"A visitor coming with the first snow is a good omen," Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko said. "According to an old Russian proverb, it means good luck."
The 73-year-old Soviet leader smiled as he greeted his visitor in his Kremlin office today, pointing at the winter's first snow flurries swirling outside his third-floor window.
To an observer who has watched him from a distance during infrequent public appearances, the Soviet leader appeared fit and in good health. His complexion was ruddy, his handshake firm and his gait steady.
There were reports last summer that Chernenko had been hospitalized with unspecified heart trouble, and he often has displayed a shortness of breath in public appearances. Today his breathing was short and shallow, but less so than others have noticed on previous occasions.
One distinct and perhaps surprising impression from a talk with the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party was that behind his stony-faced public image, Chernenko displays a sense of humor and, in personal contact, a good-natured and confident demeanor.
Although top aides were present for the interview, the Soviet leader conducted the entire conversation without consulting them or any notes.
His delivery was far better than in his public speeches, employing plain language and normal Russian phrases that were in sharp contrast to the stilted formality of Pravda editorials.
At the start of the interview, realizing that the services of veteran translator Viktor Sukhadrev were not needed, he laughed and said, "Sukhadrev is without a job now."
When he presented the text of his written replies to questions received earlier and was reminded by the Kremlin's top spokesman, Leonid Zamyatin, that an English translation of the text was enclosed, Chernenko quipped, "You see, full service."
When veteran foreign policy adviser Andrei Alexandrov-Agentov inquired whether The Washington Post would print the full text of the leader's remarks and was assured only that a long story including all major points would be printed, Chernenko joked, "the longer, the better."
With an eye to the official photographer, the Soviet leader placed the visitor to his right before escorting him to the long table, covered in green felt, where Chernenko conducts most of his official negotiations.
Dressed in a dark blue business suit, white shirt and a blue tie with light blue stripes, he sat quietly and outlined his arguments, only occasionally playing with the pencil set next to his pad.
Chernenko's style and approach appeared similar to that of his political mentor, the late Leonid Brezhnev, with whom Chernenko worked for three decades before rising to the top of the Kremlin hierarchy.
He seemed both deliberate and considerate, the type of man who serves as chairman of the board.
In the course of the interview, he mentioned only two dates, both of which fell within his tenure as Soviet leader. He also made the point of saying that his answers reflected the collective view of the Soviet leadership.
Chernenko also steered clear of ideological issues and the type of heavy-handed criticism and personal attacks that often are sprinkled through official Soviet commentaries. Although direct interviews with American correspondents have been extremely rare for Soviet leaders since the days of Stalin, Chernenko, or his aides, appeared to have done their homework, realizing that a more pragmatic, straightforward approach would appeal to an American audience.
In the brief conversation, Chernenko also reflected views heard often from that generation of Soviet leaders who came to manhood before World War II and who have vivid memories of the war. He alluded to the horrors of conflict and spoke with conviction about his desire to resume arms control.
Word of the invitation to meet with the general secretary came at the last moment, shortly before a black government sedan arrived to pick up this visitor at home and drive him to the Kremlin.
The car swung through a huge iron gate into the closed section of the Kremlin, located immediately behind the wall facing Red Square. Chernenko's office is in the building of the Council of Ministers, and its windows face onto a carefully manicured inner courtyard.
One enters the inner sanctum through a huge antechamber occupied by a dozen male secretaries and officials. The office itself is a large room with light-yellow silk walls and white silk curtains covering four huge windows, about 12 feet high. There were no ashtrays on the long table, presumably because the general secretary does not smoke. The pencil containers are of cut crystal. On his desk was a neat pile of documents. The only picture in the room is of Lenin.
Perhaps reflecting the change in the Kremlin since Lenin's day, Chernenko, like any American politician, seemed to be accustomed to offering autographs and readily promised his visitor an autographed copy of the photograph of the two of them.
As his visitor was leaving, Chernenko asked somewhat mischievously, "Is The Washington Post an influential newspaper?"