The Last Bolshevik – Konstantin Chernenko: The Sick Man of Europe

From 1917 until 1991 seven different men were the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union. These men were at the pinnacle of the Communist party apparatus and exercised power over one of the world’s greatest land mass. Four of these leaders are well known for better or worse (usually the latter). These four can be easily named by the historically minded. They are Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Two others are well known among Cold War history buffs, Brezhnev and Andropov. That leaves one who is almost invisible to history, the grey man of a secretive society.

Konstantin Chernenko - the opposite of inspiration

Konstantin Chernenko – the opposite of inspiration

Communism In Human Form
The name Konstantin Chernenko does not bring any lasting historical image to mind. For that matter, the name hardly brings anything to mind. Chernenko had the shortest reign of any Soviet ruler, lasting a mere thirteen months at the helm. Some historians call Chernenko, “The Last Bolshevik.” This is because he is viewed as the last of the old order, those communists who were symbolic of the rigidity, corruption and ossification of the Soviet Union’s final decades. A look at Chernenko definitely fits that image. In photos taken of him during the time he led the nation, he looks elderly, dull and uninspiring. That’s probably because he was. Communism in the Soviet Union died a slow death in its final two decades. The human personification of that decay was Chernenko.

Chernenko & Brezhnev – The Road To Gloom
Who was Konstantin Chernenko? In line with his frosty visage, Chernenko was born in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia in 1911, the son of a poor miner. Growing up in poverty, Chernenko took advantage of the one real opportunity for advancement during that time, getting involved with the Communist Party. At the age of 18 he became a member of the Communist Youth League. He was soon a full member of the party. Chernenko built a career in party propaganda. He worked in the typical Soviet organizations such as the House of Party Enlightenment. Chernenko managed to ascend the party ranks while avoiding the deadly Stalinist purges of the 1930’s. It helped that he was working in the east part of the country during some of the worst excesses of the system.

It is probably no surprise that an individual as dull, grey and stolid as Chernenko received his first major career advancement due to his friendship with a man cut from the same cloth. Leonid Brezhnev, the embodiment of Soviet style gloom and corruption chose Chernenko to head the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’s propaganda efforts in the late 1940’s. From that point until Brezhnev’s death in 1982, Chernenko’s career trajectory closely followed that of his political patron. By the mid-1950’s, they were in Moscow together, where a decade later, Brezhnev would replace the deposed Nikita Khrushchev as Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union.

Sign Here - Konstantin Chernenko's signature style

Sign Here – Konstantin Chernenko’s signature style

A Signature Style
The Brezhnev years cast a light on the shadowy career of the prototypically dull Chernenko. What was the gray man’s job during these years? Well in an extremely centralized state apparatus, Chernenko made sure it stayed that way. He set the agenda for interminable Politburo sessions. He signed papers, literally tens of thousands. In the bureaucratic morass that was the Soviet system, Chernenko was the ultimate bureaucrat. For over twenty years he put his signature on hundreds of documents each day. Even after he took the helm as supreme leader, Chernenko would continue to sign the documents as he had done for far too long as head of the bland sounding General Department. Whereas Stalin and Lenin had the blood of millions on their hands, Chernenko’s were covered with ink. All of this was done in the service of mind numbing decrees and resolutions. The Soviet Union and the communist system may not have had the cure for civilization’s ills, but they had cultivated the ultimate cure for insomnia.

A Phenomenon of Frailty
All the while, Chernenko carried on an exceedingly unhealthy lifestyle. He was a chain smoker, an addiction that was said to have begun at the tender age of nine. By the time he took power, Chernenko was a physician’s worst nightmare. His ailments included emphysema, pulmonary disease and heart failure. At the funeral of his predecessor Yuri Andropov, he was barely able to read the eulogy. On that same day at Lenin’s Mausoleum he had to take an escalator rather than stairs to the top. After the ceremony was over, Chernenko’s bodyguards were reduced to protecting their frail leader, not from would be assassins, but from a slip or a fall. They had to help him back down the escalator. He spent much of his time as leader suffering from an amazing variety of illnesses. If it was not bronchitis, it was pneumonia or pleurisy or cirrhosis of the liver. Somehow Chernenko kept on living. The man was as much a phenomenon as he was an individual, a staggering, stuttering, stumbling example of the sclerotic Soviet system.

His most notable achievement while in office was the announcement that the Soviet’s would boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was a foolish and petulant act designed to exact symbolic revenge on the United States for boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In place of tet a tet’s between Chernenko and the president of the United States, there were tit for tat’s. That the sickly Chernenko could even engage in such foolishness was miraculous.

The Long Goodbye - Chernenko strikes a pose

The Long Goodbye – Chernenko strikes a pose

The Sickest of Them All
Finally, mercifully, during the late winter of 1985, the death defying Chernenko approached his final moment. By this point it was a tossup whether he would succumb to emphysema, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver or hepatitis. It turned out to be a combination of all four. Within hours his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev was announced, offering proof that Chernenko had long since been given up for dead. Ironically, the Soviet papers announced Gorbachev’s ascension to power on their front pages, while Chernenko’s death notice took a backseat on page two. Conversely, the New York Times placed both events on the front page. Chernenko had ceased to be of importance to the Soviet Union, while still being at least symbolically respected in the western world.

The Soviet system outlasted Chernenko by another seven years. It had been able to survive frailty in the leadership for nearly a decade. The last several years of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko were characterized more by illness than anything else. These were the sick men of Europe and Chernenko was the sickest of them all. He had been neither a reformer nor much of a hardliner, he had just been there, barely able to breathe, let alone rule. His role was to keep the seat lukewarm. Interestingly, what the Soviet Union was unable to survive was the reform minded and progressive Mikhail Gorbachev. His energetic leadership was finally put the Soviet Union to rest.

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