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Prominent Russians: Konstantin Chernenko

September 24, 1911 — March 10, 1985
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Family background

Chernenko's path to power was a breathtaking series of successes that lead him from an obscure Siberian village to the very peak of Soviet power. He was born into a large and impoverished family in the village of Bolshaya Tes' (a Cossack settlement situated in the Krasnoyarsk territory) on September the 24th (September the 11th according to the old Orthodox calendar) 1911.

Although his name is Ukrainian, his official biographers describe him as an ethnic Russian, whose his family migrated from Ukraine to southern Siberia, where they came to consider themselves Russian. His father, Ustin Demidovich, worked in copper and gold mining while his mother took care of the farm. Konstantin lost his mother when he was still a small boy and at the age of 12 was sent to work at a rich master's farm to earn a living.

Master of propaganda

The year of 1929 marked the beginning of forced draft collectivization in the USSR. That year Chernenko joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and soon was selected to head the propaganda and agitation (AgitProp) department of the Novoselovo District Komsomol Committee. The post was an important one and a person in Chernenko's position would have played a role in the forcible creation of collective and state farms around Krasnoyarsk, as well as in the expulsion of those considered kulaks (wealthier peasants).

In the Army

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In 1930 Konstantin began three years' service with the Red Army on the Chinese border. Chernenko wrote in his autobiography: “Serving on the border was the most cherished dream of Komsomol members that time.”

While serving, Chernenko never stopped his propaganda and party activity. He showed such an enthusiastic attitude towards indoctrination of Communist ideals that he was chosen as a delegate to a party conference. 

Joining the party

He became a full member of the Party in 1931 and returned from his military service to Krasnoyarsk as a propagandist, rising rapidly in the regional hierarchy and undoubtedly benefitting from Stalin's purge of older party officials.

In 1933 he worked in the Propaganda Department of the Novoselovo District Party Committee and, a few years later, was promoted head of the same department in the Uyarsk Raykom.

In 1938 Chernenko became the Director of the Krasnoyarsk House of Party Enlightenment then in 1939, the Deputy Head of the AgitProp Department of Krasnoyarsk Territorial Committee and finally, in 1941 he was appointed Secretary of the Territorial Party Committee for Propaganda.

Head of Moldova´s Agitprop

Strongly believing in the value of education, from 1943 to 1945 Chernenko attended the Moscow High School of Party Organizers (a solid stepping stone for promotion) and after finishing the courses, he was given a series of more and more important assignments: in 1945 he served as the Party Secretary for Ideology at Penza Provincial Committee and in 1948 he was nominated Head of the Agitation and Aropaganda (AgitProp) Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Moldova (one of the Soviet Union's 15 republics).

It was the turning point in Chernenko's career. The tasks of economic and ideological reconstruction in this newly acquired and largely Romanian corner of the USSR were formidable and put Chernenko to the test which he passed with flying colors. He successfully combined ideological work with journalism (writing for the newspaper Sovetskaya Moldavya), always paying much attention to improving the educational and theoretical level of leading cadres.

For the same reasons, he himself enrolled in the Kishinev Pedagogical Institute and in 1953 he completed a correspondence course for schoolteachers. Chernenko also promoted the translation of Lenin's works into Moldavian.

Under Brezhnev´s shadow

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It was in Moldova that he developed a close association and friendship with Leonid Brezhnev, the First Secretary of the Communist Parry of Moldova from 1950 to 1952 and future leader of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev was exceptionally impressed by Chernenko's skill in propaganda activities and by his organizational capabilities.

Brezhnev successfully brought the new republic under the control of the Communist Party. This impressed Joseph Stalin and in 1952 Brezhnev was invited to join the Central Committee (CC). Chernenko followed Brezhnev to fill a post in the CC's Agitation and Propaganda Department in Moscow in 1956. As in Moldova, he became fully engaged in both political and journalistic activity as the supervisor of the Agitator newspaper.

