191. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

10906. Subject: (C) Leadership Update: Brezhnev’s Health, Other Recent Observations and Rumors. Ref: Moscow 10711.2

1. (C-entire text)

2. Brezhnev’s health. Recent observations suggest that Brezhnev is becoming increasingly feeble and that greater efforts are being made by the Soviet media to hide this fact. We have reported separately on Brezhnev’s performance during the Franco-Soviet summit (reftel). The French found his condition markedly deteriorated from two years ago, when he last met Giscard. At the moment, Brezhnev is still able, though perhaps with increasing difficulty, to rally himself sufficiently to get through major appearances and meetings. How long he can do so will depend on whether the gradual deterioration in his condition can be arrested.

3. Brezhnev on TV. We have frequently noted that film of Leonid Il’ich is edited to show him in the best possible light. A recent example was the “Vremya” coverage of his speaking performance at the Supreme Soviet session, in which the awkward moments were elimi[Page 550]nated. The same thing happened in coverage of Giscard’s arrival in Moscow. In live coverage, Brezhnev was seen taking very slow, small steps as he moved through the arrival ceremony, and at one point he did not seem to know where to go. The “Vremya” film eliminated all of this. During “Vremya” coverage of the Giscard/Brezhnev document signing ceremony, the camera, which until recently would have focused all but exclusively on the top leaders, stayed on Brezhnev for no more than a few seconds at a time and repeatedly panned across the other Soviet leaders and French delegation members who were witnessing the signing.

4. Coverage of the May day ceremonies was also altered this year. On past such occasions, the cameras have zeroed in on the leaders as soon as they arrived, and before they mounted the steps of Lenin’s Mausoleum. This year, there were no close-ups until well after Brezhnev had reached the reviewing platform. During the concluding ceremonies of the demonstration, the leadership was not shown at all.

5. Brezhnev at hockey matches. As earlier reported, he was at the rink almost every night during the World Hockey Championships, usually accompanied by Chernenko and Ustinov. On some nights, however, only his personal physician has been with him, according to the FRG Ambassador, who met Brezhnev’s doctor when Leonid Il’ich visited the FRG last year. Brezhnev, Suslov, Ustinov and Chernenko attended the USSR-Sweden game and sat through the entire thing, but we understand that Brezhnev’s box was empty for the final game of the championships, between the USSR and Czechoslovakia (the Soviet team had already won the championship).

6. Views of Roy Medvedev. According to U.S. correspondent Fred Coleman (protect), who saw Medvedev after the recent Supreme Soviet meeting, Medvedev said:

Ryabov was ousted from the Secretariat, Medvedev had heard, because of “disagreement with elders;” he would not elaborate;

—he had “solid information” that Brezhnev fell seriously ill just before the Giscard visit was postponed; Brezhnev was given a “massive” dose of antibiotics;

—contingency plans were made within the senior leadership; Medvedev is convinced that it was agreed Kosygin should replace Brezhnev as Chairman of the SS Presidium, so that Kosygin could sign SALT II; this even though Kosygin would just as soon retire;

Medvedev had heard other rumors, but was not sure of them; namely: Ustinov would become Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Andropov would become General Secretary (this as part of the contingency planning); alternatively, that Ustinov would become General Secretary and Ryabov might eventually become Chairman of the Council of Ministers;

[Page 551]

—all contingency planning and rumors ceased when it became clear that Leonid Il’ich was going to recover;

Medvedev has heard that Kirilenko has been ill; he feels, however, that Kirilenko cannot be counted out as a successor to Brezhnev, although it might be that some in the leadership would argue for one change rather than two (i.e., for jumping over Kirilenko in favor of a younger General Secretary);

—he thinks that no one can predict who will become the new CPSU General Secretary; even the Politburo will not know for sure until it sits down to work this out.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Europe, USSR and East/West, Western Europe Country File, Box 4, Chron: 5/1–7/79. Confidential. Sent for information to the Consulate in Leningrad. Sent under a covering memorandum, May 4, from Stephen Larrabee (NSC) to Brzezinski. (Ibid.)
  2. Telegram 10711 from Moscow, April 30, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790201–0222.