Newsday: “Politburo’s Youngest Member Advanced Swiftly to the Top”

March 12, 1985




Tuesday, March 12, 1985
pp. 5, 14

Newsday UN Bureau


This much is known: Mikhail Gorbachev is the youngest Soviet party leader since Vladimir Lenin and has, managed to charm almost every westerner he has met.

That does not reveal anything, however, about what his swift accession to the top position in the Communist Party central committee means for the Soviet Union’s ruling elite, for the nation’s potential for internal reform, or for the future course of East-West relations.

Soviet analysts agree that, if change is forthcoming, it will not be anytime soon. It will take Gorbachev time to consolidate power, if indeed he can.

“I think he understands the problems of modern society, West or East,” said Geoffrey Pearson, a Soviet expert who knows Gorbachev well, having served as Canada’s ambassador to Moscow from 1980 to 1983. “He is educated, low key and non-ideological. He is willing to listen and I am very pleased about his appointment.

“But it won’t make a fundamental difference. I don’t think personalities change the politics of great powers overnight.”

Gorbachev celebrated his 54th birthday March 2. He is the Politburo’s youngest member, born after the Russian Revolution and spared the taint of party service under Stalin.

At the age of 15 he went to work as a machine operator at a machine and tractor station. He joined the Communist Party in 1952. Three years later, after the usual five-year course, he graduated from Moscow State University’s law department and in 1967 he took a specialty in agronomy at the agricultural institute in his native Stavropol region, south of Moscow.

He rose through the ranks of the party’s youth wing and through the regional party organization, becoming a member of the party central committee in 1971. In 1978, he was elected secretary of the party central committee, transferring to Moscow to take the agricultural portfolio in the central committee secretariat. A year later, he became an alternate member of the Politburo, meaning he attended meetings but was not allowed to vote.

In 1980, he became a full Politburo member and thus one of the small circle of eligibles to assume the party’s top spot of general secretary.

For the past year, he has been the man touted to assume control after Konstantin U. Chernenko and that the appointment was announced a mere five hours after Chernenko’s death was made public indicates that the decision already was well in the works.

So sure was Gorbachev’s position that in a recent conversation with a West European correspondent, Pravda’s editor-in-chief referred to him as “the second secretary.” There is no such position.

By the time he visited Britain in December, his profile was high. As a public relations exercise, the trip was masterful, complemented by his wife Raisa Maximovna, whose unanticipated sense of style — suede boots and pearl drop earrings — won over the British. The late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, said to be Gorbachev’s promoter and mentor, was not even known to be married until his widow appeared at his funeral.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she liked Gorbachev and added matter-of-factly, “We can do business together.”

The official news agency Tass detailed Gorbachev’s long service to the state and described him as a man who “works with energy and selflessness, gives all his knowledge, wealth of experience and organizing talent to the implementation of party policy . . .” thus stressing his experience over his relative youth and his commitment to the collective policy.

Pearson, now executive director of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Stability, had long meetings with Gorbachev five or six times before and after the Soviet official’s highly successful but little publicized 10-day visit to Canada in May, 1983. Gaining foreign experience, Gorbachev wanted to see how the Canadians managed their successes in grain production with such a small population.

Ironically, Gorbachev presided over one of the most disastrous periods in Soviet harvests, though he clearly has not been held personally responsible.

“I don’t think any person could have done much,” Pearson said.

“Assuming he is there for a while, there will be more dialogue, more negotiations — not necessarily on arms control but on the whole span of East-West relations. But he will not become a patsy or a liberal. Or he wouldn’t be where he is.”

Pearson said Gorbachev is not really anecdotal. “He’s not like Khruschev.  He doesn’t crack jokes. But he has a sense of humor.

“He wants change in the way Yuri Andropov wanted change, but it isn’t going to happen right away. He is not ruthless. He won’t be doing away with people right and left. But, ultimately, we won’t be dealing with the same people,” Pearson said.

Accepting the powerful party post yesterday, Gorbachev pledged to strive for arms control and “cardinal improvement of relations” with China.

“We would like our partners in the Geneva negotiations to understand the Soviet Union’s position and respond in kind. Then agreement will be possible. The peoples of the world would sigh with relief,” he said.

But he stressed the need to “maintain the defense capacity of our motherland at such a level that potential aggressors would know well . . . “

On the domestic front, he called for a “decisive turn in transferring the national economy to the tracks of intensive development.”

Under his predecessors, as overseer of economic policy, Gorbachev supported plans to give enterprises and their managers greater autonomy within the centrally planned Soviet system.

He spoke last year of the need for a “bold, creative search, freshness of thought and an energetic struggle against everything hypocritical and obsolete.”

Of Gorbachev’s stylishness and charm, longtime Soviet analyst Edward Luttwack of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, warned not to be taken in.

“He may wear better clothes, but he is one of them,” Luttwack said. “When Khrushchev started wearing smart Italian suits was when he went back to Stalinism.”