In 1960, after Brezhnev was named Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (titular head of state in the Soviet Union), the leading governmental position outside the CPSU hierarchy, Chernenko became Head of the Secretariat of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (in effect the chief-of-staff).

Under his initiative, new departments were created in the secretariat (for example, the Department for International Affairs), and bureaucracy was reorganized. Chernenko's unit was among the very first to be equipped with computers.

When Brezhnev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union CPSU after the deposition of Khrushchev in 1964, Chernenko's career continued successfully. In 1965 he was nominated Head of the General Department of the CC with the mandate to set the Politburo agenda and prepare the drafts of numerous CC decrees and resolutions. He had knowledge about all the top Party members and monitored telephone tapping and surveillance devices in offices.

Another important job was to sign hundreds of documents every day, which he did for 20 years. Even when he became General Secretary, he continued to sign papers referring to the General Department (when he was no longer physically able to sign documents, a facsimile was used instead).

In 1971, at the end of the 24th Party Congress, he was promoted full member of the CC: he had control over the Party work and over the Letter Bureau, dealing with correspondence. In 1976 he was elected a secretary of this all-important body. From 1978 onwards he also served as a full member of the ruling Politburo and, de facto, was second only to the General Secretary in terms of Party hierarchy.

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In the years preceding his election as General Secretary, Konstantin Chernenko fully immersed himself in ideological and party work; he headed Soviet delegations abroad, accompanied Brezhnev to important conferences (including the one that took place in Helsinki in 1976), and was in the commission that set up the new Constitution passed in 1977. He also participated in Communist Party congresses in Austria, France, Denmark and Greece and frequently met with foreign visitors and delegations. In 1979 Chernenko took part in the Vienna arms limitation talks.

Chernenko the writer

Chernenko published numerous articles on the pages of the most prestigious Soviet newspapers and, by the 80's, he had written more books than all the other Politburo members put together. Chernenko's books addressed a wide range of topics and ideas: from the orthodox principles of Marxist and Leninist thinking to women's rights, from school reforms to the economy, from human rights to ways of improving the efficiency of Soviet bureaucracy.

Among Chernenko's writings are titles such as “Soviet Democracy: Principles and Practice,” “Human Rights in Soviet Society,” “The Avant-garde Role of the CPSU,” “To Reaffirm the Leninist Style in Party Work,” “The Work of the Party and the State Apparatus,” to name just a few.

It is remarkable (and often forgotten) that some of Chernenko's ideas, as they were elaborated in his books and expressed in his speeches, anticipated both purposes and slogans that would become Gorbachev's war-horses, such as the criticism of bureaucracy, the necessity for decision-makers, enterprise administrators and anyone else with important responsibilities to rely more on their own initiative instead of passively waiting for directives from the top; or, the frequent appeals and efforts “to strengthen the Party's responsibility and discipline” and to “resolve the gap between theory and practice.”

The very words glasnost and perestroika (in terms of Party activities) appeared in Chernenko's speeches and writings long before they became widely recognized. Such ideas were premature at the time (15 years before Gorbachev took them up again) and thus remained ineffectual.

Getting the top job

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According to some observers, Brezhnev apparently expected Chernenko to succeed him as General Secretary and groomed him for the post. However, Chernenko's political ascent was blocked by anti-Brezhnev forces, including the KGB and the military and after Brezhnev 's death in 1982 Chernenko was unable to rally a majority of the party factions behind his candidacy and lost out to Yury Andropov, the former KGB chief, who became General Secretary on November 12, 1982.

Known as a moderate and a compromiser, unwilling or unable to initiate sharp changes in Soviet policy or to offend various groups of Kremlin leaders, Chernenko seemed to accept Andropov's victory with good grace and political acumen, keeping a place for himself as party ideologist and chief theorist.

However, Andropov had become mortally ill by the following August, and after his death six months later, Chernenko succeeded him and on Feb. 13, 1984 became General Secretary of the CPSU, despite concerns over his own health.

