Kremlin's top-ranking woman: warm, confident

The Kremlin's highest-ranking woman in more than two decades has warmth, drive -- and a rock-solid faith in Soviet communism. This, at least, is how Alexandra Biryukova came across in a 1981 interview in which she talked about herself, her family, and her country.

The Monitor interview was one of nearly a hundred conducted with ranking Soviet officials in the early 1980s -- when Mrs. Biryukova was already a member of the Communist Party's 318-seat Central Committee, and a national leader in the official Soviet labor-union organization.

At this month's party congress in Moscow -- the first since Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power -- she was named to the party Secretariat, the second most powerful group in the land after the Politburo. This made her -- at age 56 -- the first woman to advance so high since Nikita Khrushchev's days.

``Welcome! Come in!'' she said, greeting this reporter with a wide smile back in 1981 -- though Poland was on the boil, and Soviet-American relations were on the downslide.

She conveyed a warmth, self-confidence, and willingness to talk exceeded by few other senior officials interviewed. Piles of official papers gave her desk a well-worked-on look.

She had fond memories of the United States -- recounting excitedly how she'd met Pearl Bailey, visited every museum she could, and taken the official tour of the White House during several d'etente-era visits.

In political substance, her remarks were more conventional.

Yet she started by talking about her past -- in a village well south of Moscow, where ``our family had lived for many generations, peasants of the lowest rank.''

Born in 1929, she was 12 when the Nazis attacked. She watched her father and two brothers go to war. One brother never came home. The other, and her father, returned wounded.

She said the war taught her two things: ``that peace has particular importance,'' and that the Soviet nation had a greatness ``Hitler could not crack.''

Yes, Moscow papers sometimes lament that kids aren't what they used to be; that some seem more interested in blue jeans or rock music than patriotism.

But Biryukova said these were a wayward few. ``My husband was 16 when the war began. Seventeen was the cut-off age for soldiers. But he ran away several times to try to join the troops.'' She added: ``We are bringing up our own children'' -- one son and one daughter -- ``in this spirit.''

Biryukova was one of five children, and dreamed of living in Moscow. After high school, she went there, to study at a textile-works institute. Then she started working as an engineer in a textile factory and rose to chief technical director.

But she drifted from engineering to politics -- becoming active in the party and the official trade unions. And at age 39 -- in 1968, during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev -- she was named to the national union leadership; then to the party Central Committee.

It was, she said, a success story -- ``and not so extraordinary'' in a nation which she said made such success stories possible.

``Life for me has always been a joy. . . . My sister,'' she added, smiling, ``is the opposite kind of person from me. She can't understand why I never stop going full speed.''

What, as a union head, did Biryukova feel about the trouble next-door in Poland? She replied that she'd been keeping tabs on the situation through Soviet newspapers, and in meetings with colleagues from the official Polish unions.

``It is clear there are counterrevolutionary elements'' in Poland, she said. ``Backing Solidarity [the now-banned Polish trade union] are counterrevolutionary elements who want to bury socialism and revive bourgeois Poland.''

Worse, was an ``irresponsible approach [of] people who only demand, and are indifferent to how such demands are to be met.''

But she felt Poland would survive: ``There are still enough healthy elements.''

Were there lessons in Poland for Moscow? Biryukova said the condition of Soviet workers must be improved. ``Certain'' plant managers were ``giving only one day off to workers, or stretching working hours. Or there may be a new business or factory with no schools'' for workers' children.

But the solution was not to strike -- even though, she said, the official Soviet unions had that right. Instead, both workers and managers must be held to their parts of the ``collective agreement'' in force at all Soviet factories.

``I see our task,'' she said, ``as studying and analyzing objectively. . . . We must be more familiar with the demands of the workers, the moods and opinions of the broad masses.'' That done, the union must separate reasonable from unreasonable demands -- and then press justified gripes as hard and far as they could.

At that time she said that a Soviet government minister had tried to ward off her bid to force out an individual factory manager who ``had not fulfilled the collective agreement'' but had ``increased burdens on the workers.''

``I clashed with the minister,'' she said proudly. ``The manager is now working as a construction engineer in the same plant.''

But could a Polish crisis happen in Russia?

No. ``We [Soviets] cannot only demand things. The working class is the ruling class here. Workers know the full picture.''

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