Brezhnev's mantle of awe: fraying at the edges?

The official mantle of awe around Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev is beginning to show signs of fraying at the edges.

Foreign analysts here point to a number of recent straws in the wind that suggest this. They add that, individually, each indicator would appear of less than enormous significance. None, at this point, is seen as representing a challenge to Mr. Brezhnev's position as head of state and party.

But taken together, they amount to a striking departure from the generally staid script of Soviet political life. And helping the process along, some Kremlinologists assume, is the absence of Mikhail Suslov, the veteran Politburo ideological authority who passed on in January.

These conclusions, like all Kremlinological ventures, are open to dispute. But in a political system that runs on power and the carefully managed image of power, even some Soviet officials have indicated surprise at recent anomalies.

The first came in the December 1981 issue of a Leningrad literary magazine called Avrora. It was dedicated, quite correctly, to President Brezhnev on his 75th birthday, which fell on Dec. 19. Yet included (on Page 75) was a brief satirical piece. Entitled ''Jubilee Speech,'' it described an aging, celebrated (and unidentified) writer who, ''to everyone's surprise,'' does ''not plan to die.''

At the end of the tale, the narrator is told, incorrectly, that the man is dead. ''The joy was premature,'' the piece concludes, ''but I think we shall not have long to wait. He will not disappoint us.''

Was the aging ''writer'' who was lampooned Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (officially lauded as a major writer for his several volumes of memoirs)?

No, said the wife of the satirist in a telephone interview. Yet both she and the magazine's editor made it clear foreign diplomats were not the only ones asking the question. There had been ample other queries.

''My husband wrote the piece long ago, and just happened to submit it last spring,'' said the writer's wife, adding: ''It is not a writer's fault if his story appears in a particular issue.''

The Avrora editor, meanwhile, said ''all this fuss'' over the satire was incomprehensible. His explanation: ''It was very difficult to envisage'' which of his magazine's monthly issues would be devoted to Mr. Brezhnev's December birthday.

A second departure from traditional treatment of President Brezhnev -- ''not normal,'' one senior official termed it privately -- was less amorphous. It came in mid-February, on the passing of Col.- Gen. Konstantin Grushevoi, a longtime Brezhnev associate who headed the ''political directorate'' of the Moscow military district.

In an incident for which foreign diplomats here can recall no precedent, a visibly crying Leonid Brezhnev was shown on the nighttime television news.

(Sources familiar with the way in which the nightly TV news is assembled say it is virtually unthinkable that a teary Brezhnev could have aired by mistake. To be fair, the shot could have been intended to show the human side of the Soviet leader. But in the past, that task has been accomplished by showing a smiling Brezhnev arm-in-arm with a factory worker, or the like. One ranking official interpreted the TV shot as an indelicate show of frailty. Ordinary viewers seem to have taken it in much the same fashion.)

In another medium -- theater -- Moscow's M.Kh.A.T. stage has recently begun showing a play on Lenin's last days. History and politics are drawn into the production, and they clearly strike many in the audience as relevant to the present era.

At one point, the suggestion is made that the party's ''control commission'' should have more power - even over the party leader. One recent audience reacted with a sudden, automatic hush. Then a spectator in a remote seat briefly applauded.

Another point made -- historically, again -- is that party leaders should display fresh energy, forge fresh links with the ordinary people. Invariably, the production closes to a standing ovation. In one recent instance, it was led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of an aging Brezhnev Politburo.

Finally, the Kremlinologists point to what has become known as the case of Boris the Gypsy. The case, informed Soviet sources say, involves the recent arrest of a flamboyant, sometime opera singer in connection with a huge stock of illegally held diamonds. His reported detention has come in conjunction with a high-profile official crackdown on corruption. What is noteworthy is that ''Boris the Gypsy'' happens to be a friend of Mr. Brezhnev's daughter, Galina, according to an acquaintance of both.

What the arrest means in political terms is a matter of conjecture. Analysts point out that it is conceivable Mr. Brezhnev himself sanctioned the move against the suspect singer. Yet other analysts, both foreign and Soviet, note that historically, Soviet political figures have on occasion chosen to snipe at men near the top through their friends and relatives.

What is clearer, is that political imagery and officially orchestrated awe are central to the normal workings of the Soviet system. Red flags and propaganda and parades are part of this. So is the treatment of men like Leonid Brezhnev. At last year's Communist Party congress, for instance, Soviet television cut live coverage at an early stage in Mr. Brezhnev's keynote address.

A senior official explained privately that the President handled the lengthy address without snags, adding that the reason for the television break was simply to skirt the possibility that President Brezhnev might conceivably have stumbled, offering the wrong ''image'' to the Soviet people.

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