Yuri Andropov (1914-1984) was a former diplomat and KGB chief who became Soviet leader in late 1982, after the death of Leonid Brezhnev.
Andropov was born in southern Russia, the son of a railway bureaucrat. He was raised in a middle-class family but was orphaned young, so was forced to seek work. Andropov tried a number of different jobs, from telegraph operator to film projectionist. He also became involved in socialist politics, joining the Komsomol (the youth branch of the Russian Communist Party).
Like Nikita Khrushchev, Andropov rose through party ranks by demonstrating unquestioning loyalty to Joseph Stalin. In 1940 he was placed in charge of the Komsomol in the Soviet region bordering Finland. He transferred to the Communist Party in 1944. By the early 1950s, Andropov was working for the party’s Central Committee, before transferring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Andropov was appointed as Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1954. He was a pivotal figure in Moscow’s suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, recommending the deployment of Soviet troops. This enhanced Andropov’s reputation as an ideological hardliner, unwilling to tolerate reform or deviation from the socialist line.
In 1967, Andropov was appointed the chairman of the KGB, where he was active in quietening domestic dissent, particularly among liberal writers and academics. In 1968 he recommended the suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Andropov joined the Politburo in 1973. Under his leadership, the KGB became more involved in formulating and implementing policy. He was closely aligned with Leonid Brezhnev, and when the latter became seriously ill, Andropov emerged as one of several potential successors.
Brezhnev died in November 1982 and Andropov was elected General Secretary two days later. Andropov began with a campaign against the corruption and inefficiency that had grown under Brezhnev. Dozens of incompetent politicians and officials were dismissed, while a campaign was launched against alcoholism and poor discipline in the bureaucracy and military.
Andropov’s leadership was also marked by international tensions and crises, including the failure of arms reduction talks, the shooting down of a Korean civilian airliner, the unveiling of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) and Reagan’s labelling of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”.
Andropov suffered from poor health and was bedridden for the final weeks of his leadership. He died in February 1984 and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko.