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Sovieticus.

A fundamental question about the nature of the Soviet political system has been overlooked in media speculation about possible successors to Konstantin Chernenko, whose health is failing one year after he became General Secretary. Does it matter so much who will be the next Soviet leader?

Eventually, it may matter, but that is far from certain. As in other political systems, the personality and individual views of a Soviet leader have sometimes profoundly affected the use of power. Stalin's psychological needs, as his biographer Robert C. Tucker has shown, were a driving force behind the extraordinary policies of the Soviet 1930s, from collectivization of the peasantry to the great terror of 1936-39. And Nikita Khrushchev's self-image as a benevolent reformer played an essential role in his unexpected de-Stalinization policies from 1956 to 1964. Therefore, it is historically incorrect to say, as some Western commentators do, that "all Soviet leaders are alike."

But the Soviet Union is no longer the leader-dominated political system that many observers imagine it to be. Indeed, the steady erosion of its top executive office, General Secretary of the Communist Party, may be unique among large nations. Since Stalin's death, in 1953, each Soviet leader has had less personal power to make domestic and foreign policy than did his predecessor. The question is whether this remarkable trend reflects a kind of law of diminishing General Secretaries produced by structural changes in the Soviet system, or whether it is merely the result of a coincidental succession of aged and ailing leaders, and thus likely to be reversed by a younger, more vigorous successor.

In fact, there is no single or fixed pattern of rulership in the Soviet Union, which has had only six leaders since 1917--three of them since 1982. Each led the country in a different manner. As the founding father, Lenin's personal authority was unrivaled among his illustrious colleagues, even though he held no special post int he party and decisions were made collectively in leadership councils, where raucous disagreements over policy were often the norm.

Stalin's long rule transformed the nature of Soviet leadership in two important ways. In the 1920s, he emerged as Lenin's successor largely by using the bureaucratic powers of appointment inherent in his position as General Secretary, thereby making it the top post for future successions as well. But in the 1930s, on the basis of police terror, he became a capricious and unchallengeable tyrant over the party and the country. The other high-level officials who sat with Stalin on the Politburo and the Central Committee did so at his pleasure and often perished at his whim. They were, as Khrushchev later remarked, "temporary people."

More than any other factor, that traumatic experience shaped the nature of post-Stalin leadership. Fearing the advent of another despot, Soviet elites have imposed constraints on every subsequent leader. Despite his activist role, Khrushchev could always be challenged on matters of power and policy, as dramatized by his abrupt ovethrow by the Central Committee in 1964. Alarmed by his increasingly arbitrary behavior, that assembly of elites resolved that no future General Secretary should also be head of the government bureaucracy, or Premier, as Khrushchev had been. As a result, Leonid Brezhnev was without a formal state title until he finally acquired the honorific Presidency in 1977.

Constraints on the General Secretary, even in the area of appointments, grew into a tacit system of checks and balances during Brezhnev's eighteen-year reign. A de facto sharing of power evolved among high-level party and state officials, only a few of whom actually sat on the Politburo. Brezhnev's conservative policies both reflected and nurtured the new leadership system by virtually guaranteeing lifetime tenure to such officials, by respectng the prerogatives of their fiefdoms and by not imposing significant policy changes on them.

Once power has been so diffused in a political system, it is hard to retrieve. It may be especially difficult in the Soviet system, where elites have learned to thwart reforms decreed from above and where a new General Secretary has always needed at least five years, more than an American Presidential term, just to consolidate his authority as leader. Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev in 1982, was too old and ill to accomplish that feat, and the same is true of Chernenko.

Not is there clear evidence that Soviet elites yearn for a strong leader, as the Western press has occasionally asserted. Such reports mistake grass-roots nostalgia for Stalin, the "strong boss," for elite opinion. They also assume that Andropov, a former K.G.B. chief, was chosen to be a "strongman." But it may well be that the Central Committee, which selects the General Secretary, knew about Andropov's kidney disease and thus had no illusions about his prospects. Above all, there is the telling fact that the Soviet elite has tolerated and chosen aged, enfeebled leaders ever since Brezhnev became seriously infirm in the 1970s.

A revitalization of the top leadership position is still possible in the Soviet Union, particularly if it is linked to growing sentiments favoring economic reform. The decision-making process remains highly centralized and the power of the party Secretariat, however diminished, still exceeds that of any other institution. And as Andropov's so-called anticorruption campaign showed, a General Secretary can devise ways to extend his authority to the bureaucratic territory of recalcitrant officials. Morevoer, the two logical candidates to succeed Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev and candidates to succeed Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev and Grigory Romanov, are relatively young and, it seems, healthy men. With luck, either would have time to try.

But unless a strong elite sentiment and policial coalition for reform stands behind the next General Secretary, he will end up, as did his recent predecessors, being a mediator of conflicting interests rather than a maker of policy. He will reign rather than rule. In that fundamental respect, who will occupy the office of General Secretary is now less important than what puts him there.
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Title Annotation:how important will the Soviet's next leader be?
Author:Cohen, Stephen F.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Feb 23, 1985
Words:991
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