Konstantin U. Chernenko, Soviet LeaderThe Associated Press , Associated Press
Mar. 11, 1985 2:20 PM ET
UNDATED Undated (AP) _ Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko reached the pinnacle of Soviet power at age 72, a transition figure selected by the Kremlin inner circle in 1984 to serve as the nation's sixth Communist Party leader since the overthrow of the czarist monarchy.
His death was announced Monday by the Soviet Communist Party and government. He was 73. The official announcement, read on Soviet television and carried by the news agency Tass, said Chernenko died at 7:20 p.m. (11:20 a.m. EST) Sunday after a ''grave illness.''
As Communist Party general secretary and president, Chernenko was the oldest man elevated to the Soviet Union's supreme posts. He presided over a period of collective leadership during which the Kremlin sought to renew talks with the United States on limitation of nuclear arms.
His death was announced while Soviet and American delegations in Geneva prepared for resumption of talks Tuesday on limiting nuclear weapons.
Chernenko became Communist Party general secretary on Feb. 13, 1984 following the death of Yuri V. Andropov. He became president on April 11, 1984.
Relying on Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko to direct Soviet foreign policy, Chernenko agreed to restart nuclear arms negotiations with the United States after four years of frigid superpower relations during President Reagan's first term.
But like his predecessor, Andropov, Chernenko never held a summit meeting with a president of the United States.
A low point in relations with the United States was in the summer of 1984 when athletes of the Soviet Union and most other Warsaw Pact countries stayed away from the Los Angeles Olympic games, ostensibly because of worry about inadequate security measures.
There were no major foreign or domestic policy initiatives under Chernenko's old-guard brand of communism in his 13 months at the helm of the Soviet state.
Moscow conducted a diplomatic and public relations campaign to prevent NATO from deploying Pershing 2 and cruise missiles in Western Europe to parry Soviet SS-20s. But deployment was started in in the fall of 1983 and Moscow broke off talks with the United States on limiting nuclear arms.
By the end of 1984, Moscow's concern shifted to the Reagan administration's plan to develop a space-based antimissile defense system - called Star Wars - that the Kremlin said would increase the danger of nuclear war.
Under Chernenko, Soviet troops began their fifth year in Afghanistan - longer than the Red Army fought the Nazis in World War II - but they were unable to crush anti-Marxist guerrilla resistance in the country.
Inside the Soviet Union, Jewish emigration reached its lowest ebb since 1970. Chernenko, a propagandist and agitator by training, told writers and other cultural figures to adopt a strict communist orthodoxy.
Chernenko, whose entire career was that of a party functionary, took his place in history as the top Soviet leader along with Lenin, Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev, Leonid I. Brezhnev and Andropov, the men who ran the country after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The ruddy-faced, white-haired Chernenko served the Communist Party from the time he was a teen-ager and made his Kremlin career at the right hand of Brezhnev, who ruled the country for 18 years. When Brezhnev died in November 1982, Chernenko was passed over and the Communist Party Politburo named Andropov to take control of the party.
But Andropov soon fell ill with a kidney ailment and died Feb. 9, 1984 after only 15 months in power - running the huge country of 276 million people from a sickbed in his last months.
The Politburo members - most of them from the Brezhnev-Chernenko generation - decided not to pass the party leadership to the new men in their 50s and early 60s but to pick Chernenko for a period of transition.
From the beginning, Chernenko appeared frail, was short of breath and it was widely reported that he suffered from emphysema. As with Andropov, Chernenko's health became a matter of almost constant speculation and he was absent from public view for long periods.
Chernenko's 54-day absence from public view in the summer of 1984 heightened the speculation that his health had worsened, but in early September he turned up at an awards ceremony for Soviet cosmonauts, an event shown on Moscow television. He appeared tanned and read his five-minute speech in a soft, clear voice.
He then dropped out of sight after Dec. 27, 1984 for two months, and during that period Soviet officials provided conflicting reports that he was ill or on vacation.
Late last month he appeared twice on Soviet television, looking frail and gasping for breath. He was shown voting in elections and on Feb. 28 he was shown receiving credentials on his election to the Russian Republic's parliament. He struggled for breath while reading a brief statement.
David Owen, a medical doctor and then Britain's foreign secretary, said after meeting Chernenko during Andropov's funeral that Chernenko had emphysema, a disease he described as tending ''to be something which brings on heart disease.''
Chernenko's breathing difficulties were evident in public appearances from the time he took over as party leader.
Foreign visitors who saw Chernenko after he came to power said they found him to be mentally alert. A senior Western diplomat present at a meeting with Chernenko early in the summer of 1984 reported that he argued positions ably and spoke without notes.
A reporter for The Washington Post who met with him in October 1984 found he appeared alert and punctuated a 20-minute conversation with light-hearted quips. Chernenko's position in formulating Soviet policy was less certain to the visitors, however. After Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of West Germany visited Moscow in May, 1984, officials in Bonn ree and economics overlord Mikhail S. Gorbachev to oversee their spheres with relative independence.
The son of Siberian peasants, Chernenko was first a Communist propagandist at 18, working near his native Krasnoyarsk, and later became a border guard.
Like many young men at the time of the Stalinist purges, Chernenko rose rapidly in local Communist ranks and left Krasnoyarsk for higher party school in Moscow in 1943.
His association with Brezhnev began in the 1950s, when he served Brezhnev as propaganda chief in the southern republic of Moldavia.
In 1965, a year after Brezhnev and a group of other party chieftains ousted Khrushchev from power, Chernenko returned to Moscow to head the Communist Party's general department. He held held the post until 1983 and it gave him direct and constant contact with party officials across the vast country.
Chernenko became a member of the Central Committee in 1971, by 1976 a Communist Party national secretary and in 1978 was named to the Politburo.
Chernenko accompanied Brezhnev to Vienna, Austria, in 1979 for meetings with President Jimmy Carter but reportedly took little part in the discussions. Malcolm Toon, then the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, later said: ''The only impression I formed of him is that he was a dullard.''
A Soviet journalist told Western reporters that Chernenko was ''the closest man to the chairman (Brezhnev).''
Accordingly, Chernenko's views on foreign policy and especially relations with the United States closely followed Brezhnev's.
He supported East-West detente and revived mention of it once he took over the party leadership. Like all other Soviet leaders, Chernenko vowed to match the United States in military power.
Domestically, Chernenko several times publicly pledged to support Andropov's policies, which included modest economic reform and a crackdown on corruption.
The discussion about economic reform that was given much attention under Andropov virtually vanished from the Soviet media under Chernenko, however. Accounts of the crackdown on bribe-taking and black-marketeering continued.
A marked increase in vitriolic propaganda against the United States and other Western nations that started under Andropov continued under Chernenko, who sanctioned the drive in a tough ideological speech to the Central Committee in June 1983.
As with other Soviet leaders, little is known Chernenko's private life. His wife, Anna Dmitrievna, who appeared at his side to vote in parliamentary elections in March 1984, was said to be a patron of Soviet film.
The couple was reported to have had two sons, one working as a script editor for Goskino, the state film agency, and another following his father's career as a party propagandist. A daughter, Yelena, co-authored a lengthy ideological article in Pravda in March, 1984, while working at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the party's highest ideological school.