The last time the leadership of the Soviet Union had changed hands was in 1964, when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted by Leonid Brezhnev and his allies. Army troops surrounded the Kremlin then, just in case Khrushchev's supporters made a countermove, and mounted police were deployed throughout the city.
That, of course, was a coup, and this time there was no reason for such precautions. But it seems as if the Soviet manual for such occasions has not been updated.
Once again, the center of Moscow, the heart of the old imperial city surrounding the Kremlin, was blocked off by troops. Its huge buildings, spacious boulevards and vast squares, normally filled with people, were completely empty while the Central Committee conducted its deliberations.
There had been no advance notice that the 320-member plenum would convene, but this morning's newspapers announced that the entire center of the city would be closed to traffic for the next four days in connection with Brezhnev's state funeral on Monday.
The security measures imposed were incredibly tight. To get off the Metro subway train at Pushkin Square, about a mile from the Kremlin, people had to produce passports proving that they either worked or lived there. Closer to the Kremlin, within a half mile, anyone wanting to enter an apartment building was challenged.
Somehow I was able to drive past the second checkpoint I tried and enter the hub of the city, my car the only one moving along the 300-feet-wide Marx Prospect. All the way across the Marx Prospect were Red Army soldiers two deep, in their brown uniforms, and behind them were Moscow police, also two deep, in their blue uniforms, and at the edges were security plainclothesmen and druzhniki, Communist Party members assigned to police duty.
No one challenged me, assuming that I had special permission. I drove around the approaches to the inner city, and at every corner, at every intersection I saw the same scene.
The center of Moscow is spectacular, particularly on a sunny day as this was. The Kremlin, the vastness of Red Square -- 2,280 feet long and 426 feet wide -- the 900-feet-wide Manezhe Square, all lend themselves to the immensity of the crowds that normally fill the city. And this morning everything was empty.
Some streets, such as the Inner Ring, were completely blocked off by military personnel carriers. There was no way to get through.
After the plenum was over and the results announced, the security was relaxed a bit. Some streets outside the immediate area of the Kremlin were reopened. Still, the major thoroughfares leading to the center, like Gorky Street, remained closed to all traffic. No cabs were allowed in the city center. To see anyone, you had to go by foot and show an identification card at every checkpoint. Even the highway to the airport was blocked off.
On Saturday, the foreign delegations to the funeral will start arriving. The vast number of foreign leaders expected has created vast logistical problems. All the businessmen have been ordered out of the Hotel Metropol to make room for the visiting dignitaries.