Yeltsin cures Kremlin's secrecy sickness

Predicting illness and death in the Kremlin's halls of power has long been an art. Tony Barber reports
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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin's confession that he needs a heart operation was, as the liberal Moscow newspaper Segodnya said yesterday, a break with Kremlin traditions of secrecy "unprecedented in our political history". At the same time, it threatens to deprive professional Russia-watchers of one of their most difficult, widely ridiculed and occasionally bizarre lines of work: divining the state of health of the leaders of the world's largest country.

In the secretive former Soviet Union, word of a leader's illness or death sometimes emerged in extraordinary circumstances. Thus the first foreigners to hear of the death of the defence minister Marshal Dmitri Ustinov in December 1984 were a group of chess writers covering the world championship in Moscow. They went one morning to the Hall of Columns, a stately building near the Kremlin where the chess games were being staged, only to find that the venue had been temporarily closed. A grumpy babushka sweeping the street outside, little realising that she was breaking the news to the world, told them: "They're doing Ustinov's funeral here. Now go away."

Ustinov died only three months before the penultimate Soviet president, Konstantin Chernenko, but Chernenko had been in poor health with emphysema virtually from the moment he took over in February 1984. No official confirmation was provided during his lifetime, but some Western tealeaf-readers speculated that Pravda was hinting at Chernenko's imminent death when it ran a series of articles in summer 1984 recounting the last days of Vladimir Lenin's mother.

Some Western diplomats and correspondents in Moscow used to think that a sure sign of a leader's death was the appearance of a newsreader on Soviet television dressed in black. Once in 1984, when an anchorwoman on a news programme appeared in a purple outfit after having worn black in the previous show, one Western news agency reported that it appeared that Chernenko or some other important figure had made a recovery after being close to death.

This was Kremlinology at its silliest. But when a leader would disappear for weeks on end and Soviet officials would adamantly refuse to explain what was going on, there was a genuine problem concerning how to verify or discount rumours of a leader's death or severe illness.

Donald MacLean, the late British spy who defected to Moscow and occasionally talked with foreign correspondents, knew the answer. "When they switch to playing solemn music on television and radio," he confided, "that's when you'll know Brezhnev is dead." He was right. Of course, his advice was no use in the case of Nikita Khrushchev, who was overthrown in 1964 and airbrushed from history until his death in 1971. To find out that Khrushchev had died one had to turn to a tiny item buried deep in Pravda that recorded the passing of "N. S. Khrushchev, a pensioner".

Some mysteries were never cleared up until death. For example, was Yuri Andropov, the leader from November 1982 to February 1984, married? No one was sure until his widowchose the funeral to make her first ever appearance in public and kissed the corpse.

At least the funerals of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko were safe places to be. After Josef Stalin died in 1953, vast crowds gathered for his funeral in Red Square and dozens of people, if not several hundred, died in a stampede.

Stalin collapsed at his dacha outside Moscow but, according to some accounts, took a little longer to die than his secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, had expected. Upon arriving at the dacha and seeing Stalin's motionless body, Beria is said to have jumped for joy, screaming: "At last!" However, the dictator had not quite breathed his last and opened an eye. It must have been a moment of pure terror for the murderous Beria.

Total secrecy surrounded the health problems of Stalin and the Soviet leaders of the Eighties but this was less true in the case of Lenin, only 54 when he died in 1924. Three strokes between May 1922 and March 1923 paralysed him and deprived him of the power of speech but there was no attempt to suppress all word of his condition.

In contrast, Brezhnev's deteriorating health was concealed from the public until the bitter end. However, when he gave one of his last televised speeches and listlessly read out the same page twice, some Soviet viewers must have realised something was up.

Mr Yeltsin's predecessor in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, was the only Soviet leader other than Khrushchev not to die in office. What died when Mr Gorbachev left office was the Soviet Union itself.