When Yuri Andropov replaced the enfeebled Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet kingpin in 1982, there was no way of knowing that the ex-KGB operative's stint at the top would last only 15 months. Andropov's severe health problems were never made public, but he was dying almost from the moment of accession. When yet another wheezing and debilitated party boss (Konstantin Chernenko) assumed the leadership position in 1984, anything remotely resembling the forthcoming roller coaster ride of the Gorbachev era was regarded as a pipe dream and dismissed out of hand.
A quarter century later, we can see that while Andropov was no cuddly liberal, his many years in the KGB and frequent travels through the Soviet Bloc provided him with a realistic – in context – perspective of affairs. Andropov's methods of "reform" within the USSR surely would have been brutally repressive; after all, he was Moscow's man on the scene during the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and yet he grasped the fundamental need to reform, something that eluded the ossified Brezhnev gerontocracy.
This isn't to imply that cosmetic reform had any real chance of success, such was the gap between the USSR's preferred method of operation and a rapidly changing world that was outpacing it in every way. It remains that if not in terms of flair and style, Andropov certainly was Gorbachev's crucial patron, without whom Gorbymania would have been stillborn.
I'm reading a political biography of Yuri Andropov, written in 1983 by a husband and wife team of exiled Soviet journalists, and purporting to help Westerners understand the milieu of Ronald Reagan's then adversary in the Kremlin. It is a fascinating account of the deadly, Byzantine maneuverings behind the scenes in a time and place that seems even more dated than it actually was … and is.
In 1982, I received my degree from Indiana University Southeast and stepped out into a world that in geopolitical terms was absolutely defined by these matters. In resolving to travel in Europe, I, too, was defined by the Cold War whether I knew it or not.
In 1985, Chernenko's final resting place in the Kremlin Wall was barely cold, and Gorbachev had been in charge for only six months, when I entered the USSR for the first time, crossing the border from Finland aboard a bus bound for Leningrad. The route took us through the Finno-Russian area known as Karelia, which I later learned was Andropov's first power base in the Soviet hierarchy.
The bus was mostly filled with young Americans like myself, but I made friends with an Aussie named Mark, who helped me celebrate by 25th birthday by bribing our way into a restaurant and negotiating an all-we-could-drink meal (with a few little bits of inedible food included) for the price of $10 cash each. That's dollars, not rubles.
Mark, who perhaps was a year younger than me, became extravagantly drunk, and while comically hung over the next day managed to trade three pairs of nylons for an evening of sex with a 40-something woman he met at an ice cream stand on Nevsky Prospekt. His original plan was for me to keep her friend similarly occupied, but I possessed neither the necessary hosiery nor any other commodity for creative bartering. Besides, she was somewhat larger than me, and looked a bit too much like Andropov for my tastes. I opted "in" for the remainder of Mark's vodka, and counted myself fortunate for opting "out" of my end of the tryst.
Two years later, I suddenly thought of the late and unlamented Andropov again, this time while visiting Budapest.
During the month of June, 1987, I aimlessly roamed through Western Hungary, staying in towns like Koszeg and Sopron, and ending with just shy of two weeks in the shabby but endearing capital city on the muddy "blue" Danube, scene of Andropov's defining ambassadorial triumph thirty years before. Those were inexpensive and exhilarating times. Including a ticket to watch the rock group Genesis at the soccer stadium and a one way train ducat for the three-day, 36-hour trip from Budapest to Moscow, expenses came out to $17 a day for the month in Hungary. Subway tickets were a dime apiece, imported bottles of Czech lager came in at four for a dollar, and meals would be had for two bucks at one of the "people's" cafeterias scattered throughout the city.
The meals were acceptable for the dirt cheap price, if fairly predictable, and while they hinted at the glories of savory, lard-laden Hungarian cuisine, the commissary fare fell a bit short of world class. As my departure day drew near, I decided to splurge at a much praised restaurant in the Buda Hills, the sort of place that ordinary Hungarians could ill afford on their paltry salaries, but I could easily manage every now and then.
On a quiet and sunny Sunday, I boarded the tram and rode almost to the end of the line, got off, and easily found the recommended eatery. As customary, the full menu was posted by the front gate, and I was studying the possibilities when there was a commotion at the entrance, which was hidden in tall shrubbery thirty feet away.
An older man dressed in regulation rumpled Communist party gray suit came staggering out. I could smell the alcohol on his breath all the way from the street. The man was mumbling in Hungarian, that most incomprehensible of languages transported by the migration of Asiatic peoples to the area a thousand years ago, but what struck me as he approached was that he looked more like the deceased Andropov than the Soviet leader did while alive, and when he finally got to me, nearly stumbling on a cobblestone in the process, he slurred something angrily in Magyar-speak and very slowly launched an attempted haymaker in my general direction.
The punch didn't come anywhere close to landing, and the force of his fist's impact with the stale evening air caused him to completely lose balance and fall to his knees, where he was briskly intercepted by the group of comrades who had come running behind him. Two of them packed the old man off into an adjacent Lada, and two others began apologizing profusely to me in attempted German. I responded in Hoosier-laced American, which caused them even more consternation ("but we like your mister Reagan," one whispered).
Their communication skills were inadequate to convey why the Andropov lookalike wanted to slug me. I reckoned that he plain didn't like Germans.
As it turned out, the first beer inside was on them, and the Chicken Paprika and sour cherry soup that followed on my forints was damned good, too. In the end, it gave me a good story to tell two years later, in August of 1989, when I sat drinking beer with Vladimir Putin (another of Andropov's KGB men) at the Radeberger beer cellar in Dresden, German Democratic Republic.
But that's a tale for another day.