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Who pulls the levers of power in the Soviet machine

By Ned TemkoStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 1982


Mikhail Fedorovich Nenashev is something of a Soviet socialist Clark Kent/Superman.

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He is a softspoken newspaper editor few Russians, and fewer Westerners, have heard of. Yet for about 90 minutes each week he lays aside his red pencil -- and helps run the Soviet Union.

His name is not on any official leadership list. Still, the slight, bespectacled Mr. Nenashev takes part in the meetings of a group second in policymaking power only to the Soviet Politburo: the Secretariat of the Communist Party's Central Committee.

There is another strange thing about Mr. Nenashev (who edits Sovietskaya Rossiya, the official organ of the Russian Republic). Within the full, 468 -member Central Committee, he is only a ''candidate,'' or nonvoting, member. That means, officials suggest, a little less prestige but not necessarily any less influence.

Mr. Nenashev, at 55, is young by Soviet political standards. He hasn't been editor of Sovietskaya Rossiya and an ''unlisted'' participant in Secretariat meetings for all that long.

Meanwhile, behind the traditionally closed doors of the committee's twice-yearly sessions, it may not matter much, in practical terms, whether you have a vote or not. . . .

There was, for instance, the ''Nixon question.'' The time was 1972, back when US officials spoke of detente in the present tense. Richard Nixon had joltingly broken stride in his run-up to a Moscow summit: to announce the mining of North Vietnamese ports. The Soviets, it was thought, might cancel the summit. Just three days before Mr. Nixon was due here, the full Central Committee met in special session:

''The decision to receive Nixon had already been taken,'' relates one senior official. ''The Politburo called the meeting, for another reason: to explain why the decision had been made. Comrade Brezhnev did this. Then he announced he would protest the American action, in the committee's name, to Nixon. . . . No one spoke against the decision.''

What follows is an attempt to assemble an insiders' guide to the policymaking machine Leonid Brezhnev, now in his mid 70s, will hand over to whoever comes after. It is an effort to unravel the present, not predict the future.

It is largely the story of three senior Communist Party bodies that work, for all practical purposes, in secret: the Politburo, the Secretariat, and the full Central Committee. Other individuals, other institutions, influence decisions - a subject for the next article in this series.

Yet by Soviet law and party rules, these three groups direct the nation's policy. And they do, senior officials say . . . only not quite as advertised.

On paper, it should all be quite simple. The party Central Committee (318 full members and 150 ''candidates'') determines basic policy lines, between infrequently held national congresses. It then ''elects'' two other bodies to do the day-to-day work. The Politburo (13 full members and eight candidates) is top dog. The committee Secretariat (nine members) ensures that what the Politburo decides gets done.

Yet then come the disconcerting puzzle pieces offered, sometimes almost offhandedly, by officials who have participated in the work of the three party bodies:

* The Politburo, though genuinely the top power, is not always the most important actor in policy decisions.

* The Secretariat does much more than dispose what the Politburo proposes. It is a more powerful policy body than its official brief suggests. On occasion, the two top groups meet as one. (The party rules do suggest substantial autonomy for the Secretariat in one very important area: appointment of ''cadres.'' Officials confirm this role and note it applies to positions both inside and beyond party organizations.)

* The official membership lists of both groups can be a chancy guide to who actually attends their regular, generally weekly, sessions. (This applies not only to men like Mikhail Nenashev, but also to men like Leonid Brezhnev.)

* The Brezhnev Central Committee can sometimes influence, as opposed to make, policy, but not all policy, equally. The full committee does not, as a rule, meddle in questions of foreign relations.

''The day-to-day (power) relationships,'' began one Central Committee member who has attended Politburo and Secretariat meetings, ''are not perfectly predictable . . . even though some of us like to explain how it is all wonderfully logical.''