WHEN Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov was
merely head of the K.G.B., his image was that of the stereotypic
hard-line "police boss." His major accomplishment,
according to C. L. Sulzberger, writing in The New York Times
in 1974, was "a fairly successful campaign to throttle
the recent wave of liberal dissidence." Nor was he
viewed as much of an admirer of foreign culture. In 1980
Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in the Times that Andropov "has
been working for three years on schemes to minimize the
mingling of foreigners and natives.... Now Andropov's hands
have been freed to embark on all kinds of repressive measures
designed to enhance the 'purity' of Soviet society."
Completing this picture of a tough, xenophobic, wave-throttling
cop, Andropov was physically described, in another Times
story, as a "shock-haired, burly man."
Andropov's accession to power last November
was accompanied by a corresponding ennoblement of his image.
Suddenly he became, in The Wall Street journal, "silver-haired
and dapper." His stature, previously reported in The
Washington Post as an unimpressive "five feet, eight
inches," was abruptly elevated to "tall and urbane."
The Times noted that Andropov "stood conspicuously
taller than most" Soviet leaders and that "his
spectacles, intense gaze and donnish demeanor gave him the
air of a scholar." U.S. News & World Report, on
the other hand, reported that "he has notoriously bad
eyesight and wears thick spectacles."
His linguistic abilities also came in
for scrutiny. Harrison Salisbury wrote, "The first
thing to know about Mr. Andropov is that he speaks and reads
English." Another Times story took note of his "fluent
English." Newsweek reported that even though he had
never met a "senior" American official, "he
spoke English and relaxed with American novels." Confirmation
of his command of English appeared in Time, The Wall Street
journal, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington
Post. The Economist credited him with "a working knowledge
of German," and U.S. News & World Report added
Hungarian to the growing list. And this quadralingual prodigy
was skilled in the use of language, too.
Time described him as reportedly "a witty conversationalist,"
and "a bibliophile" and "connoisseur of modern
art" to boot. The Washington Post passed along a rumor
that he was partly Jewish. (Andropov was rapidly becoming
That Cosmopolitan Man.)
Soon there were reports that Andropov
was a man of extraordinary accomplishment, with some interests
and proclivities that are unusual in a former head of the
K.G.B. According to an article in The Washington Post, Andropov
"is fond of cynical political jokes with an antiregime
twist.... collects abstract art, likes jazz and Gypsy music,"
and "has a record of stepping out of his high party
official's cocoon to contact dissidents." Also, he
swims, "plays tennis," and wears clothes that
are "sharply tailored in a West European style."
Besides the Viennese waltz and the Hungarian czarda, he
"dances the tango gracefully." (At a press conference
within hours of Andropov's accession, President Reagan,
asked about the prospects for agreement with him, used the
unfortunate metaphor, "It takes two to tango.")
The Wall Street journal added that Andropov "likes
Glenn Miller records, good scotch whisky, Oriental rugs,
and American books." To the list of his musical favorites,
Time added "Chubby Checker, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee,
and Bob Eberly," and, asserting that he had once worked
as a Volga boatman, said that he enjoyed singing "hearty
renditions of Russian songs" at after-theater parties.
The Christian Science Monitor suggested that he has "tried
his hand at writing verse-in Russian, as it happens, and
of a comic variety."
The press was less successful in ferreting
out more mundane details of his life. Where, for example,
was he born? The Washington Post initially reported that
he was "a native of Karelia," a Soviet province
on the Finnish border. The New York Times gave his birthplace
as the "southern Ukraine," which is hundreds of
miles to the south. And Time said he had been born in "the
village of Nagutskoye in the northern Caucasus." His
birthplace was thus narrowed down to an area stretching
from Finland to Iran. There was also some vagueness with
respect to his education. The Wall Street Journal reported
that he had "graduated" from an unnamed "technical
college," but U.S. News & World Report had him
"drop out" of Petrozavodsk University, while Newsweek
awarded him a diploma from the Rybinsk Water Transportation
Technicum, a vocational school that teaches river navigation.
