When Stalin died after the longest and bloodiest reign of any Russian ruler in the 20th century, the head of his secret police had to be killed in order for the system to function. When Brezhnev died 30 years later after the second-longest reign of the Soviet era, the head of his secret police was named his successor in order for the system to function. Whereas Stalin's Politburo remained unified by killing Beria and dismembering much of his gulag empire, Brezhnev's Politburo remained unified by keeping Andropov alive and bringing a large part of his KGB elite into the party leadership.
The sad fact is that, though most of the world and much of Soviet society have drastically changed in the intervening years, the basic Stalinist political system has remained remarkably constant. Then as now, in a time of leadership transition the first and most basic question to be answered is the role and control of the internal security system. And Brezhnev's true successors must face, after burying Andropov, what Stalin's successors did after burying Beria: a basic decision as to whether to continue the line of policy suggested in the transition period (which Khrushchev essentially did by coopting Malenkov's program for reform). Thus some effort at an assessment of Andropov's basic policies may be important in assessing the dynamics of the conflicts and changes that lie ahead.
Andropov was clearly the most intelligent and probably the best informed man to rule Russia since Lenin. Whatever else he might have eventually accomplished, his legacy to the imperial oligarchy of the U.S.S.R. was essentially to have refurbished a sophisticated Stalinism as the essential vehicle for answering Russia's major problems. Because he appears to have been a person of administrative effectiveness as well as acute intellect, it is small wonder that the surviving Stalinist oligarchs clung to the end to the hope that he might recover rather than install a successor. The crucial question for the next leadership will be whether the life-support system Andropov devised for the Stalinist political machine will prove more effective than the life-support system that his physicians could devise for him.
Stripped of the excesses of Stalin's personality, the Stalinist system can be seen as a materially successful if incredibly brutal form of forced modernization imposed on the only true empire to have survived the age of nationalism. Its essential features were 1) to translate the revolutionary dream of world communism into "socialism in one country" by creating the world's first atheistic state technocracy: seeking to maximize central power over the lives of its citizens as well as the forces of nature; 2) the forced creation of a self-perpetuating ruling oligarchy: the police-supported inner apparatus of an ideologically monolithic party for mobilizing and controlling the masses; and 3) the continuing attempt to preserve and extend the power of this oligarchy through terror at home and intimidation abroad.
For a brief period when Khrushchev was securely in control, there was an authentic effort to criticize at least the second and third features of the Stalinist system: to shake up the bureaucratic oligarchy, to change the "dictatorship of the proletariat" into a more participatory "all-people's government," to suggest that communism would be fulfilled through increased prosperity rather than extended power.
Khrushchev lost his power--and the U.S.S.R. its chance to sustain a process of de-Stalinization--basically because of foreign policy embarrassments (the need to invade Hungary, to call off the Eisenhower summit and to remove the missiles from Cuba). Brezhnev's remedy was not only to stop de-Stalinization but progressively to strengthen the classical Stalinist instruments of repression at home (the secret police) and of intimidation abroad (augmenting and diversifying the armed forces). Aged veterans and beneficiaries of the Stalin era increased their authority under Brezhnev: Suslov in ideology, Grechko in the military, Gromyko in diplomacy, Pelshe in party controls, Patolichev in foreign trade, Yuri Zhukov in a revived "peace" movement.
But in a very much changed society, there was a need to refine and refurbish the various techniques involved in the Stalinist style of rule rather than merely mechanically revive Stalinism. Such a delicate and all-permeating task could only be carried out in isolation from the public by the central institution of the high Stalin era (and the one with fullest access to modern technology and foreign sources of information): the secret police. Thus Andropov emerged as the key figure in the largely hidden process of reshaping old methods to deal with new problems. Aside from his native ability and his key position of authority in the KGB, Andropov had two special assets. He represented in an odd kind of way a sort of youth movement among the surviving Stalinists. He was in fact younger than the others, having received his first executive position in the late 1930s on the corpse-strewn stage of Stalinist politics in the Young Communist League rather than the party itself. And as ambassador to Hungary in 1956, he was personally knowledgeable in foreign affairs-- particularly the area most crucial to the survival of the Stalinist empire: a potentially explosive Eastern Europe.
In a much better educated but much more corrupt society than existed 30 years ago, Andropov presented the appealing picture of a man who favored reason and opposed corruption. He relieved the party oligarchy by applying his major pressure not against them so much as against the inefficient and conniving managers who work for them. His anti-corruption, pro-discipline campaign probably helped to achieve the modest increase in industrial productivity that occurred in 1983. His brutal repression of dissidents was rendered ever more sophisticated by the use of psychiatric prisons and surgically selective torture that revived terror as a credible instrument of domestic policy without the numbing effects of Stalin's indiscriminate terrorism. The massive campaign against missile deployment in Western Europe provided an ideal training ground for a new generation of apparatchiks in the old Stalinist technique of attempting to divide Western Europe from the United States. Though Soviet troops have now been fighting Afghans longer than they fought Germans in World War II, the continuing Soviet threat is not military attack so much as the classic Stalinist conversion of military power into political pressure against and within free societies.
There are many objective reasons for arguing that Andropov's successors may not wish--or even be able--to sustain his urbane return to a modified Stalinism. There are genuine fears even among the toughest of the elite of a renewed cycle of armaments and a genuine need to revive a stagnant economy plagued by deferred maintenance and a shortage of both labor and capital. There are remarkable qualities of resilience--and, I would argue, resources for both civic and spiritual reconstruction--within the emerging post- Stalinist generation throughout the U.S.S.R. and within the traditions of the dominant Russian people themselves.
But new leaders will need to accept reforms more far-reaching than any suggested by Khrushchev if they are to break the neo- Stalinist inertia that Andropov has left behind. As the only nation that they can measure themselves by and the only nation that can destroy them, we are more deeply involved in their fate than we may realize.