THE DEATH of Leonid I. Brezhnev, 75, had been long expected. He had suffered from a variety of illnesses for a long time. Nevertheless it still came as somewhat of a surprise. Only three days earlier on Sunday, November 14, Mr. Brezhnev had delivered a tough speech from the Kremlin denouncing Western, especially American, military policies, promising to "crush" any attacks from the so-called imperialists.
Far more surprising than Mr. Brezhnev's demise was the swift accession to power, before the week was out, of his successor. The party's new General Secretary- the top political office in the U.S.S.R.-is Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov, age 68, one of the two candidates (the other being Konstantin Chernenko) long-rumored for the leading role.
It is significant that the honor of announcing the new leader went to Mr. Chernenko, thus indicating an attempt on the part of the hierarchy of Soviet power to close ranks around the new leader in a public display of unity. Also significant is the fact that in his speech, Mr. Chernenko stressed that it was now "twice, three times more important to conduct party affairs collectively" This was seen as a clear reminder to Mr. Andropov of the principle of collective leadership, a policy refined during Mr. Brezhnev's 18 years of rule.
In his acceptance speech Mr. Andropov took a tough line. He backed up a call for hard work at home, in order to spur the stagnant Soviet economy, with an uncompromising message for the West similar to his predecessor's message a few days previously. "We know full well," he said, "the imperialists will never meet one's pleas for peace. It can be upheld only by resting on the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces."
Mr. Andropov's Background There is much more than mere toughness to Mr. Andropov's character (and even then his toughness is without the rough uncultured tone of some of his predecessors). Yuri Andropov has worked with intense dedication for his country's interests through his years of service, beginning in 1936. Few top Soviet leaders have the multifaceted experience he possesses in the fields of both domestic and foreign policy.
Mr. Andropov was born June 15, 1914, in a little Cossack town in the north Caucasus. It is almost certain that one of his maternal grandparents was Jewish. Stories also abound that he has considerable Armenian blood. Researchers for the American CIA suspect that the family name was quietly changed along the way from Andropian. Pictures of the new leader certainly betray non-Slavic features.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Andropov is urbane and coolly intellectual, with a taste for music and fine art and a penchant for foreign languages. He can speak and read English, having been tutored by one of the best teachers of Moscow University. He also has a good working knowledge of both German and Hungarian.
The new party chief has had a great deal of experience in Eastern European affairs. He was attached to the Soviet Embassy in Budapest, Hungary, from 1954 through 1956 (becoming ambassador in the latter year). After the Hungarian revolt in 1956 was crushed, Mr. Andropov returned to Moscow as Control Committee Secretary in charge of Eastern Europe until 1967. An account in London's Sunday Times of November 14 of last year gives an insight into the Andropov character:
"It was there in Budapest that the first indications came of his complexity, his ability to dissimulate, and his cool, harsh effectiveness in face of crisis. As resistance to Soviet domination gradually developed during 1954 and 1955, the Ambassador was everywhere, giving little jazz parties, entertaining groups of Hungarian intellectuals, expressing quite a lot of sympathy with their discontents... and giving the impression of liberal flexibility which Hungarians now in exile... still remember.... When the crunch came, however, he acted without hesitation. He blandly reassured the Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, that there would be no possible invasion, and by the time the government woke up; the Soviet tanks were already in the city."
In 1967, Mr. Brezhnev asked Mr. Andropov to take charge of the KGB-the Soviet security police. At the time of his takeover, the KGB was in the midst of a morale problem. His performance in putting the KGB back into shape, according to the Times, "has been an almost miraculous balancing act. He has polished up the KGB's gulag dominated image both inside and outside the Soviet Union. He has powerfully advanced the KGB's reputation and status within the Kremlin hierarchy."
Filling Brezhnev's Shoes Despite his talents and proven characteristics of tough, but shrewd leadership, Mr. Andropov has pretty large shoes to fill. Leonid Brezhnev, while failing to cure the U.S.S.R.'s endemic economic problems, nevertheless presided over the emergence of the Soviet state as a genuine superpower, rivaling the United States.
During the Brezhnev era Soviet nuclear land forces grew many times over in power and sophistication. The Soviet navy "learned to swim," becoming an oceangoing fleet, not just a coastal defense force. Everywhere around the world, Soviet power, backing so called liberation forces, expanded at the expense of declining Western interests.
Former U.S. President Richard Nixon had this to say concerning the late Soviet leader. He was, said Mr. Nixon, "not a madman. He was a realist. If an opponent showed weakness, Brezhnev would take every possible advantage, without scruple. But, when met with firmness, he would compromise. He wanted the world, but he did not want war. If his successor is convinced that we have the strength and the will to resist Soviet aggression, we can avoid both war and defeat without war."
Impact Upon Europe and America What will Mr. Brezhnev's successor do with the greatly enhanced national power at his disposal? How will he deal with his nation's weaknesses at home and abroad?
The pressure of the coming months will not rest easily upon the head of the new Soviet leader. The simmering crisis in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, will not go away. Mr. Andropov will have to call upon all of his knowledge and experience concerning that part of the Soviet empire in order to deal with the challenges to come.
Polish authorities have felt that the situation in their country is calm enough so that they could release Lech Walesa, the former head of the banned Solidarity labor union, from custody. But looming uneasily over the horizon is the return visit, later this year, of Pope John Paul II to Poland. What will happen in the wake of this event?
The biggest impact of the change of power could be upon events in Western Europe. A tough, unresilient boss in the Kremlin could spur attempts on the part of the nations of Western Europe to unite.
Leaders in Western Europe are beginning to get that hemmed-in feeling. On the one side is the Soviet Union determined to press ahead with its military dominance and political leverage. On the other side, the Continental Europeans see the United States and Britain beginning to falter in their commitments to the nuclear deterrence of the West.
In the U.S. off-year election last November 2, so-called nuclear freeze propositions won in eight of the nine states where they were on the ballot. Thus increased pressure is on President Reagan to slow down the improvement of America's nuclear arsenal (upon which the defense of Western Europe depends) and to engage in hasty arms negotiations with the Soviets. In Britain the calls for nuclear disarmament within the ranks of the Labour Party and the Church of England are growing by the week. On November 30, 1982 the French Defense Minister openly questioned, in a meeting of the Western European Union, whether the U.S. could be counted on to defend Europe. He urged Western Europe to strengthen its defenses independently of Washington.
Thus, the switch in the political power at the top in the Soviet Union is contributing to the eventual imperativeness of Western Europe to unite as a separate biblically prophesied political, religious and military "third superpower" in this end-time age.