Great efforts are being made to discern the real lineup of political power in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Politburo. Before the Washington summit last December between President Reagan and the new Soviet General Secretary, US newspapers were filled with reports on the “key men in the Kremlin” and “the Gorbachev team.”
The plain fact is that no one can be certain of the structure of power at the highest echelons of the Communist Party. It is only through the occasional volcanic eruption that flings unacceptable members out of the club that the US gains what little evidence it has about behind-the-scenes affairs.
Even so, attempting to crack the Politburo is worthwhile, if only because how the West views Gorbachev’s own political situation has great effect on how it deals with the Soviet Union as a whole.
What, then, are the facts about this organization, its influence, and its operations
The Politburo (short for Politicheskoye Buro, or “Political Bureau”) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) is the key policy-making body that directs the work of the Party between plenums of the Central Committee.
It has a long and checkered history, one that reaches even further back into history than the October Revolution of 1917.
On October 7, 1917, Vladimir I. Ulyanov, clean-shaven, wearing a wig for disguise, and calling himself by his pseudonym, Nikolai Lenin, was smuggled into Petrograd from exile.
Three days later, fifteen days before the Red uprising began, twelve members of the Central Committee met with Lenin in the apartment of G. K. Sukhanov at No. 32 on the Karpovka Embankment. It was there that feverish final preparations began for the approaching uprising.
Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, founder of the Cheka (precursor of today’s KGB), proposed the formation of a Politburo to be headed by Lenin. The first seven-man Politburo, including Leon Trotskiy, Joseph Stalin, Lev Kamenev, Grigoriy Zinoviev, Andrey Bubnov, and Grigoriy Sokolnikov, was organized by Lenin. This group gave political guidance to the revolution, but was disbanded not long after.
The Center of Power
The Politburo did not begin to function as a permanent agency until after the 8th Party Congress in March 1919. Soon, however, it became the center of power, usurping the role of the Central Committee itself.
Composed of thirteen men today and never more than fifteen, the Politburo includes heads of higher Party and state agencies as well as the most influential and experienced political figures of the day.
Every five years, at the weeklong Party Congress, delegates assemble to pick, among other things, a new Central Committee of the CPSU. In 1986, 5,000 delegates, representing nearly 20,000,000 Party members, selected 307 members and 107 candidate (nonvoting) members.
Central Committees must hold at least one plenum every six months. The first of these is held before the Congress adjourns and is intended for the sole purpose of choosing a new Politburo that will carry out broad Party policy. They also select a new Secretariat that will handle the day-to-day work of the Party through departments.
Simple though it sounds, the Politburo selection process is a ritual fraught with intrigue and political significance of the highest order. Ultimate power rests in the hands of this small group. The most important political, social, economic, and Party questions are decided at meetings of the Politburo.
How does it operate? The Politburo runs on the basis of “democratic centralism,” that is, “strict Party discipline and subordination of the minority to the majority” and “unconditional commitment to decisions of higher agencies by lower ones.”
Translated, this means that once the leadership reaches a decision, no dissent is permitted or tolerated. The Party’s actions are strictly subordinated to one center—the Politburo.
In the current Politburo, it is Gorbachev himself, now about to embark on his fourth year in the General Secretary’s post, who clearly dominates the action.
This is not to say, however, that there is a uniformity of views imposed by Gorbachev. The Politburo, in fact, is a microcosm of Soviet power and policies, reflecting the various regions, professions, and economic interests of society at large.
The Current Lineup
That much is made clear in a listing of the current lineup of members.
• Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a lawyer, is at fifty-seven the youngest of the Politburo’s members. In Andrey Gromyko’s 1985 speech nominating Gorbachev for General Secretary, he pointed out that Gorbachev had been a Party Secretary since 1978 and a full Politburo member since 1980. Gromyko further noted that Gorbachev had supervised the Secretariat for his predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, and had also presided over Politburo meetings when Chernenko was not there. “A man of strong convictions” is the way that Gromyko described Gorbachev.
Gromyko warned that the “telescopes” of the world were focused on the Soviet Union. They are looking for cracks in the Soviet leadership, he said, but added, “We will not give our political enemies satisfaction on that score.”
