Life in the USSR Under Andropov & Chernenko

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we'll explore the brief terms of Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, General Secretaries in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Find out how each one affected, or fail to affect, life in the UUSR in the 1980s.

Short-Term Rulers

When you think of some of the presidents of the United States, who comes to mind? The first president, George Washington, or the man who led us through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln? Chances are, you probably don't think of James K. Polk or Chester A. Arthur. Yet these men held the same office and the same power as Washington and Lincoln, even if their accomplishments were less well known. Soviet versions of Polk and Arthur included Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, relatively unknown men who held the position of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Both men assumed control a country that had not fared well under Leonid Brezhnev.

Russia before Andropov and Chernenko

Andropov and Chernenko inherited a country that had been overseen by Leonid Brezhnev, who served from 1960-1982, and a regime marked by considerable political repression, declining agricultural production and exorbitant military expenditures. For example, the Russian spy agency, the KGB, placed agents in most government organizations to monitor compliance and report any anti-Soviet activity.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Moscow-controlled economy and hard-to-meet production quotas, like those on manufacturing and agriculture, caused the Soviet economy to decline. At one point, things were so bad, the Soviets had to buy grain from the United States, which meant spending their own currency outside the country and enjoying very little foreign capital in return.

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev

Furthermore, an arms race with the United States and its allies and the Cold War led to high military expenditures on advanced weaponry. Additionally, costly invasions and interventions in satellite countries, like Afghanistan and the Czech Republic, consumed a huge portion of the Soviet gross domestic product (GDP) and weakened the rest of the economy.

Yury Andropov

When Brezhnev died in 1982, the Soviet Politburo elected Yury Andropov, a party member and organizer since the 1930s, to the position of General Secretary. Andropov had previously served as ambassador to Hungary, where he helped to put down the democratic Hungarian Revolution in 1956, as well as the head of the KGB. Adept at personal politics, he moved in the Soviet Union's highest circles and was appointed to the Politburo, the policy-making arm of the Communist Party, in 1973.

Yuri Andropov
Portrait of Yuri Andropov

Once in office, Andropov focused his attempts for reform on the Soviet administration and culture and took a dim view of corruption; even Brezhnev's son-in-law went to prison. During the 15 months he held office, he fired 15 ministers and dozens of deputy ministers and regional officials; some bureaucrats convicted of corruption were executed by firing squads. New economic changes, which freed certain industrial or regionally based plant managers from restrictive central planners, led to a 4% growth in the economy in 1982.

In response to increased alcoholism in the Soviet Union, especially amongst state officials, Andropov introduced a new type of vodka with a lower alcohol content, which came to be known as Andropovka. He also proved intolerant of dissidents and tightened up Soviet borders to prevent 'unwanted' persons from entering the country. While in office, Andropov's health declined rapidly, and he died in February 1984 of kidney failure.

Konstantin Chernenko

Soon after Andropov's death, Konstantin Chernenko, his greatest rival, was elected General Secretary. As a teenager, he was a member of the Communist Youth League, a training ground for those aspiring to positions in the Communist Party. A skilled propagandist, Chernenko was eventually appointed to the important Novoselovo District Komsomol committee, where he led the propaganda and agitation department.

In 1950, Chernenko become the head of the communist party in Moldova; by 1971 he was a full member of the Politburo. He was a great favorite of Brezhnev and published numerous papers on the principles of communism and social issues facing the Soviet Union. When Chernenko became General Secretary in 1984, he was already in poor health, as evidenced by his appearance and behavior at Andropov's funeral.

Konstantin Chernenko
Konstantin Chernenko

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