Soviets Disillusioned With Older Leaders

Times Staff Writer

Three times in the last 28 months, a baldish, bespectacled television announcer has told the Soviet people in almost identical words that their leader has died.

In each case, it has been no surprise.

Leonid I. Brezhnev was visibly ill for several years before his death Nov. 10, 1982, at the age of 75.

His successor, Yuri V. Andropov, seemed healthy enough when he took office but then dropped out of sight. He succumbed 15 months later to kidney disease on Feb. 9, 1984, at the age of 69.

Finally, Konstantin U. Chernenko became the Soviet leader at the age of 72, the oldest man ever to assume the post. He never seemed well and died Sunday of lung, heart and liver ailments at the age of 73.

The rapid turnovers have produced a gallows humor. The story is told of a policeman who stops everyone from crossing Red Square, announcing that a state funeral is scheduled. The comeback: "But I have a season pass."

The changes also have left their mark on Soviet life in other ways, although it may be too early to say what the long-term impact will be.

A disillusionment with elderly, infirm leaders has spread widely. Chernenko, according to one Soviet citizen, was like a doddering grandfather who never left the house.

A middle-aged woman in Pushkin Square, reflecting on the triple turnover in 28 months, said it might be better to choose a younger man for the job.

And almost as she spoke, the Communist Party Central Committee swiftly installed Mikhail S. Gorbachev, 54, as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and, thus, as the eighth leader in the Soviet Union's 67-year history.

Gorbachev, although he is the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, is seven years older than V.I. Lenin was when Lenin successfully led the Bolshevik Revolution. Stalin was 10 years younger than Gorbachev when he became leader of the party, the real position of Soviet power.

Still, compared to his recent predecessors in terms of age, the baldish Gorbachev is a Soviet version of John F. Kennedy, who won the American Presidency at the age of 43.

No Struggle Seen

Despite the heavy influence of the "old guard" in the Politburo that elected an infirm Chernenko to the top job only 13 months ago, Gorbachev apparently won the leadership Monday without any struggle.

Chernenko's largely ineffectual leadership may have been Gorbachev's greatest asset. In his acceptance speech, the new leader sounded a call to action, telling the party's cadres: "Get down to work with fresh vigor. . . . A good deal is to be done."

Many Soviet citizens feel that too little was accomplished in the closing years of Brezhnev's 18-year tenure, and that Andropov died before he had a chance to accomplish much. Few ever placed any hope in Chernenko, whose poor health seemed a symbol of weak leadership as well as a limited time in command.

The stagnation at the top, however, will give Gorbachev a freer hand to elevate his own supporters into the high ranks of the party. For one thing, the deaths of Chernenko and Defense Minister Dmitri F. Ustinov will provide at least two openings on what had been a 12-member Politburo.

In that sense, the Soviet Union may look more to the future than to the past, and the Chernenko-Gorbachev turnover could provide a sense of new vitality that clearly has been lacking.

Gorbachev's surprisingly swift and apparently unopposed elevation--following a period when he was widely regarded as the heir apparent--may mean that he will not have to struggle as much to establish his personal authority as some of his predecessors did.

If he follows the Soviet tradition of dying in office--like all of his predecessors except Nikita S. Khrushchev and Georgy M. Malenkov--Gorbachev may be in charge for the next 15 or 20 years.

Whether this will mean a change in policy or only a change in policy-makers is, for now, an unanswered question.

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