- Served as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee, and as President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, from 1982-84
- Died in February 1984
Yuri Andropov was born in Nagutskaya, Russia on June 15, 1914. An orphan by the time he was 13, Andropov as a teenager worked as a loader, a telegraph clerk, and a sailor for the Volga steamship line. By age 16, he was a member of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (YCL, commonly known as Komsomol). He eventually became full-time Secretary of the YCL organization of the Water Transport Technical School in Rybinsk, and was later promoted to the post of organizer of the YCL Central Committee at the Volodarsky Shipyards in that same town. In 1938 Andropov was elected First Secretary of the YCL’s Yaroslavl Regional Committee, and from 1940-44 he served as First Secretary of the Komsomol’s Central Committee in the Soviet Karelo-Finnish Republic.
Also during World War II, Andropov participated in guerrilla activities in Finland. In 1944 he left Komsomol in order to work directly for the Communist Party. In 1947 he was elected Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic. And in 1951 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) appointed Andropov as an inspector, and then as the head of a sub-department.
In 1954 Andropov was sent to Hungary as an ambassador, where he was given the particularly sensitive mission of overseeing political dynamics throughout 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution.
Presumably Andropov himself had suffered a shock following the disclosures in Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Report” at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in February 1956. On the other hand, ideologically speaking, his convictions were shatterproof and unflinching. He was not a man of doubts, and he lacked the courage to question the thorniest issues in the history of the party that he had long served with unwavering devotion. He was a fanatic communist, a true believer.
In the Soviet Embassy in Budapest, in 1956, one of Andropov’s subordinates was Vladimir Kryuchkov, a KGB officer under diplomatic cover, who later became head of the State Security Committee. Astutely friendly and seemingly benevolent, Andropov played the openness card and thus managed to put the suspicions of Imre Nagy and the other reformist group members to sleep. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out on October 23, 1956, Andropov simulated a conciliatory stance and accepted the claims issued by the new government. His calm and affable facade, however, was in fact hiding the huge anxiety of Moscow’s envoy.
In truth, Andropov strongly supported the idea of Soviet military intervention. He then gave the legal government members assurances that, if they were to come out of the Yugoslav embassy’s building where they had taken refuge after the second Soviet military intervention (on November 3, 1956), they would be granted freedom and would be able to go home with their families. Right after Imre Nagy (Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the People’s Republic of Hungary) and his friends left the embassy premises, giving credence to Andropov’s promises, they were captured, thrown into Soviet trucks, and shipped to Romania. The official story was that they had requested political asylum. In reality, the whole thing was a gangster-like operation, namely the kidnapping of still-legitimate officials of a state which had dared to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Andropov was also the one who convinced János Kádár to break with Nagy and form the so-called “Workers’-Peasants’” Quisling government.
As a reward for his contribution to destroying what the communist propaganda called “the Hungarian counter-revolution,” Andropov was put in charge of the CPSU’s international relations department, a position from which he struggled to maintain Soviet hegemony within the world communist movement. As secretary of the Central Committee, he collaborated with the Soviet statesman Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov for the consolidation of a hardline ideology. He was one of the most active critics of the Chinese Communist Party, accused of political adventurism as well as Yugoslav “revisionism.” He loathed any deviation from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.
The 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia gave Andropov nightmares, and he fervently supported military intervention. Now the Kremlin’s most sophisticated expert in world communist affairs, he tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a world communist conference to excommunicate Mao’s party.
Precisely because Andropov was a most reliable, disciplined, and faithful apparatchik, Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin—the tandem who ended up at the pinnacle of the Soviet dictatorship after Khrushchev’s departure (in October 1964)—appointed Andropov to succeed Vladimir Semichastny as chairman of the KGB in 1967. Maximum efficiency was needed, and Andropov had proven that he was a highly effective defender of the nomenclature.
The one who suggested his appointment as chief-policeman of the USSR was Mikhail Suslov, the ideological pontiff who had sensed the risk of the official monolithic doctrine’s disintegration. Andropov’s main mission was to suppress the human rights movement, to nip in the bud any dissident initiative. Toward that end, he became a champion of the most abject misinformation and recklessly cultivated criminal “special methods.”
As shown by the writings of the dissident intellectual Yuri Glazov, Andropov was a paradigmatic Homo Sovieticus. His main opponents were the great dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, whom he accused of conducting “ideological sabotage.” Andropov personally conducted disinformation campaigns against both of those men. In The Mitrokhin Archive, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin write that Andropov aimed to achieve “the destruction of dissent in all its forms” and always insisted that “the struggle for human rights was a part of a wide-ranging imperialist plot to undermine the foundation of the Soviet state.” On April 29, 1969, Andropov submitted to the CPSU’s Central Committee an elaborate plan for creating a network of psychiatric hospitals to defend the “Soviet Government and socialist order” from dissidents. The proposal was subsequently put into action.
