Kremlin leaders near end of one Soviet era

The somber funeral of Alexei Kosygin on Red Square Dec. 23 was dramatic evidence that the men who run the Kremlin stand close to the end of an era -- with incalculable implications for the rest of the world.

Western onlookers were struck anew by the way the top decisionmakers of the Kremlin, most in their 70s, have been together for four decades now. And still there is no clear successor to Leonid Brezhnev in sight.

Most experts assume that if Mr. Brezhnev departs the scene soon, Andrei Kirilenko, the man who runs the Communist Party day to day, would take over.

Few immediate changes would be expected. Mr. Kirilenko, like half the Politburo's 14 men and many other key officials around Moscow, is part of the Brezhnev team that has risen with him since the late 1930s.

It is a leadership shaped by the tragedy of World War II; proud, isolated, suspicious of the West, and fiercely patriotic. It acts to preserve its national interests (in Afghanistan, for instance) with the new knowledge that its armed forces are now second to none, not even to the United States.

But how long will it be before the next generation, the men in their 60s, take over the real decisionmaking? And will that generation be more or less fearful of the West? More or less rigid at home?

Mr. Kosygin received full honors. But the economy over which he presided for so long remains deep in trouble. He himself tried to decentralize and innovate several times, but the party's fear of losing central control defeated him.

One has the sense here of a top inner leadership marking time at home, while remaining flexible enough abroad to defend its interests and take advantage of any weaknesses the West might display.

Change comes slowly in Soviet Russia. There have been only four party leaders since 1917, compared with 12 presidents of the United States. No clear method of succession appears to have been worked out. The Kosygin funeral was a reminder to the Kremlin that hard decisions cannot be avoided for long.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kosygin is remembered here for his Leningrad origins, for his rapid promotion at the end of the 1930s as Stalin purged those above him, for his long efforts to improve the economy.

Mr. Kosygin became minister of light industry at the age of 35: something that just could not happen these days. He first joined the Politburo after World War II and had been at or near the top since then.

He was renowned for his detailed knowledge of economic affairs, for his ability to estimate the price of Western machinery down to the last dollar, for his low-key personal style. After Nikita Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, Mr. Kosygin traveled the world and was far better known abroad than Mr. Brezhnev. But Mr. Brezhnev had the real power at home. If Mr. Kosygin had ever been a real political threat, he ceased to be one in the late 1960s.

His economic expertise will be missed in a country whose growth rates and targets are now the lowest since World War II.

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