecessor, leaving it only months before Brezhnev’s demise. Andropov’s successful progress through the Communist party’s labyrinths of power was facilitated, Beichman and Bernstam suggest, by a powerful protector, the late Mikhail Suslov, long known as the guardian of Stalinist doctrinal purity.

Andropov’s one significant assignment outside of his main career as party bureaucrat and secret policeman was in Hungary, where he spent some years on the staff of the Soviet embassy and served as Soviet ambassador in Budapest during the fateful days of the Hungarian revolution in the fall of 1956. Rehearsing Andropov’s duplicity at that time is useful only insofar as it helps shed light on the “lessons” he may have learned. Beichman and Bernstam identify a number of them. The first was that the Chinese, and the Yugoslavs, were simply not to be trusted in their relations with the Soviet Union and the East European satellites. He may also have learned to mistrust intellectuals. “Probably the most important lesson Andropov learned during his tenure in Budapest was how weak and irresolute the Western democracies were in a crisis and how unwilling they were to exploit Soviet weakness.”

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Since people in power, when faced with choices, tend to resort to methods they know best, Andropov’s background offers few grounds for rosy “liberal” prognostications. Indeed, to accept Andropov’s much-discussed predilection for well-tailored Western suits, American jazz, and scotch whiskey as signs of democratic leanings is not only naive, but bespeaks a Western cultural arrogance of the most reprehensible sort. Another secret policeman of recent memory, Heinrich Himmler, showed many of these preferences; conversely, respect for democratic values is fully compatible with any national garb, cuisine, or music.

It was Yuri Andropov who crushed the Soviet liberal dissidents and who enlisted psychiatry (and mind-altering drugs) to help in the effort. It was Andropov who was chief of the KGB at the time of the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II. It is he, as head of the Soviet state, who brought to a virtual halt the already small trickle of Jewish emigration, and who was behind the uncompromisingly hard line over the Korean airliner incident. By demonstrating the consistency of these positions with his political past, and by placing them firmly in the context of recent Soviet history, Beichman and Bernstam have performed a most valuable service.

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