''Maybe not everyone on the Central Committee favored Andropov,'' a prominent committee member recapped privately after the selection of Leonid Brezhnev's successor. ''But most surely did. . . .
''Given the historical timing of the transition, . . . which came at a delicate period in our history,. . . I think everybody gave particularly serious thought to what was best for the country.''
The transfer of Soviet power Nov. 12 to Yuri Vladimir-ovich Andropov - denying the top job to Mr. Brezhnev's own longtime protege, Konstantin Chernenko - was part of a carefully managed ''transition process'' begun nearly 10 months earlier.
In it, those at the top of the Soviet system strove to ensure what the system by itself could not: a quick, smooth handover of power from the 18-year Brezhnev regime to the candidate deemed most likely to pump new momentum into the political process.
When the several hundred members of the Communist Party Central Committee met to cast their obligingly unanimous vote for a new leader, Mr. Chernenko himself formally nominated Yuri Andropov for the post.
In the preceding months, Monitor interviews with senior Soviet figures had provided hints of what seemed increasing official concern over aspects of Mr. Brezhnev's rule.
What was ''best for the country,'' various officials indicated, would be a new sense of energy, direction. Some suggest it should include a leadership more modest in its public collection of power, tougher on those who misuse it.
For example: An official, disclosing in late November that Mr. Andropov would not then assume Mr. Brezhnev's post as state president as well as the party leadership, went on, ''I personally would not advocate Andropov's becoming president. . . . We have a Constitution and, under it, a (separate) party general secretary and a president. . . .''
In discussing Mr. Andropov's early stress on improving discipline and battling corruption, another ranking figure said such problems had ''long been ripe'' for tackling.
''Contrary to Western forecasts,'' a Central Committee member summed up the power changeover, ''our country is very much alive. We have a rather vigorous new leadership - one that has awakened interest and also a degree of goodwill abroad.''
In the transition, ''we showed our maturity. . . stability,'' maintained another committee member. ''No one really felt any break in activity. There was no sense of an open wound.''
''Transition'' continues - in matters both of personnel and policy. Even were the process more easily isolated, more nearly complete, an utterly reliable picture of all it has involved would be impossible for a Western reporter to assemble. Still, 61 interviews with senior Soviet officials over the past two years - the most recent, Dec. 28 - afford at least a glimpse of how the power shift was prepared and accomplished and of what, in prominent Soviets' view, was at stake.
Much of the preparation for the leadership change went on beyond the gaze of Western reporters, indeed beyond the gaze of most Soviet officials. Asked, for instance, to verify a persistent hunch among Western Kremlinologists this autumn , a department chief at the Soviets' Novosti news agency said, ''I'm sorry I can't help you. We simply don't know. We have noticed (the reports), too. But if we called up the Central Committee, they simply wouldn't tell us.''
Nor did all Central Committee members know precisely what kind of transition was unfolding. The Novosti man's reference, in Soviet shorthand, was to the committee's nine-member Secretariat, its staff, and the minority of prominent committee figures in contact with the top leadership. It was from this last group that much of the information in the current articles was taken.
For even many less influential Soviets, a black-bordered Pravda obituary last Jan. 27 served as ample evidence that serious ''transition'' moves could not be far off.
Mikhail Suslov - icy, aloof guardian of ideological orthodoxy for some three decades and at least the second most influential man in the nation - had passed on. He was little known to Western newspaper readers. Yet alone among the five Soviet leaders then enjoying full membership on both the party Politburo and the Central Committee Secretariat, Mr. Suslov could talk to Leonid Brezhnev as a political senior.
He had been near the center of party power when Mr. Brezhnev was a local party chief in the Ukraine. Moreover, officials say, Mr. Suslov came in later years to ''run'' the Secretariat - which is technically junior to the Politburo but has the larger role in day-to-day implementation of policy, in many influential appointments, and in coordinating the reports and information on which leadership decisions depend.
Finally, Mr. Suslov approximated a one-man ideological oracle in a system where even seemingly trivial decisions carry ideological overtones. He held the ideological and foreign affairs portfolio in the Secretariat.
Who would get Suslov's Secretariat slot? The question was automatic, and its importance was soon compounded by the health problems of Mr. Brezhnev and another senior colleague and succession candidate, Andrei Kirilenko, the Secretariat's economic specialist.
Mr. Suslov's passing came at a time when officials were clearly thinking, if not speaking publicly, of the problems and prospectives of transition. After the Pravda obituary, I offered a home-run-ball of a question to a prominent Central Committee member. How does one replace a leader of Mr. Suslov's enormous political experience?
The routine response would have been: ''Yes, it is difficult. He was a remarkable man.'' Now, the reply was: ''Suslov did have a great store of experience. Yet this can be both a positive and negative phenomenon. We are confronting a whole new set of problems.''
