Obituary: Nikolai Tikhonov

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The Independent Online
It was an extraordinary feature of life at the top of the Soviet hierarchy that, despite decades of bearing the full weight of responsibility for running the great state, so many of its members lived far beyond the normal allotted span. If one had survived Stalin's bloody purges of the 1930s and 1940s, the chances were good that one would live into one's nineties. The relationship between fear, stress and longevity cries out for explanation.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Tikhonov, who has died aged 92, was a fairly typical member of the geriatric Politburo that allegedly ran the Soviet Union under three successive, ailing General Secretaries: Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. A colourless technocrat, he was born in 1905, the son of an engineer in the industrial city of Kharkov, capital of Ukraine until 1934. He worked as an assistant train driver and mechanic between 1924 and 1930, while studying at the Dnepropetrovsk Metallurgical Institute, then until 1947 worked in various engineering and mining enterprises in Dnepropetrovsk and Pervouralsk, joining the Communist Party in 1940 when he was already 35.

For three years he ran a pipe factory in the district where Leonid Brezhnev was regional party secretary, and he continued to rise in his engineering career until 1950, when he moved into the mainstream of the administration as a staff member of the Soviet Ministry of Ferrous Metallurgy. Five years later he was made the head of its Main Board with the rank of Deputy Minister.

Khrushchev's administrative reforms in 1957 led to Tikhonov's return to Ukraine as Chairman of the Dnepropetrovsk Economic Council. In 1960 he returned to Moscow as Chairman of the State Economic Council of the Soviet Council of Ministers. He was made a candidate member of the Party Central Committee in 1961 and a full member in 1966, deputy chairman of Gosplan, 1963-65, deputy chairman, 1965-76, and first deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers under Alexei Kosygin until 1980. He became a candidate member of the Politburo in 1978 and a full member the year later. When Kosygin retired as prime minister in 1980, Tikhonov replaced him at the age of 75, remaining as head of government until 1985.

While Tikhonov's Party career was not as meteoric as that of some of his comrades-in-arms, taking him nearly 40 years to reach the pinnacle, his wide experience in industrial management ensured that his Central Committee responsibilities would focus on the economy. More than most of the other leaders, he travelled in the West on technical missions, and this comparatively wider knowledge, coupled with the special patronage he enjoyed under Brezhnev, may explain his presence among the most influential members of the Politburo in its last phase.

He survived Andropov's reign, and when Andropov died in February 1984 it was Tikhonov who nominated the decrepit Chernenko as his successor, a mere 10 hours later. Gromyko seconded the proposal with the puzzling exhortation to "look into the future". Whatever the misgivings of the other Politburo members, the golden rule of not opposing the first to speak was observed, and for 13 months the Soviet Union continued in its stagnant condition.

In March 1985, when Gromyko nominated Gorbachev, again urging the others to "look into the future", Tikhonov described the energetic and comparatively young new General Secretary as "the first Secretary who understands economics", a curious reflection on himself, to say nothing of the vast economics establishment that had brought the country to its parlous state.

Since he had not concealed his hostility to the fast-rising Gorbachev in earlier years, Tikhonov's tenure in the Politburo, regardless of his advanced age, could not be expected to last for much longer, and in September 1985, six months into the new leadership, he retired, officially for health reasons, making way for the new generation that would inaugurate the era of perestroika and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

Nikolai Alexandrovich Tikhonov, politician: born Kharkov, Ukraine 14 May 1905; died Moscow 1 June 1997.