Creating Chernenko the Strong: the Kremlin reshapes an image

We complain - with reason - about democratic leaders who read the polls and then reshape their image to fit what their constituents want. It appears that the men in Moscow's Politburo are increasingly following the same technique, even without polls for guidance.

Kremlin leaders seem to be orchestrating a minor deluge of events and images converting Konstantin Chernenko the Weak into Chernenko the Strong. Beyond that, there are signs that they are trying to reverse his initial image as a protector of party cronies, and show him to be carrying on the popular anticorruption campaign of his predecessor, Yuri Andropov.

As Soviet scholar David Powell observed recently, ''We had Khrushchevism without Khrushchev after he was deposed. Now we are seeing Andropovism without Andropov.''

What does the new picture of a boldly active Chernenko mean?

Most specialists discard the idea that the Soviet President and party leader has dynamically assumed a dominant Brezhnev-type position. But beyond that there are differences.

Columbia University Sovietologist Seweryn Bialer says he believes the youngest Politburo member, Mikhail Gorbachev, has made an alliance with Chernenko. Bialer's thesis is that Gorbachev and his followers, who have a hold on the party Secretariat, are helping to create a ''strong'' Chernenko in return for his support for continued Andropov housecleaning. They are allowing Chernenko a short period of fame in return for a chance to shake up management of the country.

But Marshall Goldman, a Harvard expert on the Soviet economy, notes that other Kremlinologists are less sure that Gorbachev and his associates are pulling the strings. He mentions recent signs that Gorbachev's power as heir apparent may be momentarily shaky.

What seems unassailable is the fact that Mr. Chernenko's image has been dramatically reversed in the past six weeks. And the new image fits popular desires in the USSR for a strong leader and for one who metes out discipline to the most visibly corrupt.

The enlargement of the General Secretary's persona was the subject of a recent Square Table Discussion at Harvard's Russian Research Center. The lunch sessions gather Soviet scholars from different disciplines, emigres, and visiting experts to discuss current developments in the USSR.

Boris Rumer, a fellow at the RRC and formerly an economist in Moscow, laid out dramatic evidence of Chernenko-reshaping. Most of Rumer's evidence comes directly from Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper.

Rumer's chronology: On Sept. 5, a Pravda editorial pledges not to divert budget from the civilian economy - consumers - to defense spending. On Sept. 6, President Chernenko reappears to the world after an absence of 53 days, greeting cosmonauts. On Sept. 7, Pravda reports Marshal Ogarkov, the chief of staff who wanted to arm Soviet troops with more high-tech conventional weapons, is sent to a lesser job. On Sept. 9, Pravda unveils a campaign against mismanagement in the Moscow District Party Committee.

Then, between Sept. 19 and Oct. 12, Chernenko's picture appears in Pravda 10 times, an unusually high frequency. He is also intensively quoted. Published Politburo minutes cite him frequently. By contrast, Politburo veteran Andrei Gromyko, who has been busy meeting world leaders at the UN and President Reagan in Washington, is pictured only three or four times.

On Sept. 28, Chernenko is named a Hero of Socialist Labor. The award is unusual, since it usually comes to Soviet leaders on a birth anniversary divisible by five - such as 70 or 75. Chernenko is 73.

Meanwhile, the anticorruption campaign started by Andropov has returned to the pages of Pravda with vigor. On Oct. 6, there is a report of a lengthy speech by Chernenko to the People's Control Committee. He emphasizes the campaign to root out managerial corruption. On Oct. 8, Pravda uses a scolding tone in reporting the dismissal of a deputy to the Minister of Electrification for corrupt behavior. Next, it publishes a major article about officials in the big industrial city of Kursk. Pravda cites several cases of scandal and corruption. In one, the regional party secretary and the chief of a liqueur plant are implicated in a drinking scandal. In another, a deputy police chief is involved in an attempted rape in which a woman falls or is thrown from a third-floor window. On Oct. 20, the paper prints an accusation aimed at a high-ranking official in the chemical industry. Another article details official corruption in Odessa.

What is unusual and unmistakable is Pravda's insistence on publicizing these examples of party and managerial misdeeds. Mr. Rumer notes that one can draw two opposite conclusions from the seemingly ubiquitous Chernenko and his muckraking party newspaper: (1) that he has indeed become more powerful than before his disappearance last summer; (2) that his buildup is a smokescreen for the manipulation of power by others.

Rumer votes for the second explanation. He notes, in particular, an Oct. 7 Pravda review of a book of Andropov's speeches. Its overall impact is to glorify the late Soviet leader. ''Andropov's followers,'' argues Rumer, ''are more and more powerful.''

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