Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985) was the leader of the Soviet Union for a brief period in the mid-1980s.
Chernenko was born into poverty in western Siberia, the son of a miner. He worked on the family farm as a boy, while completing his education. Chernenko joined the Communist Youth League at age 17 and the Communist Party two years later. He served in the Soviet Red Army in the early 1930s, then became a party propagandist.
By the 1950s, Chernenko was a high ranking party functionary and a protege of Leonid Brezhnev. When Brezhnev replaced Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader in 1964, Chernenko was seconded into the government. In 1971 he was elevated into the Central Committee, then the Politburo in 1978.
When General Secretary Yuri Andropov died in February 1984, Chernenko was elected to replace him. It was a surprising move, given Chernenko’s own age, career and poor health. The 73-year-old was a capable behind-the-scenes administrator – but he was not a policy expert, a statesman or a natural leader. Chernenko was also terminally ill, riddled with emphysema and heart problems from a lifetime of smoking, so was not a long-term leadership prospect. Many believe he was elected by conservatives to prevent Mikhail Gorbachev (Andropov’s nominated successor) from becoming leader.
During his brief tenure, Chernenko sought to restore Moscow’s trade and diplomatic relations with China. He did little to ease US-Soviet relations, however, sometimes matching Ronald Reagan‘s bellicose public remarks. In May 1984, Chernenko ruled that Soviet athletes would boycott the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
By late 1984, Chernenko was gravely ill and spent most of his time in hospital. He died in March 1985, aged 73, after just 13 months as General Secretary.