Gromyko did not fail to mention that Gorbachev had given close attention to the armed forces. In Politburo meetings, said Gromyko, the new leader had advised members of the necessity to “keep our powder dry.” Gorbachev, contended Gromyko, always defended the “struggle” for peace and the need to keep Soviet defenses at the “necessary level” as “the holiest of holies” for all Soviet citizens.
• Nikolay Ryzhkov, fifty-eight, an engineer, is also a Politburo member. He was one of the first of the new Politburo appointees under Gorbachev, his elevation coming in April 1985. He became Chairman of the Council of Ministers—”Premier”—later that same year.
• Andrey Gromyko, seventy-eight, an economist and diplomat, was appointed in 1973 to the Politburo. He has since July 1985 been Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet—”President” of the nation. Until that time, the position of “President” had since 1977 been held by the General Secretary himself. Largely ceremonial, the post is seen as Gorbachev’s reward to Gromyko for his support in the succession struggle. Gromyko from 1957 to 1985 served as Minister of Foreign Affairs. During World War II and after, Gromyko acted as Soviet Ambassador in Washington.
• Yegor Ligachev, sixty-seven, an aeronautical engineer, was also among the first of the Gorbachev appointments in 1985. As “second Secretary,” he runs the Secretariat for Gorbachev. Western press reporting portrays Ligachev as being more “conservative” than Gorbachev, but there is little evidence one way or the other about this. He also is in charge of ideology and Party personnel, placing Gorbachev supporters in key Party slots.
• Aleksandr Yakovlev, sixty-five, a diplomat, was elevated to full membership in 1987. Since 1986, he has been the Secretary in charge of ideology, propaganda, and culture. A former exchange student at Columbia University in New York, he accompanied Gorbachev to the Iceland summit in 1986 and to the Washington summit in 1987. He is a specialist on the United States and Canada, having served ten years as ambassador in Ottawa.
• Lev Zaykov, sixty-four, an engineer, was appointed to the Politburo in 1986. A Party Secretary since 1985, he is believed to be responsible for defense industry. In late 1987, Zaykov became First Secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee. The Moscow Party is second only to the Ukrainian Communist Party in size. He replaced the maverick Boris Yeltsin after the latter was ousted for “gross political errors.” Zaykov will probably be giving up his post in the Secretariat as a result his assumption of the new duties.
• Viktor Nikonov, fifty-nine, an agricultural expert, was appointed to the Politburo in mid-1987. He graduated from the Azov-Black Sea Agricultural Institute. The first man to be added to the Secretariat under Gorbachev, Nikonov is responsible for Soviet agriculture—one of the most important jobs in the country.
• Nikolay Slyunkov, fifty-eight, an engineer, was elevated to full Politburo membership in mid-1987. On the Secretariat since January 1977, Slyunkov is currently responsible for general economics. It is possible that he will take over responsibility for defense industry from Zaykov. From 1965 to 1974, he was director of the Minsk Tractor Production Combine, part of the vast USSR military-industrial complex. Belorussian by nationality, he was First Secretary of the Belorussian Communist Party until 1987.
• Viktor Chebrikov, sixty-four, a metallurgist, was elevated to full membership in the Politburo in April 1985. Holder of the rank of General of the Army, Chebrikov took over as head of the KGB in 1982 when Yuriy Andropov was appointed to the Secretariat as the Party’s ideologist. Chebrikov had been Andropov’s deputy since 1968.
• Eduard Shevardnadze, sixty, a historian, was appointed to full Politburo membership when he became Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1985. Shevardnadze and Gorbachev both reached the Party’s inner circle in 1978: Shevardnadze joined the Politburo as a candidate member, and Gorbachev became part of the Secretariat. A Georgian by nationality, he headed the MYD police there before becoming First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party. He has met many times with Secretary of State George Shultz on arms-control matters and summit planning.
• Vitaliy Vorotnikov, sixty-two, an aeronautical engineer, was raised in status to full Politburo membership in June 1983. At that time, he became “Premier” of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. He served as Soviet envoy to Fidel Castro’s Cuba from 1979 to 1982.
