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Party lad makes good: Chernenko completes dogged rise to power

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 1984


He is a propagandist, and proud of it. Regal he is not. Judging by appearance alone, you might expect to find him wearing a white apron in some small grocery shop.

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Nor is he an orator. He reads the full text of his speeches in a flat, uninspired tone, occasionally slurring his words.

He's short and heavy-set and sometimes appears ill-at-ease in public.

Yet Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko is easy to underestimate. A lot of people apparently have done so over the years. And he has consistently surprised them.

Today, he occupies one of the most powerful posts in world politics - that of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and de facto leader of the Soviet Union).

He got there by currying favor with more powerful men along the way, by closely observing how they wielded their power, and then by adroitly emulating their moves. It is the Russian equivalent of a rags-to-riches story, a sort of ''party lad makes good.'' No one yet knows how it will end - and what it will mean for the rest of the world's nations.

Konstantin Chernenko was born in southeastern Siberia, in the Krasnoyarsk region, in 1911. His parents were peasants, and he dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work as a farmhand. He finished his higher education - at a teachers' college - at the age of 42.

Still, that dogged determination to reach his goal at an age when other men might have given up foreshadowed what he eventually did in the Communist Party.

He joined the party Youth League sometime during the 1920s, serving in the Krasnoyarsk territory as the head of a district department for agitation and propaganda in 1929. He joined the party itself in 1931, and his first official position was as secretary of a party cell among Red Army troops at a frontier border post.

After his Army stint, he took a two-year leadership training course at a party school in Moscow. In 1948, he was posted to the Moldavian Republic, in the southwestern USSR, as a party functionary.

It was there he met a bearlike man with bushy eyebrows who was to become his political mentor for the next three decades. The man was Leonid Brezhnev, who began a determined climb up the rungs of party power. Chernenko was rarely more than a few rungs below.

Chernenko spent eight years as head of the agitation and propaganda department in Moldavia. In 1956,he followed Brezhnev to party headquarters in Moscow and took up another propaganda post.

He continued to work behind the scenes as a close confidant of Brezhnev, and as Brezhnev took on greater responsibilities, so did he. When Brezhnev became Soviet president in 1960, Chernenko was made his chief of staff. Chernenko scheduled the appointments, kept track of the secret papers, drew the agenda for meetings - and stayed at Brezhnev's side during some foreign trips.

He was far from prominent. At first, the notion that he would one day take over the leadership was about as improbable as the Queen's valet taking over the Crown. His lack of a strong base in the party, or previous experience in industry or government, was seen as a hindrance.

Still, with help from Brezhnev and his own behind-the-scenes drive, Chernenko moved up through party ranks. By 1971 he was a member of the party's Central Committee. He was a nonvoting member of the ruling Politburo by 1977 and a full member a year later.

Along the way, he either edged out or outlasted various rivals. Toward the end of Brezhnev's tenure, Chernenko was reportedly chairing Politburo meetings in his absence. When Brezhnev died in 1982, Chernenko and Yuri Andropov were rated the two top contenders to be new general secretary.

In fact, Andropov had engineered his own ascension some months earlier, apparently with the support of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and Soviet military.

As Andropov took control of the party, Chernenko's star appeared to have waned. Many analysts wrote him off as a future leader, arguing that Andropov would work to nullify any threat to his own leadership by hacking away at Chernenko's support. Andropov did just that, giving the impression that some segments of the party had become corpulent and corrupt during the Brezhnev era - assertions that analysts say are undoubtedly true.