Latest Andropov twist: hobnobbing with workers

An ordinary Muscovite eyeing Pravda's front page Feb. 1 might be forgiven for doing a double take. In the most vivid example yet of new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's style of rule, the Communist Party newspaper printed long excerpts of quite ordinary-sounding talk between Mr. Andropov and factory workers he visited on the job.

The presumed moral is that the new chief is in touch with the hopes and concerns of ordinary citizens. (''How much do you make?'' he asked three evidently puzzled men at a machine-building factory in Moscow. Only one gave him a straight answer.)

A similar message is conveyed in another Andropov-era innovation: regular news media summaries of Politburo sessions. An early report said the Politburo had taken on a problem familiar to millions of Soviets: getting spare parts for cars.

In this context, it seems no accident one of the first officials replaced under Mr. Andropov is the head of the party propaganda department.

Not since the ill-fated rule of Nikita Khrushchev, foreign diplomats say, have the media recorded anything like Mr. Andropov's Jan. 31 hobnobbing on the factory floor.

Whereas Mr. Khrushchev liked to do most of the talking - occasionally, official history says, coining the kind of ''harebrained'' ideas cited as contributing to his downfall - Mr. Andropov did more listening than speaking. Aside from a brief address, his remarks seemed designed to drive home his calls for more economic discipline and perhaps to assure listeners there was nothing harebrained in the campaign.

The idea, Pravda quotes him as saying, is not so much to pick on people who are a few minutes late for work or who sneak too many smoking breaks as to begin a sustained, ''long-term'' tightening of accountability throughout the economy.

''The discipline question relates not only to workers, or technical-engineering personnel . . . but to everyone, beginning with (government) ministers.''

Like a Western economics professor, Andropov added that there is no such thing as a free lunch: That is, the Kremlin can't provide more and better consumer goods unless workers help produce them.

He made no direct reference to recent checks by Moscow police inspectors on workers who take time off to shop during the day. But a worker remarked that the main remedy for indiscipline should be neither ''legal'' nor ''administrative,'' but involve creating a better overall climate on the job. Mr. Andropov agreed.

When a man noted that good workers adapt to new assignments even after having settled down at earlier ones, Mr. Andropov interjected: ''After (you've adapted to one post), they give you another?''

Official coverage of his visit seems to highlight another facet of the image he has sought to portray: personal modesty. The press recorded his factory encounter at length, but there were no photographs of a smiling party chief on the factory floor.

At one point during the visit, Mr. Andropov thanked the workers for their ''warm welcome,'' adding he did so not for himself, but on behalf of the entire party leadership.

''A personality cult without a personality,'' quipped a Western Kremlinologist.

Again Mr. Andropov's remarks seemed much more a departure of style than of substance from the Brezhnev era. He did say bluntly that the national economy had proven unequal to the first two years of the 1981-85 five-year plan. But he suggested the remedy lay not in a shift of economic policy, but in greater discipline and accountability in implementing tasks already on the books.

If there was one potentially major exception, it was in a few sentences on retail prices tucked into the party leader's address during the factory lunch break.

While stressing that changes in price policy should not be viewed as the nation's central economic priority, Mr. Andropov said the system of heavily subsidized retail prices was an area that bore attention: ''One must say that we do have obvious incongruities and disproportions (in pricing) and we should correct them.''

In an odd sidelight to the factory visit, the worker who did not hesitate to say how much he earned saw his reply, reported in the initial Russian-language report of the Soviet news agency Tass, expurgated by the time Pravda hit the streets.

The worker, collecting old-age pension as well as salary under Soviet legislation designed to encourage late retirement, answered: ''Enough - 380 rubles,'' according to Tass. Pravda cuts it to: ''Enough.''

It seems Soviet law limits the salary-plus-pension to 300 rubles a month.

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