• Mikhail Solomentsev, seventy-four, an engineer, was appointed to the Politburo in 1983 after twelve years as a candidate. As chairman of the Central Committee’s Party Control Committee, he is responsible for Party discipline. From 1966 to 1971, Solomentsev was in the Secretariat, overseeing heavy industry. For twelve years, he served as “Premier” of the Russian Republic.
• Vladimir Shcherbitskiy, seventy, a chemical engineer, received full Politburo membership status in 1971. He had been a Politburo alternate from 1961 until he was ousted in 1963. Ukrainian by nationality, he has long been associated with the Dnepropetrovsk “Mafia” around Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev returned him to the Politburo as an alternate in 1965, after Brezhnev’s rise to power. Shcherbitskiy was “Premier” of the Ukraine until 1972, when he became First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Due to his position as Ukrainian Party chief, Shcherbitskiy was in the running to succeed his late mentor in 1982. But the stagnation and corruption of Brezhnev’s last days, associated with the Dnepropetrovsk “Mafia,” probably sank his chances.
Each of these thirteen members of the Politburo has his own power base and set of priorities. Each, however, can be placed into one of three general groupings.
At the top of the power structure, in the view of most experts, is the so-called “Party” group, which by dint of numbers and resources holds the principal levers of power.
Gorbachev, as General Secretary, heads the group. Working most closely with him are five additional men—all members of both the Politburo and the Secretariat. They are Ligachev, Nikonov, Yakovlev, Slyunkov, and Zaykov.
A subcategory of this “Party” group is formed of regional Party bosses. It includes Shcherbitskiy of the Ukraine and Zaykov, who now runs the Moscow Party Committee. These are the two largest Communist Party organizations in the Soviet Union. Solomentsev, as Party control chairman, is in another subcategory as well.
Next in line behind the “Party” group is what is known as the “government” group, which comprises individuals who are affiliated primarily with the institutions of formal administration.
First among those members whose primary functions are in the Soviet “government” is “Premier” Ryzhkov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers in Moscow. Also in this category are Chebrikov, head of the KGB; Shevardnadze, Foreign Minister; and Vorotnikov, Chairman of the Russian Republic’s Council of Ministers. General of the Army Dmitriy Yazov, Minister of Defense but only a candidate Politburo member, falls in this group.
Finally, there is the body that deals with “state” interests and that formalizes Party decisions into law. As Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Gromyko functions as head of the state group in the Politburo.
So secret is another subgroup of the Politburo that its existence was not even mentioned officially until 1976. This is the Council of Defense.
Today, all that is really known for certain is that Gorbachev is the chairman of the Council of Defense. In 1977, the new Constitution of the USSR spelled out a few details of how it is formed. Brezhnev’s later biographies credit him with being chairman of the Council of Defense since becoming Party leader in 1964.
Determining the membership of the Council is mostly guesswork. In addition to Gorbachev, Politburo members Ryzhkov and Gromyko, representing government and state, undoubtedly have seats in the council. Defense Minister Yazov and KGB Head Chebnkov should also be members. Moreover, Ligachev, Yakovlev, and either Zaykov or Slyunkov may take part as well because of the fact that they are also in the Secretariat.
Far more revealing of the changing balance of power in the Politburo—and of Gorbachev’s possible influence—is the record of the comings and goings of Politburo members since Gorbachev became the General Secretary.
On becoming General Secretary, Gorbachev inherited a “board of directors” from Konstantin Chernenko. Politburo members do not resign when a new leader comes aboard; the new leader has to maneuver carefully to eliminate those who oppose him and to bring in his own supporters.
What has happened in the three years since Gorbachev and the nine other incumbent Politburo members attended Chernenko’s funeral
Five have been removed, one by one—two in 1985, one in 1986, and two more in 1987. While these five were departing, four new members were being added in 1985, one new one in 1986, and three more in 1987.
The removals and promotions came in several stages.
April 1985: At this time, the Central Committee held its first regular meeting since Gorbachev took over. Three of his supporters—Ligachev, Ryzhkov, and Chebrikov—are brought in at a single stroke. This tipped the balance in the Politburo in Gorbachev’s favor, making possible the next move.