Other officials hinted at a related concern: that with a visibly frail Mr. Brezhnev in his 18th year of power - and with both the Reagan administration and the Western news media intent, in Soviet officials' view, on publicly embarrassing the Kremlin - the Soviet Union was finding it particularly difficult to project a credible image of superpowerdom.
At no point was this more painfully clear than during a spate of Western press reports in April that Mr. Brezhnev had been hospitalized and might be near death - a background lending what some Soviets saw as a tasteless air to Mr. Reagan's public suggestions of a summit encounter.
Evidently reflecting this concern, a senior official suddenly accepted in April a long-dormant Monitor request for an interview and unabashedly violated an unwritten official taboo on discussing Mr. Brezhnev's health:
''Yes, President Brezhnev was in the hospital. He got out a week or so back. . . . There was an accident in a factory he was visiting (on an official trip to Uzbekistan). . . . He hurt his arm. He was given preventive injections and continued his program,'' the official said. But he added, Mr. Brezhnev was not in the critical state suggested by some Western media and was, in fact, planning to address a congress of the Communist Youth Organization in May.
The official confirmed Mr. Kirilenko was having health problems - problems that, other senior sources later made clear, in effect eliminated him as a succession candidate.
Indeed, among the small group enjoying full membership on both the Politburo and Secretariat, there was only one real candidate: Brezhnev protege Chernenko. (The other dual Politburo-Secretariat members were Brezhnev, Kirilenko, and much-younger agricultural specialist Mikhail Gorbachev.)
Already head of the Secretariat's General Department - described by a senior official as ''the effective chancery of the Secretariat,'' handling all outside reports for the body and for the Politburo - Mr. Chernenko began handling the Suslov portfolio in the weeks after his passing.
In an interview at the time, a Central Committee member went out of his way to praise a rather standard ideological article by Chernenko in the party's main journal of theory as ''innovative and profound, well written.''
Mr. Chernenko also began chairing more often the Secretariat's weekly sessions, an area in which Mr. Kirilenko had formerly taken precedence when Mr. Suslov was absent. (Mr. Brezhnev, although formally head of the Secretariat, did ''not necessarily'' attend its meetings, according to officials who have.)
But Mr. Chernenko's colleagues were evidently leery of allowing this kind of one-horse race. One senior official, although rejecting as overstated Western suggestions of a ''power struggle,'' spoke of ''personal differences'' that were ironed out within the top leadership in the months following Mr. Suslov's passing.
On May 24, the Soviet power picture was radically and publicly redrawn. Yuri Andropov, a Politburo member who had left a post on the Secretariat 15 years earlier as Brezhnev's choice to run the KGB security apparatus, returned to assume the Suslov portfolio for ideology and foreign affairs.
He and Mr. Chernenko, colleagues said privately, began trading off as chairman of the Secretariat. There were now, a senior official in regular contact with both Mr. Andropov and Mr. Chernenko said, ''in effect two major figures'' in the succession picture.With 20-20 hindsight, various officials have said recently that they had been sure since the May reshuffle that he would be the next Soviet leader.
Yet those senior sources who have proven most reliable in Monitor interviews suggest a slightly more nuanced view, one in which Andropov and Chernenko each exerted considerable power - indeed more day-to-day power than did Mr. Brezhnev - but with Andropov in an ascendancy culminating in his designation as party leader following Mr. Brezhnev's death.
Mr. Andropov, Soviet sources indicate, had the backing of key colleagues in the Politburo - in particular, Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov - and in the Secretariat. This became abundantly clear in the succession arrangement ratified by the Central Committee.
But if the Soviet system made support at the top crucial in transition, it also made full and immutable transition before the fact an impossibility.
Days before Mr. Brezhnev's passing, it was Mr. Chernen-ko who delivered, on the general secretary's behalf, a major foreign policy statement in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
After the May realignment, a prominent official said there was ''a setup where things can be collectively run'' by Andropov and Chernenko. But he suggested this did not mean, as some foreign diplomats had been told, that Mr. Brezhnev would forego his traditional summer-vacation encounters with East-bloc leaders in order to get some rest. Mr. Brezhnev, after all, remained general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
''Even if in principle the decision is to skip the meetings, some of them may proceed. It may be difficult to skip them altogether.'' (Talks were held with some bloc leaders.)
And, despite Moscow rumors, it seems unlikely Mr. Brezhnev would have simply ''retired'' to allow the first prenegotiated transition in Soviet history.
A senior official, interviewed earlier in December, made it clear at least that no such move had been decided. Might Mr. Brezhnev, however, eventually have stepped down?
''I don't honestly know,'' the official said. But he went on to suggest that seemed unlikely: ''The thing is that in his last year, Brezhnev actually felt better than he had in some earlier periods.''
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