Who pulls the levers of power in the Soviet machine

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

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.''

But the model this and other officials tended to settle on involved an ''interlocking'' policy directorate of sorts. The Politburo and Secretariat do the interlocking. ''Don't forget,'' said one official, ''five men are members of both.'' (They include Mr. Brezhnev, the two men most often tipped by diplomats as likely successors, and the youngest man on either body, agricultural specialist Mikhail Gorbachev.)

The easiest place to start a search for how the Soviet policy machine works is, officials suggested, in the Secretariat.

It generally meets once a week, officials said. (They said the same went, as a rule, for the Politburo, but it occasionally meets less frequently.) Sometimes the session is at Central Committee headquarters, other times it is in the Kremlin. Wallet photographs of the group's nine official members aren't likely to help the uninvited interloper identify the players.

Leonid Brezhnev, party general secretary, is the official chairman. But he is ''not necessarily'' there. Several officials suggested he was often absent and said Politburo ideological authority Mikhail Suslov then ran the show before he passed on in January.

When neither he nor Mr. Brezhnev attended, officials said, the chair went to Andrei Kirilenko or Konstantin Chernenko, the two men Western analysts consider front-runners to succeed Brezhnev as party chief. Sovietskaya Rossiya editor Nenashev, Pravda chief Victor Afanasyev, and Izvestia editor Pyotr Alexeyev are invited to the weekly sessions. Mr. Afanasyev says Sergei Lapin, head of the state broadcasting authority, also attends.

''They do not only attend, but participate in the discussions,'' a colleague said. (Since discussion takes up much of the Secretariat's work, men like Afanasyev and Nenashev amount to something very close to full members -- but not quite, as the next article in this series suggests.)

Directors of various of the Central Committee's roughly 20 specialized policy ''departments'' -- really Secretariat departments -- also attend regularly. ''And other people, from outside, are called in according to the particular issue or issues being discussed. . . .''

Some end up at Secretariat sessions almost as frequently as Afanasyev and Nenashev. Two, in particular, were mentioned: party youth leader Boris Pastukhov , and the head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Anatoli Alexandrov.

Six other officials, among those interviewed, said they had taken part in Secretariat meetings: US affairs expert Georgi Arbatov, Izvestia commentator Alexander Bovin, Socialist Industry editor Vasily Golubev, Kommunist editor Richard Kosolapov, consumer cooperative director Alexei Smirnov, and publishing committee chief Boris Stukalin.

Protocol, in the Soviet system, is inversely proportional to power. And protocol, in Secretariat sessions, is at a minimum. (Politburo meetings tend to be smaller, and even less formal.) ''No one (at the Secretariat) really asks for the floor, in any formal manner,'' said one official. ''Suslov or Brezhnev, or whoever, just looks around. You raise your hand and you can speak.'' The pace is brisk.

The agenda is crowded, often with matters of everyday policy direction that would seem, to the outsider, less than momentous. ''Some decisions can be made at lower levels,'' one official complains. ''But there is a reluctance to take responsibility. . . .'' Still, the meetings generally last only about 90 minutes , according to Mr. Nenashev. ''Most of the work is done outside these meetings, within the (specialized departments and) apparatus.''

And ''most of the work'' for the Politburo can, in many cases, be done in the Secretariat. It is here that the business of ''interlocking'' gets more complex, and the role of individual actors and groups more unpredictable.

In the end, the Politburo takes precedence. This is particularly true, officials said, in two areas: foreign policy and ''major departures, or new policies,'' on the home front. As it happens, there have been precious few issues of the second variety in the more recent years of the Brezhnev era. Soviet officials did not say this. But the phenomenon may help explain something they did say: In practice, the dividing line between the provinces of Politburo and Secretariat can often be blurry.

''The Secretariat frames policy decisions,'' is how one senior official put it. ''By the time an issue reaches the Politburo, the framework for the decision is usually already there.''

This can apply even to foreign policy issues -- where the Secretariat is said to ''coordinate'' and ''organize'' information and analysis from various sources. Yet it is particularly true for domestic questions. On a good number of such questions, especially those involving nuts-and-bolts direction for running the country, the Secretariat was said to make the decisions itself.

One official who has attended Secretariat and Politburo sessions pointed out that, theoretically, ''The Secretariat does not have competence in areas of state, as opposed to party, fundings and expenditure. Moreover, in the party hierarchy, the Secretariat cannot give directives to the government, while the Politburo can. . . .''

''Thus, a number of economic questions must technically be decided by the Politburo,'' he said. But he added: ''Even on some decisions that fall in this category, the Secretariat will, in effect, work everything out and pass it up to the Politburo just to be looked at.''

This the Politburo does -- at a large table in a room next to Mr. Brezhnev's Kremlin office. Here, the ultimate decisionmaking prerogative rests. And here, again, an official score card won't necessarily do the interloper much good.

Mr. Brezhnev, officials say, is ''generally'' at Politburo sessions when in Moscow. So are others in the group who are based in the capital. But seven members are prominent party men from outside. They do not necessarily attend unless an issue relating to their areas is being discussed.

This, said one senior official, even applied to the Leningrad party leader, Grigori Romanov, whom diplomats sometimes mention as a dark-horse contender to succeed Mr. Brezhnev.

''The opinions of those who do not attend are often sought by phone,'' said another official.

Like the Secretariat, the Politburo sometimes invites outsiders to its meetings. (Again, Pastukhov and Alexandrov are frequent visitors. And again, various other officials among those interviewed had attended Politburo sessions.) But more often than the Secretariat, the senior body will get its outside input in written form.

