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Soviet leadership in transition. Chernenko: more an ideologist than a leader

SOVIET Leader Konstantin U. Chernenko, who passed away Sunday, held this country in a state of suspended animation for 13 months. A rigid ideologist, he insisted on communist orthodoxy in virtually every sphere of this country's political, cultural, social, and economic life. While publicly espousing the need to crack down on corruption and cautiously embracing economic reform, Mr. Chernenko spearheaded few major initiatives to further those goals. The country's lackluster economic performance -- and the behavior of its extensive government bureaucracy -- underwent little apparent change during his time in office.

He made few bold strokes in foreign policy, either, apart from shepherding this country back to negotiations with the United States over nuclear and space-based weapons, scheduled to begin today in Geneva. Although the Soviet news media depicted that as a coup for Soviet foreign policy, some Western analysts suspect it was a decision born of necessity, and probably made collectively by the ruling Communist Party Politburo.

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Chernenko did little to alter his country's standing in the world. Moscow gained few new allies and made few advances with traditional ones. In fact, the Soviet Union's East European satellites displayed increasing restiveness during Chernenko's term in office. Some analysts attributed this to a lack of firm control from the Kremlin, rather than to any liberalization.

Chernenko, then, will no doubt be remembered as a transitional figure who presided over the Soviet Union in much the same manner as his mentor, former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

He apparently came to power as a result of compromise between older, hard-line factions of the ruling Communist Party Politburo and younger, reformist elements. For that reason, he seemed to generate little enthusiasm in either camp and therefore appeared to have difficulty in gaining control of the government and party apparatus.

Chernenko was also troubled by ill health while he governed. He suffered chronic shortness of breath, and his public speeches were delivered in a halting manner. He disappeared from public view for long periods both before and after becoming general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (and, therefore, the head of the Soviet state).

Chernenko came into the office at the age of 72, after having been passed over for the job in favor of Yuri Andropov.

Mr. Andropov, like Chernenko, served for only a little over a year before his death. The ruling Politburo then selected Chernenko as the new party chief.

For Chernenko, it marked the capstone of a dogged climb through the party bureaucracy that left him intimately familiar with the party structure, but with few practical skills for governing the largest country on earth.

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Born of peasant parents in 1911 in the Krasnoyarsk region of southeastern Siberia, Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work as a farmhand.

During the 1920s, he joined the Communist Youth League and headed a district department for agitation and propaganda for the league in Krasnoyarsk.

Joining the party in 1931, he became secretary of a party cell among Red Army troops at a frontier border post.

The official Communist Party newspaper Pravda published a lengthy article lauding his bravery as a border guard, and a studio made a feature film about his outfit, entitled ``Outpost of Youth.'' It premiered in January 1985. Some Western analysts viewed these as an apologia for Chernenko's lack of combat duty.

After taking a two-year leadership training course at a party school in Moscow, Chernenko landed a party job in the Moldavian Republic, in the southwestern USSR, in 1950.

There he became a prot'eg'e of Leonid Brezhnev and followed closely in the wake of Mr. Brezhnev's rise through the party ranks. Chernenko became head of the republic's Agitation and Propaganda Department in 1948, and in 1955 he followed Brezhnev to party headquarters in Moscow.

Chernenko gained a reputation as a methodical, unquestioningly loyal functionary. When Brezhnev became head of the party in 1964, Chernenko became his chief of staff. He kept in the background, however, scheduling appointments, keeping track of paperwork, and acting as a traveling companion for Brezhnev. But he apparently played no significant role as a policymaker.

Still, with Brezhnev's support, he became a member of the party's Central Committee in 1971, and a candidate (nonvoting) member of the ruling Politburo in 1977.

In 1978, he was made a full member, and four years later, when Brezhnev died, he was rated -- along with Andropov -- as one of the top two contenders to head the party.

When Andropov got the post instead, many analysts assumed that Chernenko had been eclipsed in the party hierarchy.

That might have been the case had Andropov lived longer. But when he died on Feb. 9, 1984, Chernenko emerged as the new Soviet leader.

Many analysts saw the move for what it now seems certain to have been: a sort of ``last hurrah'' by the septuagenarian members of the Politburo, who were not yet ready to see the leadership pass to a younger generation.

Thus, many analysts assumed that the younger members of the Politburo used Chernenko's period in office to expand their own influence within the party before the next leadership change.

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