On September 19, 1978, probably the strangest coincidence in history took place, a meeting between the General Secretary of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev, and the three men who would eventually succeed him.
On the way to Baku, Azerbaijan, Brezhnev’s private train had stopped at the Mineralnye Vody railway station in the Stavropol region. The Soviet leader and his dedicated assistant Konstantin Chernenko were greeted by the Chairman of the KGB Yury Andropov and First Secretary of the Stavropol Party Committee Mikhail Gorbachev. The meeting led to Gorbachev’s rapid political ascension when just two months later he was summoned to take up the post of Central Committee Secretary for Agriculture and moved to Moscow.
The decision to promote the little-known Gorbachev rested on the shoulders of Brezhnev. He never trusted others when it came to appointing people, so the fact that Gorbachev was promoted from regional party chief to the Secretary of the Central Committee, and soon after to Politburo member, were made by Brezhnev alone. However, an important role was played by Andropov, who had been helping Gorbachev all along.
Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982 and power was handed over to Andropov. During his rule Andropov was determined to attack corruption and revive the economy. His protégé Gorbachev remained his right hand man in these tasks, despite the fact that Chernenko was the recognized second secretary in the party.
Less than a year after taking office, Andropov had to be taken to a Moscow clinic because of his battle with kidney disease. There he worked on a major speech to be delivered to a full session of the Party Central Committee in which he appointed Gorbachev as his successor. The last paragraph read “For reasons I’m sure you’re all aware of, I will not be able to preside over the future meetings of the Politburo and the Secretariat, and therefore I ask the central committee to authorize Mikhail Gorbachev to preside at the Politburo and Secretariat meetings from now on.” On the day of the meeting Andropov had been too ill to deliver his speech, so a printed version was distributed in which the last paragraph was deleted.
Andropov died in February 1984 and was replaced by Chernenko, despite concerns over his own ailing health (he was 73 at the time) and against Andropov’s wishes. He led the Soviet Union until his death just thirteen months later on March 10, 1985.
In a matter of seven years from the date of the fateful meeting Gorbachev became the youngest Soviet leader at the age of 54 and soon after initiated his new policy of Perestroika.