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In June 1999, Vladimir Putin laid a bouquet of flowers on Yury Andropov's grave to mark the 85th anniversary of the late Soviet leader and longtime KGB chief's birth.

Shortly after he became Russia's president in 2000, Putin saw to it that a plaque honoring Andropov was placed on the Moscow building where he once lived.

And to mark the 90th anniversary of Andropov's birth in June 2004, Putin arranged for a 10-foot statue of him erected in the suburb of Petrozavodsk, north of St. Petersburg.

Andropov died 25 years ago today, on February 9, 1984, after ruling the Soviet Union for just 15 months. His spirit, however, is very much alive in the current Russian elite. In fact, few former Kremlin leaders are more relevant to understanding today's Russia.

Before his brief tenure in the Kremlin, Andropov was the longest serving KGB chief in Soviet history, running the spy agency for 15 years from 1967-82.

In the mid-1970s, when Andropov was at the height of his power in Lubyanka, a group of eager young KGB recruits from Leningrad fell under his influence. Among these fresh-faced rookies were Putin and key members of his current inner circle: National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, military procurement chief Viktor Cherkesov, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Ivanov.

As KGB chief, Andropov understood that the Soviet economy was falling dangerously behind the West and needed to be reformed if the country was to remain a superpower. What he had in mind, however, was not a repeat of Nikita Krushchev's thaw. And he certainly wasn't interested in the wholesale political reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev would eventually pursue.

Andropov wanted to introduce limited market mechanisms to make the Soviet economy more competitive with the West. But his plans for an authoritarian modernization left little room for any inkling of democracy or pluralism. Instead, the political system would remain tightly controlled, with the KGB taking a leading role.

This is how Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Elite Studies described Andropov's vision in a 2007 interview:

Andropov thought that the Communist Party had to keep power in its hands and to conduct an economic liberalization. This was the path China followed. For people in the security services, China is the ideal model. They see this as the correct course. They think that [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin went along the wrong path, as did Gorbachev.

Kryshtanovskaya added that Putin and his protégés thought Andropov "was simply a genius, that he was a very strong person who, if he had lived, would have made the correct reforms."

Putin and Co. eventually got their chance to implement their hero's vision, of course. And for awhile things seemed to be going along just swimmingly as pundits swooned about Russia Inc. and the Putin economic miracle.

The party only lasted until world oil prices tanked late last year and exposed the weakness at the heart of the system -- that the Russian economy is dangerously dependent on energy and commodities prices, just as the Soviet economy was in Andropov's time.

And the reason for this today is the same as it was 25 years ago: diversifying and decentralizing the Russian economy would create an independent business class, which in turn would lead to a more pluralistic and decentralized political system.

Russia's economics is a hostage to its politics. Anybody who thinks that the Kremlin is prepared to tolerate a truly independent entrepreneurial class should have a chat with Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

When Russia was struggling through the 1990s, Andropov's vision was often cited as the road not taken, the path that would have led to a more orderly economic modernization.

Well now the road has been taken, and it has led Russia to the same dead end.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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