Where had he learned music, art, poetry, Hungarian, German-and
English? Harrison Salisbury suggested that he picked up
English as a "young man," but The Christian Science
Monitor contended that he learned it from a tutor, whom
he saw three times a week when he was well into his 40s.
The balance of his biography consists almost entirely of
official announcements of awards, promotions, and trips
as part of official Soviet delegations. Time reported him
to be a widower. There is no mention, however, of whom or
when he married, or whether his wife had shared his interest
in jazz, American novels, scotch, telling antiregime jokes,
dancing Viennese waltzes, and visiting liberal dissidents.
The press does, however, furnish a vivid
description of his home life at 26 Kutuzov Prospektwhere,
according to Hedrick Smith 's book, The Russians, Brezhnev
himself resided. The scene there seems to have been quite
lively, a combination of salon and recital hall. According
to The Washington Post, Yuri Andropov is "a perfect
host." On some occasions, he would invite "leading
dissidents to his home for well-lubricated discussions that
sometimes extended to the wee hours of the morning,"
after which he would send his guests home in his own chauffeured
car. Alternatively, according to Harrison Salisbury in the
Times, he invites foreign visitors to his country home.
Salisbury writes, "A casual visitor to his country
house ... found him listening to an English language Voice
of America broadcast.... It was a longstanding habit."
Andropov assiduously reads American books, including, Salisbury
notes with quiet pride, his own novel, The Gates of Hell.
Andropov's library, according to an earlier Times story,
also included Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann,
and How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. Moreover,
according to Salisbury, Andropov regularly invited dissident
muscicians to his apartment for "private recitals."
His record collection included the "Glenn Miller Orchestra
and other American bands," and his bar, "scotch
and French cognac." Time described his apartment, with
the precision of a classified ad, as "51/2 rooms,"
with such "outstanding features" as "a stereo
system" (for jazz), a sofa" (for dissidents),
and "a cabinet of highly polished wood" (for eyes
only). These items, wrote Time, were gifts to Andropov from
the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito." The Wall
Street Journal, on the other hand, reported just as authoritatively
that Andropov's home 11 was furnished with Hungarian furniture,
the gift of Janos Kadar, Hungary's Moscow-backed leader,
as an apparent gesture of appreciation for Mr. Andropov's
role in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution."
The varied descriptions of Andropov's
apartment and his Renaissance style of life come principally
from a single source. His name is Vladimir Sakharov, and
he is fully credited by The Wall Street journal, The New
York Times, Time, and others for the descriptions of Andropov's
taste in American jazz and novels, his preference for imported
liquor and furniture, and his "strange attraction for
Western culture." (Sakharov, who is usually described
as a "K.G.B. defector," is not related to Andrei
Sakharov, the physicist and human rights activist.) There
is, however, some question about the provenance of Vladimir
Sakharov as a source. For example, The Wall Street journal
not only identified him as a "former K.G.B. agent,"
but also said he had defected "this year" (1982)
and stipulated that Andropov was "his former boss."
One might reasonably conclude from this that Sakharov had
until recently been working in the K.G,B.'s office in Moscow,
and that he had defected with important information about
Andropov. In fact, Sakharov did not defect in 1982. He defected
eleven years earlier, on July 11, 1971. Sakharov was never
actually in the K.G.B., though he does recount two efforts
to recruit him; at the time of his defection, he was a 26-yearold
diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. And in his own two lengthy
accounts of his experiences, he never claimed to know Yuri
The first such account appeared in John
Barron's KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents, published
by the Reader's Digest Press in 1974, Sakharov had been
put in touch with Barron on February 1, 1972. Barron writes
that in 1964, when Sakharov was 19 years old and a schoolmate
of Andropov's son Igor, he attended a "sexual orgy"
at the Andropov apartment, where he "wound up sleeping
with a girl in the bed of the man who now heads the K.G.B."
