I left Lebanon for the Soviet Union in 1984. In January, the army had mutinied and the government lost control of Beirut, its defeat complete and unmistakable. The president held only his palace in which he was occasionally shelled by artillery in the surrounding hills. In Beirut, journalists and diplomats watched the battles in the hills to find winners and losers. In Moscow, the equivalent staging posts in the leadership crisis were state funerals where the coffin of the latest Politburo member to die was carried through Red Square. Surviving members of the leadership watched the funeral from on top of Lenin’s red granite tomb, while journalists and diplomats, standing in reserved areas just below, stared up in an effort to diagnose the progress of their various ailments.
There were four important deaths. Leonid Brezhnev and his successor Yuri Andropov died in the two years before I arrived, and in the next six months they were followed by Marshal Dmitri Ustinov, the Defence Minister, and Konstantin Cheraenko, President and General Secretary of the Communist Party. Soviet officials, like hospital spokesmen, issued optimistic bulletins up to the moment that television and radio switched to solemn music. The death of Ustinov was first revealed after two American journalists went to a hall close to the Kremlin where the World Chess Championship was taking place. They found the door to the hall closed and a short note pinned to it cancelling the day’s game. Curious to know why, they knocked on the door until it was opened by a cleaning woman holding a mop, who said that she was doing the floor to prepare for the lying-in-state of the marshal who had died the previous night. Pleased with the scoop, the two journalists went back to their office, but, worried by the status of their source, decided that since, like everybody else, the cleaning woman was ultimately employed by the state, they would attribute their information to ‘a Soviet official’.
Despite all the secrecy, what was happening in the Soviet Union was obvious enough: the old order, the wartime generation, was dying. Soviet conservatives, the leaders who wanted to do things the way Brezhnev had done them, were weak. They needed a younger and healthier candidate and did not have one. The best they could do after the death of Yuri Andropov early in 1984 was appoint Brezhnev’s old aide Konstantin Chernenko to succeed him.