Andropov also sought to suppress the influence of Pope John Paul II, who ascended to the papacy of the Catholic Church in October 1978. Andropov believed that John Paul II’s election to the Vatican was the product of an Anglo-German conspiracy that Zbigniew Brzezinski had orchestrated to undermine Soviet hegemony in Poland (a mostly Catholic country) and ultimately to precipitate the downfall of the entire Soviet empire.
In a secret letter to the Polish military officer and Communist politician Wojciech Jaruzelski, Andropov wrote:
“Today, the Church is a powerful opposition force against socialism, appearing in the role of patron and defender of the underground and defender of the idea of Solidarity. The Church is reanimating the cult of [human rights activist Lech] Walesa, and encourages him in his actions. This means that the Church is creating a new type of confrontation with the [Communist] Party. In this situation, the most important thing is not to make concessions, but to establish firmly a line of restricting the activity of the Church to the [Polish] constitutional framework, and narrow the sphere of its influences on the social life.”
In a similar spirit, Andropov’s Communist Party also issued a secret memorandum to Soviet schoolteachers, stating:
“The Pope is our enemy…. Due to his uncommon skills and great sense of humor he is dangerous, because he charms everyone, especially journalists. Besides, he goes for cheap gestures in his relations with the crowd, for instance, [he] puts on a highlander’s hat, shakes all hands, kisses children, etc…. It is modeled on American presidential campaigns…. Because of the activities of the Church in Poland our activities designed to atheize the youth not only cannot diminish but must intensely develop…. In this respect all means are allowed and we cannot afford sentiments.”
Andropov himself was involved in the terrorist actions against the Pope. The first attempted assassination of John Paul II took place on May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square, when he was shot and seriously wounded by a Turkish nationalist named Mehmet Ali Aðca. The second attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II occurred during the pontiff’s visit to Fatima in 1982, when he was wounded by a fanatical, bayonet-wielding Spanish priest.
When Andropov became secretary general of the CPSU’s Central Committee and president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in November 1982, it marked the first time that a former chief of the secret police had made it to the helm of the USSR’s totalitarian regime. Immediately after Andropov’s ascension to this highest level, the KGB started a disinformation campaign in the Western media which sought to advertise him as a secret reformist, “a closet liberal,” a man who, in his heart of hearts, admired Western cultural values, loved jazz, and was by no means the tenacious, obtuse, and dogmatic monster described in previous accounts.
But in fact, the inflexible Andropov came to power an exhausted and seriously ill individual. His reforms were modest, half-hearted, lacking vigor and vision, and mainly targeted at strengthening discipline in factories. They did not transcend some trivial doctrinal touch-ups. His formula was “acceleration” (uskorenie).
Andropov was most definitely not tempted to encourage the transparency which, under Gorbachev, would become known as glasnost. As secretary general—we learn from Kryuchkov’s memoirs—he opposed the return of the anti-Stalinist party intellectual Aleksandr Yakovlev from the Canadian diplomatic exile. As far as party intellectuals go, Andropov was close to Yevgeny Primakov and Georgy Arbatov, whom he deemed trustworthy not only for party leadership, but also for the KGB. Primakov, the future prime minister of Russia between 1998 and 1999, was probably even an undercover KGB officer.
In February 1983 Andropov suffered total renal failure, and his health declined precipitously thereafter. In August of that year, he entered the Central Clinical Hospital in western Moscow, where he would spend the remainder of his life. Though he was physically almost finished, his mind remained clear and he continued to work, even if it meant little more than signing papers or giving his assent to proposals made by his aides. Notably, Andropov personally conducted the frenzied reactions of the official propaganda after the USSR’s downing of the South Korean airliner on September 1, 1983.
Andropov died in his hospital room on February 9, 1984.
Most of this profile is adapted from an essay titled “Who Was Yuri Andropov? Ideologue, Policeman, Apparatchik,” which was written by Vladimir Tismaneanu and broadcast by the Moldovan service of Radio Free Europe. The essay was translated from Romanian into English by Monica Got.
- Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (Gardners Books, 2000).
- Albats, Yevgenia, KGB: State Within a State (I.B.Tauris, 1995, p. 177).
- “Soviet Defector Says KGB [and Andropov] Plotted to Kill the Pope” (Los Angeles Times, 3-4-1990).