150. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark) to President Reagan1


  • Soviet Succession Crisis

Al Haig’s memorandum (Tab A) calls your attention to a number of events which have occurred in recent weeks that indicate that the struggle for power in the Kremlin among Brezhnev’s potential successors has begun. Two additional comments may be made:

—The succession conflict got underway with the death several weeks ago of M. Suslov, the most doctrinaire of Soviet leaders: his death removed the guardian of orthodoxy and the only individual who had enough prestige to keep his Politburo colleagues in line.

Chernenko, whom Brezhnev has been grooming for his succession, appears to be the most “liberal” among top Soviet leaders in the sense that he has shown genuine appreciation of the significance of the Polish events and has urged the Soviet Communist Party to draw closer to the workers. He also is known to admire the Hungarian economic experiment. (S)

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Tab A

Memorandum From Secretary of State Haig to President Reagan2


  • Kremlin Succession Politics Heating Up

The ouster last week of trade union chief Shibayev was the latest sign of intensified pre-succession maneuvering among members of the Politburo. Brezhnev’s protege Konstantin Chernenko seems to be moving to the fore. But the battle has only begun, and it is still far from certain that he will inherit Brezhnev’s position as leader of the party.

Recent signs of Kremlin infighting have included:

—rumors implicating Brezhnev’s son and daughter in corruption and smuggling;

—publication of a literary piece (subsequently and without explanation withdrawn from public sale) about an aging man hanging on to power—presumably an allusion to Brezhnev;

TV clips that make no attempt to disguise Brezhnev’s physical deterioration; and

—a March 5 rumor of his death (which the Foreign Ministry’s denial attributed to “unsavory sources”).

These jibes at Brezhnev were probably aimed in part at his favorite Chernenko. Chernenko’s recent political ascent may already have eased him into the party’s number two spot, which had belonged to the recently deceased ideologue, Suslov. This is suggested by Chernenko’s:

—presence as the ranking Politburo member at the trade union session which fired Shibayev (March 5);

—high profile during Jaruzelski’s visit to Moscow (March 1–2); and

—prominence in the media coverage of a February 25 award ceremony.

In addition, Dobrynin told a State Department officer on March 3 that Chernenko will probably take Suslov’s place in running Politburo meetings when Brezhnev vacations in the Crimea.3

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In contrast, Chernenko’s rival, Andrey Kirilenko, apparently has been losing ground. He failed to attend the February 25 award ceremony or participate in the talks with Jaruzelski. Moreover, he did not join Brezhnev and six of the Moscow-based Politburo members (including Chernenko) at the March 3 performance of a controversial new play about Lenin’s last days. The plot, which highlighted Lenin’s misgivings about Stalin, was implicitly a dig at Kirilenko.

A key policy issue in the Chernenko-Kirilenko rivalry probably is the allocation of resources. Chernenko’s rhetoric suggests a readiness to do somewhat more for the consumer, while Kirilenko’s indicates firm support of the military and heavy industry.

In spite of his recent gains, Chernenko’s narrow power base (he is dependent largely on Brezhnev’s patronage) casts a shadow over his prospects. Kirilenko, having long been the more senior of the two party secretaries, has the advantage of a well-entrenched constituency in the establishment.

The outcome at this point remains unclear, but the abrupt increase in open jockeying for position between the principal rivals suggests that the question of who will inherit Brezhnev’s mantle of power may be more immediate than we had previously estimated.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC: County File, USSR (03/03/1982–03/15/1982). Secret; Exdis. Sent for information. Prepared by Pipes. A stamped notation at the top of the memorandum reads: “The President has seen.” Reagan initialed the memorandum beneath the date.
  2. Secret; Exdis.
  3. A reference to Simons who spoke with Dobrynin on March 3. Their conversation was reported in telegram 60034 to Moscow, March 6. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D820121–0227)