Grigory Romanov: Gorbachev's chief rival for power

But for some smart footwork one winter night in 1985 by Mikhail Gorbachev's supporters, the Soviet Union might have had a Romanov restoration – not of the former dynasty of tsars, but of Grigory Vasilyevich Romanov, long-time Leningrad regional party boss, and until 1985 seen by many as a future leader of his country.

The crucial moment came on 10 March 1985, with the death of the Konstantin Chernenko, the old and sickly General Secretary. At the time Romanov was the party official with key responsibility for the defence industry. With his formidable powerbase in the country's second city, he was the main rival of Gorbachev in the ruling Politburo, champion of the old guard against the younger change-minded generation embodied by Gorbachev.

According to the official Kremlin statement, Chernenko died at 7.20pm that evening. With exceptional speed, the Politburo convened barely three hours later. Crucially, several members of the old guard faction were out of Moscow, including Romanov who was in Vilnius, Lithuania. Had they been present, Gorbachev might well never have been chosen as Chernenko's successor.

"By the time we arrived in Moscow, the very next day," Romanov claimed years later, "he [Gorbachev] had already done it, without waiting for us as Politburo rules demanded. That fast! He'd already cut the deal in secret with all of them". The circumstances were more than suspicious. "Do you think," Romanov wondered aloud, "that the timing of Chernenko's death was all accidental?

Whatever the truth, his days were numbered. In May, Gorbachev made a scolding reformist speech in Leningrad, undermining Romanov in his stronghold. Soon after that he was gone, forcibly retired from the Politburo by the Central Committee on July 1 1985, with barely a word of thanks, "for reasons of health."

The reasons of health in question were almost certainly his fondness for drink. The last straw may have been when he appeared drunk on television at the Hungarian party congress in March 1985. Long before that, however, he had a reputation for an extravagant and overbearing lifestyle.

A particularly damaging story – and one Romanov claims was planted by his rivals to discredit him – was that he had commandeered from the Hermitage museum a priceless dinner service belonging to Catherine the Great for his daughter's wedding party in 1974. Much of it was reportedly then smashed by his revelling guests.

The son of a Novgorod farmer, Romanov had fought with distinction against the Germans in the terrible Second World War siege of Leningrad. As party chief there between 1970 and 1983, he was considered to have done well, at least in terms of the heavy industry-centred command economy of the era.

In terms of foreign policy, Romanov was an unabashed hawk, opposed to détente with the West and deeply suspicious of foreigners, and the Germans (unsurprisingly) in particular. "Fidel Castro is the only foreigner I can call a friend," he said in an interview not long before his death.

In Romanov's official obituary in St Petersburg, as Leningrad is now called, he was praised for his housing programmes, his promotion of industry, and development of successful poultry farms.

Rupert Cornwell

Grigory Vasilyevich Romanov, politician: born 7 February 1923; First Secretary, Leningrad region Communist Party 1970-83; candidate member, Politburo of CPSU 1973-76, full member 1976-85; died Moscow c3 June 2008.

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