On April 10, 1984, Chernenko was appointed Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and Chairman of the Supreme Defense Council. His brief tenure at all these posts at the age of 72 seemed to be a final reward for decades of devoted service as a career party politician in spite of his lack of leadership qualities.

Arkady Volsky, an aide to Andropov, recounts an episode that occurred after a Politburo meeting on the day following Andropov's demise: As Politburo members filed out of the conference hall, either Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko or (in some accounts) Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov said: “Its OK, Kostya is an agreeable guy; one can do business with him.”

It was Chernenko's health that became his true enemy. He was affected by a serious lung disease. At Andropov's funeral, those present strained to catch the meaning of what Chernenko was trying to say in his eulogy. He spoke rapidly, swallowed words, kept coughing and stopped repeatedly to wipe his lips and forehead. He ascended Lenin's Mausoleum by way of a newly installed escalator and descended with the help of two bodyguards. 

Looming reforms

Chernenko's frequent absences from official functions left little doubt that his election had been an interim measure while the long term struggle between conservatives and reformers continued. However, it was Chernenko who provided Mikhail Gorbachev with support and significant influence in the Politburo, so when Chernenko died, Gorbachev was well positioned to assume power.

Chernenko's tenure in this all-powerful position was the briefest in Soviet history and the least notable. Some Western observers in 1984 found it remarkable that a person with as little individual distinction as Chernenko could come - even for a short period - to occupy one of the most powerful positions in the world. No significant policy initiatives were begun under his direction, and little progress was made in improving chronic Soviet economic problems.

Generally, his tenure represented a return to the policies of the late Brezhnev era. The personnel changes and investigations into corruption undertaken by the Andropov regime came to an end.

Chernenko supported a greater role for the trade unions, called for a reduction in the CPSU's micromanagement of the economy, pushed (with little success) for reforms in education and propaganda, and wanted to trim bureaucracy, giving greater emphasis to public opinion and expanding investment in consumer goods production, services and agriculture.

Reviving Stalin ´s memory

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However, KGB pressure on Soviet dissidents also increased. Stalin was unofficially rehabilitated as a diplomat and a military leader, and there was covert discussion of returning the name Stalingrad to the city whose name had been changed back to Volgograd during the anti-Stalinist wave of the 1950s. The one major personnel change Chernenko made was the firing of the Chief of the General Staff, Nikolay Ogarkov, who had advocated less spending on consumer goods in favor of greater expenditures on weapons research and development.

Foreign policies

In foreign policy, Chernenko negotiated a trade pact with the People's Republic of China. Several times in his speeches or interviews he stated his desire to meet U.S. President Ronald Reagan to promote the international détente and world peace. Despite calls for renewed détente, little progress was made toward closing the rift in East-West relations during his rule.

The USSR, while under his administration, together with 14 Eastern Bloc countries, boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, citing security concerns and stating that “chauvinistic sentiments and anti-Soviet hysteria were being whipped up in the United States.” But many saw it as a mere act of revenge for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

In the late summer of 1984, the Soviet Union also prevented a visit to West Germany by East German leader Erich Honecker. War in Afghanistan also intensified, but in the late autumn of 1984 the United States and the Soviet Union did agree to resume arms control talks in early 1985.

Personal life

Chernenko's personal life (as that of other Soviet leaders) was kept from public view. Many in both the USSR and the West saw his wife, Anna, and daughter, Yelena, for the first time at his funeral. He was married twice: from his first wife, whom he divorced, he had a son, who followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a propagandist in Tomsk, Siberia.

His second wife, Anna Dmitrievna Lyubimova, gave him two daughters, Yelena, who worked at the Institute of Party History and Vera, who worked at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, and a son, Vladimir who graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and worked as editor at the State Cinema Committee (Goskino). Chernenko's hobbies were hunting (often in Brezhnev's company), fishing, riding, swimming and cooking.


When Chernenko died on March 10, 1985 Soviet citizens received the news with little apparent distress. Many probably felt conditions in the Soviet Union could begin to improve under new, more vigorous leadership.

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