Party lad makes good: Chernenko completes dogged rise to power

He is a propagandist, and proud of it. Regal he is not. Judging by appearance alone, you might expect to find him wearing a white apron in some small grocery shop.

Nor is he an orator. He reads the full text of his speeches in a flat, uninspired tone, occasionally slurring his words.

He's short and heavy-set and sometimes appears ill-at-ease in public.

Yet Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko is easy to underestimate. A lot of people apparently have done so over the years. And he has consistently surprised them.

Today, he occupies one of the most powerful posts in world politics - that of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (and de facto leader of the Soviet Union).

He got there by currying favor with more powerful men along the way, by closely observing how they wielded their power, and then by adroitly emulating their moves. It is the Russian equivalent of a rags-to-riches story, a sort of ''party lad makes good.'' No one yet knows how it will end - and what it will mean for the rest of the world's nations.

Konstantin Chernenko was born in southeastern Siberia, in the Krasnoyarsk region, in 1911. His parents were peasants, and he dropped out of school at the age of 12 to work as a farmhand. He finished his higher education - at a teachers' college - at the age of 42.

Still, that dogged determination to reach his goal at an age when other men might have given up foreshadowed what he eventually did in the Communist Party.

He joined the party Youth League sometime during the 1920s, serving in the Krasnoyarsk territory as the head of a district department for agitation and propaganda in 1929. He joined the party itself in 1931, and his first official position was as secretary of a party cell among Red Army troops at a frontier border post.

After his Army stint, he took a two-year leadership training course at a party school in Moscow. In 1948, he was posted to the Moldavian Republic, in the southwestern USSR, as a party functionary.

It was there he met a bearlike man with bushy eyebrows who was to become his political mentor for the next three decades. The man was Leonid Brezhnev, who began a determined climb up the rungs of party power. Chernenko was rarely more than a few rungs below.

Chernenko spent eight years as head of the agitation and propaganda department in Moldavia. In 1956,he followed Brezhnev to party headquarters in Moscow and took up another propaganda post.

He continued to work behind the scenes as a close confidant of Brezhnev, and as Brezhnev took on greater responsibilities, so did he. When Brezhnev became Soviet president in 1960, Chernenko was made his chief of staff. Chernenko scheduled the appointments, kept track of the secret papers, drew the agenda for meetings - and stayed at Brezhnev's side during some foreign trips.

He was far from prominent. At first, the notion that he would one day take over the leadership was about as improbable as the Queen's valet taking over the Crown. His lack of a strong base in the party, or previous experience in industry or government, was seen as a hindrance.

Still, with help from Brezhnev and his own behind-the-scenes drive, Chernenko moved up through party ranks. By 1971 he was a member of the party's Central Committee. He was a nonvoting member of the ruling Politburo by 1977 and a full member a year later.

Along the way, he either edged out or outlasted various rivals. Toward the end of Brezhnev's tenure, Chernenko was reportedly chairing Politburo meetings in his absence. When Brezhnev died in 1982, Chernenko and Yuri Andropov were rated the two top contenders to be new general secretary.

In fact, Andropov had engineered his own ascension some months earlier, apparently with the support of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and Soviet military.

As Andropov took control of the party, Chernenko's star appeared to have waned. Many analysts wrote him off as a future leader, arguing that Andropov would work to nullify any threat to his own leadership by hacking away at Chernenko's support. Andropov did just that, giving the impression that some segments of the party had become corpulent and corrupt during the Brezhnev era - assertions that analysts say are undoubtedly true.

It is no accident that the Communist Party in one republic - Moldavia, Brezhnev and Chernenko's old stomping ground - was singled out twice on the front pages of Pravda as an area in particular need of reform.

That aggressive approach to rooting out corruption went down well with many Soviet citizens. It apparently did not go down well with many of the party powerful. With Andropov's death, they turned to Chernenko, who came with something of a ''no surprises'' guarantee.

Malcolm Toon, former United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, told wire services after the announcement, ''Those who describe him (as) a colorless bureaucrat are close to the truth.''

Diplomatic considerations are all that keep some other Western analysts from saying the same thing publicly. They do, however, affirm it privately.

Some venture that he will be nothing more than an interim leader, representing the last effort by an aging Kremlin hierarchy to keep power within their grasp. At the age of 72, Chernenko becomes the oldest man to take over as the general secretary of the Soviet Union.

That, in itself, is not a disability. Ronald Reagan is, after all, the oldest US president to take office. But, unlike Reagan, Chernenko's term in office is not fixed. Neither is there a constitutional provision for succession. Moreover, Chernenko dropped out of sight for some months last spring - apparently for health reasons.

Over the years, Chernenko has been a prolific writer. Much of the material is propagandistic. He even served on the editorial board of Agitator, a party magazine. Other speeches and articles are hardly bedtime reading, unless one really wants to go to sleep anyway. (A sample title: ''The control and verification of fulfillment - main condition for carrying party decisions into life'').

Nevertheless, Western analysts will be perusing this material - a second edition of his writings was issued only last month - for insights into the thinking of the new man at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy.

One of his most recent and perhaps most intriguing speeches was his report to a meeting of the Central Committee last year. He began by heralding that ''a tense, truly global struggle of two ideologies is taking place.''

To win, he said, the Soviet Union needed to stress indoctrination in Marxism-Leninism. He made it clear there would be no departure from orthodox Soviet interpretations: ''Eurocommunism,'' it seems, is not for him.

Nor, for that matter, are many Western values. Cultural exchanges that bring in ''foreign cultural and intellectual products'' need to be carefully scrutinized, he warned, singling out plays, films, publications, and music. The party, he said, should actively influence films, literature, and art. Again, it was no coincidence that shortly thereafter police closed down discotheques in central Moscow and cracked down on artistic productions that were ''liberal'' by Soviet standards.

He also called for the launching of a ''large-scale, offensive counterpropaganda'' campaign, not only within the country, but also internationally.

''The battle of ideas on the international scene is going on without respite, '' he said, adding, ''We will continue to wage it vigorously. . . .''

He called for ''perfect command of Russian as the language of intercourse among nations.'' That may indicate that he plans to ride herd on nationalistic sentiments in a country that is increasingly non-Russian. (Indeed, the Russian birthrate has slumped while that of other, mostly Muslim, nationalities has continued to rise.)

He may have had Muslims in mind when he warned that ''part of the people - and, frankly, not a very insignificant part - still are under the influence of religion.''

He added that sometimes ''subversive political activity'' is only ''camouflaged as religion.'' That would indicate that the state crackdown on religion, pursued with renewed vigor under Andropov, will likely continue.

Near the end of his speech, Chernenko allowed that ''there is not nor can there be a loftier task than that of raising everyone to the level of the maker of his own destiny, the maker of history.''

Undoubtedly, Konstantin Chernenko believes he is the personification of those words.

Whether he makes history - or merely becomes a footnote in it - is another matter.

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