Soviet rulers traditionally never offer to resign or retire. And following the examples of Joseph Stalin, who died in the Kremlin, and Nikita Khrushchev, who had to be ousted from it, President Leonid Brezhnev is clinging to power despite mounting evidence that his health is swiftly deteriorating. Two months ago, Soviet TV audiences were shocked by the sight of their visibly haggard leader convulsed in tears at a state funeral. But what clinched the growing domestic and Western awareness of the leader’s frailty was the conspicuous absence, two weeks ago, of the usually obligatory photo to commemorate Brezhnev’s return from a state trip to central Asia.
Since then, U.S. correspondents have been circulating rumors that the 75-year-old leader was felled by a stroke en route home and had to be carried off his plane on a stretcher. Some reports say he will be forced to step down at a party conference in May. At the same time, despite official disclaimers that the still-absent Brezhnev is merely enjoying a “routine winter vacation,” scheduled diplomatic meetings have been cancelled and decision-making has ground to a halt.
The paralysis in Moscow seemed to upset the chances of President Ronald Reagan’s proposal for top-level disarmament talks in June. Reagan suggested last week that he meet face-toface with Brezhnev when the Soviet leader visits the United Nations. His offer, which followed a previous proposal to discuss a weapons freeze when American nuclear strength equals that of the Soviets, appeared to mark a significant softening of approach.
But Blair Ruble, of the Washington-based Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, for one, disputed that view. “I see Reagan’s offer as a ploy to make it look as if he’s for serious arms negotiations when he may not be,” he declared. “It’s too much of a coincidence that the of-
fer comes when Brezhnev is sick.” Meanwhile, in Moscow, there were clear signs that the Kremlin succession struggle is already under way. The Politburo’s army faction publicly snubbed other official mourners at party ideologue Mikhail Suslov’s funeral in January by cracking jokes and standing apart. Then, six weeks later, a Brezhnev and Suslov protégé was sacked as head of the Soviet trade unions organization.
Brezhnev’s personally annointed successor, Konstantin Chernenko, now seems to be a likely interim leader, but he lacks broad backing. He is thought to be the author of the relatively flexible position that the Kremlin has taken on Poland since Suslov’s death.
So far, Brezhnev himself has given no outward indication of being the first Soviet leader in history to retire gracefully. At week’s end his signature continued to appear on messages and documents published in official state media.
Having climbed from a humble steelworker’s family in the Ukraine, through the razor-edged intrigues of the Stalinist era to one of the two most politically powerful jobs in the world, the man with the bushy eyebrows has developed a grip on power that few o others can challenge.
2 VAL ROSS in Toronto, with correspondents ’ reports.
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