July 1985: At a critical meeting of the Central Committee, Grigoriy Romanov, Gorbachev’s archrival in the succession struggle and reputed favorite of the military-industrial complex, was forced to resign “because of his health.”
At the same time, Shevardnadze joined the Politburo and became Foreign Minister. Gromyko himself moved to a largely ceremonial post where he could put to use his long experience in foreign affairs to help the man he supported.
September 1985: The well-regarded Nikolay A. Tikhonov, seventy-nine at the time and chairman of the USSR’s Council of Ministers, requested retirement.
February 1986: On the eve of the 27th Party Congress, a plenum stripped Viktor Grishin of his Politburo membership. As Party Secretary in Moscow, Grishin reportedly tried but failed to edge out Gorbachev for the General Secretary’s post.
March 1986: The 27th Party Congress added Zaykov to the Politburo.
January 1987: Dinmukhamed A. Kunayev, seventy-three, a Kazakh and Muslim and former Brezhnev crony, was censured for corruption and ousted from the Politburo.
July 1987: Slyunkov, Yakovlev, and Nikonov were added to the Politburo.
October 1987: G. A. Aliyev, sixty-one, an Azerbaydzhanets, also a Muslim, and First Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, requested retirement for reasons of poor health and departed from the ranks of the Politburo.
As the year 1988 began, the remaining four holdovers from the pre-Gorbachev era—Shcherbitskiy, Gromyko, Solomentsev, and Vorotnikov—were still on the Politburo.
Over the past three years, political maneuvering has led to the appointment of no fewer than eight new men, all younger than the men they replaced but older than Gorbachev himself. All can be said to be supporters of Gorbachev to a greater or lesser degree.
A Glimpse Inside
What happened at Politburo meetings remained a mystery until Soviet newspapers, in 1982, began to publish summaries of the sessions. Accounts of recent meetings have proved at times to be illuminating.
For example, the Pravda summary of the Politburo meeting on May 30, 1987, was devoted entirely to the landing in Red Square of the West German teenager, Mathias Rust, who had piloted his private aircraft into the Soviet Union on a peace mission just a few days before.
The summary began by describing a report on the “violation” of Soviet airspace that was given by Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov. Then the Pravda account revealed that the lightplane from the Hamburg air club had been detected on radar immediately on crossing the border. Even though Soviet fighters flew over it twice, the Politburo noted that the Troops of Air Defense Command displayed “intolerable unconcern and indecisiveness” in stopping the flight.
This fact was taken as proof of “serious flaws in the organization of keeping a combat alert” in the air, “a lack of necessary vigilance and discipline,” and “major omissions in leadership of troops from the Ministry of Defense.”
As a result, the Politburo found it necessary to relieve Chief Marshal of Aviation A. I. Koldunov of his duties as Deputy Minister of Defense and Commander in Chief of the Troops of Air Defense because of “negligence and lack of organization in cutting short the indicated intrusion.”
The Politburo, Pravda continued, also decided to “strengthen the leadership” of the Ministry of Defense. This meant that Marshal of the Soviet Union Sokolov was sacked. There was a tiny notice on page one naming General of the Army Dmitriy Yazov as new Minister of Defense.
The Bloody Past
Even these strains in the transfer of power in the Politburo since 1985 pale by comparison with internal struggles of the past.
Starting even before Lenin died in January 1924, Stalin and two other founding Bolsheviks—Kamenev and Zinoviev—banded together to prevent Trotskiy from taking over the leadership in the post-Lenin period. Through his hold on the Secretariat, Stalin began replacing Trotskiy’s supporters with his own.
Once he had stopped Trotskiy, however, Stalin turned on Kamenev and Zinoviev themselves, joining forces with Nikolay Bukharin, Aleksey Rykhov, and Mikhail Tomskiy to form a new majority. In turn, Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Trotskiy were all ousted from the Politburo.
Stalin was not finished. Having removed the members of the so-called “Left Opposition,” Stalin moved against Bukharin, Tomskiy, and Rykhov on grounds that they were “Right Deviationists.” All were threatened with expulsion from the Politburo if they didn’t hew to Stalin’s line on policy. Ultimately, they were stripped of their positions.
Another rival, Sergey Kirov, was murdered in 1934—this clearly being the work of Stalin. The putative “search” for Kirov’s killer served as a convenient pretext for Stalin to unleash a ferocious purge in which hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens perished. Included were many current and former members of the Politburo.
Familiar, Intricate Maneuverings
Here are the figures.
From the time of the October Revolution in 1917 until the outbreak of war in 1941, a total of twenty-three Communist Party leaders gained membership in the Politburo. Fourteen—nearly two-thirds—died during this same period.
Only two—Lenin himself and a lesser figure—died in their beds. The other twelve—all of them important figures in the Revolution—met grisly ends in Stalin’s purges. Some, in despair, died by their own hands.
The roll of the dead:
• Sergey M. Kirov, murdered 1934.
• Lev B. Kamenev, executed 1936.
• Grigoriy Zinoviev, executed 1936.
• Mikhail P. Tomskiy, suicide 1936.
• Grigory K. Ordzhonikidze, suicide 1937.
• Nikolai N. Krestinskiy, executed 1938.
• Aleksey I. Rykhov, executed 1938.
• Nikolay I. Bukharin, executed 1938.
• Yan E. Rudzutak, executed 1938.
• Stanislav V. Kosior, executed 1938.
• Vlas Chubar, executed 1939.
• Leon D. Trotskiy, murdered 1940.
After the war, Stalin once again turned on those closest to him. According to Khrushchev, Stalin “had plans to finish off the old members of the Politburo.” Andrey A. Andreyev was ousted. Klimentiy Voroshilov was accused of being a British spy and forbidden to attend Politburo meetings. Vyacheslav Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan were under suspicion. Only the death of Stalin himself, in March 1953, prevented yet another bloody purge.
In 1957, Khrushchev, too, faced major opposition from what became known as the “anti-Party group,” composed of Molotov, Georgiy Malenkov, Lazar Kaganovich, and Maksim Saburov. Khrushchev, challenged in the Politburo (at that time, it was called the Presidium), turned to the Central Committee for support. Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, Defense Minister, dispatched military aircraft to bring Khrushchev supporters to Moscow for a showdown vote. When the vote was tallied at the Central Committee plenum, Khrushchev had defeated his opponents.
Khrushchev rewarded Zhukov by elevating him from candidate status to full membership in the Politburo. Ironically, Zhukov was ousted within four months for manifesting “Napoleonic tendencies.” Not until 1973, sixteen years later, would any Defense Minister reach the ranks of the Politburo. This, however, did not stop Politburo members from approving a huge buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons.
In the early 1960s, Khrushchev’s heir apparent, Frol Kozlov, threatened to unseat him prematurely. Khrushchev decided to stay on. Kozlov was thwarted and eventually hospitalized with a heart attack. Five months later, Khrushchev was ousted, accused by others on the Politburo of “harebrained scheming” and “willfulness.” Leonid Brezhnev, Aleksey Kosygin, and Nikolay Podgornyy took over the reins of power.
If persistent rumors are to be believed, Brezhnev survived a number of attempts to remove him during his eighteen-year career as Soviet General Secretary in the Kremlin. Always successful in turning the plotters aside, Brezhnev in the end died of natural causes in his dacha.
Five of the Old Bolsheviks who had served on the Politburo in the days of Lenin and Stalin before World War II and had managed to survive Stalin’s purges lived on into the 1960s, 1970s, and even the 1980s. The last of the tribe, Mob-toy, did not pass away until well into 1987—long enough for him to observe the familiar, intricate maneuverings between yet another Soviet General Secretary and his Politburo.
Harriet Fast Scott, a Washington consultant on Soviet military affairs, is a member of the General Advisory Commission on Arms Control and Disarmament. She has lived and traveled extensively in the USSR and maintains one of the largest private libraries in the US of Soviet military publications. Her translation and analysis of the Third Edition of Marshal V. D. Sokolovskiy’s Soviet Military Strategy is a standard reference, as are three of her other books—The Armed Forces of the USSR, The Soviet Art of War, and The Soviet Control Structure, all coauthored with her husband, Dr. William F Scott.