''Candidate'' members talk but can't vote. As it happens, there often isn't a formal vote anyway. ''Usually when I've been there,'' remarked one official, ''the chairman will say, 'OK, my understanding is that the proposal is to do such-and-such. Any objections?' And that's that.'' (Officials suggested the full members do, as a rule, carry more weight than the candidates, but the equation is imperfect. They indicated that a man like Boris Ponomaryov -- a candidate member of the Politburo but also part of the Secretariat - wielded greater practical policy influence than some full Politburo members from outside Moscow.)

More often in the Politburo than at Secretariat meetings, the focus is on foreign policy issues. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, a member of the Politburo but not of the Secretariat, ''reports periodically,'' said one Soviet foreign policy analyst. ''Naturally, the Politburo thoroughly considers his assessment of all initiatives.''

And ''sometimes,'' another official adds, ''the Politburo may decide to raise an issue before the full Central Committee.'' This third component in the policy machine has, in theory, considerable power - if only because it ''elects'' the Politburo and Secretariat. (In the late 1950s Nikita Khrushchev once marshalled support on the committee to foil a bid by Politburo colleagues to oust him.) Yet in specific policy decisions, the Central Committee has clearly come to play a junior role.

The Central Committee membership list reads like a Who's Who of prominent communists, yet it generally meets only twice a year. In addition to the topmost political and military figures, it includes people like filmmaker Lev Kulidzhanov and former cosmonaut Valentina Nikolayeva-Tereshkova. Unsurprisingly , interviews with 15 committee members made clear, the group debates more than decides policy issues.

There is protocol. At the end of discussion, an issue is either deferred for further study or put to a vote. In recent years, members say, all votes have been unanimous.

''I don't see a lot of difference between my position as a candidate member and a full member,'' remarked an official who has been both, ''except for prestige.''

Yet the debate can sometimes be sharp. And members say the committee does exert a measure of influence in at least one policy area: economic planning. The committee includes, after all, effective representatives of various regions, interest groups, sectors of the economy, professions.

''There is some hot discussion,'' a committee member said. ''For instance, if you try to get a certain republic, or ministry, or plant, to increase or change its contribution, . . . it is a bargaining process from beginning to end.''

Beyond this, the group can play another policy, as opposed to ''policymaking, '' role: a kind of sounding board for various decisions. This, members suggested , explains the 1972 session on the ''Nixon question.''

Similarly, Mr. Brezhnev said recently that the committee would devote a coming session to a ''food program'' that has been laboriously, and still incompletely, pieced together over the past 15 months. As on the state's yearly economic plan, members suggest, some hot ''bargaining'' is conceivable. On foreign policy issues -- whether Richard Nixon or Poland or Afghanistan -- the committee is much less apt to bargain. One reason is straightforward: ''Many of the people,'' one member said, ''are not from the foreign policy side, so they can't speak with great authority.'' Individual committee members can and do influence foreign policy moves, but generally by virtue of their roles outside committee sessions.

No full committee meeting was called, members said, before Soviet troops intervened in Afghanistan at the end of 1979. Nor, they said, was the committee convened for dispatch of an angry letter last June (in the committee's name) to Poland's beleaguered communist leadership.

The initiative came from the top. (One senior official said flatly it originated in the Secretariat; another said it should be ''assumed'' it came from the Politburo.) The Secretariat, various officials agreed, handled the task of drafting the note. It was, the officials said, ''shown'' to all committee members. Soviet officials interviewed for this series CENTRAL COMMITTEE MEMBERS

Afanasyev, Viktor Grigorevich: Editor in chief, Pravda. Board chairman of USSR Union of Journalists.

Arbatov, Georgi Arkadyevich: Director, Institute of the US and Canada. Member USSR Academy of Sciences.

Biryukova, Mrs. Alexandra Pavlovna: Secretary, All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions.

Chakovsky, Alexander Borisovich: Novelist. Editor in chief of newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta. Board secretary, USSR Union of Writers.

Gonchar, Alexander Zerentevich: Novelist. Board secretary of USSR Union of Writers. Chairman, Ukrainian Republic Committee for Defense of Peace.

Kosolapov, Richard Ivanovich: Editor in chief of Kommunist.

Kruglova, Mrs. Zinaida Mikhailovna: Chairman of Presidium of Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.

Kulidzhanov, Lev Alexandrovich: First secretary, USSR Union of Cinematographers. Producer at the M. Gorky Central Cinema Studio for Children's Films.

Nenashev, Mikhail Fedorovich: Editor in chief of Sovietskaya Rossiya (party Central Committee newspaper and official organ of Russian Republic).

Nikolayeva-Tereshkova, Mrs. Valentina Vladimirovna: Former cosmonaut. Chairman, Soviet Women's Committee. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet.

Pastukhov, Boris Nikolayevich: First secretary, Central Committee of Komsomol. Member of Presidium of USSR Supreme Soviet.

Romanov, Alexei Vladimirovich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura.

Smirnov, Alexei Alexeyevich: Board chairman, USSR Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives.

Stukalin, Boris Ivanovich: Chairman, USSR State Committee for Publishing Houses, Printing Plants, and the Book Trade. Member USSR Council of Ministers.

Zhukov, Georgi Alexandrovich: Political commentator, Pravda. CENTRAL AUDITING COMMISSION

Bovin, Alexander Yevgenevich: Political commentator, Izvestia (the newspaper of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet).

Fedulova, Mrs. Alevtina Vasilevna: Secretary, Central Committee Komsomol. Chairman, Central Council of Pioneer Organization.

Golubev, Vasily Nikolayevich: Editor in chief of party Central Committee newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industria.

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