Barron now says that he still considers Sakharov's description
of the apartment to be "credible," although Sakharov,
at the time of his interviews with Barron, "appeared
to have a minor drinking problem," It is from this
single, seminal visit that the descriptions of Andropov's
apartment appear to have sprouted and flourished in the
press. Three years ago, Sakharov wrote his own autobiography,
High Treason, published by Putnam, in which he fails to
mention either the "sexual orgy" or any other
visit to the Andropov apartment, But he does provide an
illuminating, if eerily reminiscent, description of his
own home life.
ECHOING his version of Andropov's apartment,
Sakharov writes that he himself lived in a "spacious"
apartment with furniture from Eastern Europe, a TV, and
a piano. He writes: "We always had a highquality record
player and plenty of American popular music recordings ...
with a leaning to jazz stylists, including records by Benny
Goodman, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra." He personally
amassed a collection of jazz and "swing music"
that included Glenn Miller, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner,
Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington. When not listening to
records on his stereo, he often "poured a glass of
Black & White," "turned on [his] Grundig solid
state," and "turned it to the Voice of America."
He "religiously" listened to jazz. When he went
to the homes of his teenage friends, he writes, "I
always took recordings to partiesand usually I'd supply
scotch or bourbon or rye as well." (If so, he may well
have supplied the jazz records and scotch he later reported
he saw in Andropov's home.) He also recalls carrying around
with him a copy of How Green Was My Valley-one of the books
that, years later, he told the Times he had seen on Andropov's
shelf. (The other book he told the Times he saw in Andropov's
home in 1964, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, was
not published until 1966-an interesting anachronism.)
Sakharov recounts that while still a
teenager in Moscow he was approached by a man from the C.I.A.,
named "George," who eventually succeeded in recruiting
him as a C.I.A. agent in Yemen in 1967. In 1968 he was offered
a position in the K.G.B., but he was apprehensive that this
would interfere with his work for the C.I.A., and he had
his father, an influential diplomatic courier, intervene.
His K,G.B. application was then squelched. Later that year
Sakharov went off to Egypt as a junior diplomat. It was
in Cairo that he defected. More than ten years later, he
re-emerged in Los Angeles as an expert on Andropov-but his
expertise was based, according to his own accounts, on little
more than a teenage reverie.
THE SOURCES for other Andropov details
turn out tio be similarly elusive. For example, the remarkable
account of a fully "Westernized" Andropov sending
his car to fetch dissidents to his home appeared originally
in The Washington Post's Sunday "Outlook" section
on May 30, 1982. The author, Charles Fenyvesi, explained
to me that he had heard the story secondhand from emigres
in Washington, and that he was told that the person who
had been entertained by Andropov was a former Russian dissident
now living in Israel. Fenyvesi, under deadline pressure,
was able to reach the source in Israel only at the last
minute, and the source then said that he had never met Andropov
in his life and that his contact had been with another K.G.B.
officer. Confronted with the problem of having his source
disclaim the story, Fenyvesi let the original account stand,
adding that the witness "now denies having met with
Harrison Salisbury's account of a visit
to Andropov had so many fly-on-the-wall details about his
clacha life that even an editor at the Times presumed it
was based on firsthand experience. Later, Salisbury told
me that his source was a "non-Soviet foreign visitor,"
and declined to identify him further. (By publishing his
story, though, Salisbury has probably identified his source
to Andropov and the K.G.B., who presumably keep records
of foreign visitors to the dacha; it is only Times readers
who are kept in the dark.) Whoever the mystery visitor was,
his description of Andropov's voracious appetite for American
novels, American newsmagazines, and English-language broadcasts
on the Voice of America presupposes that Andropov has some
fluency in English. Salisbury asserts that "Mr. Andropov
is the first Russian leader since Czar Nicholas II who is
comfortable in the English tongue" (which omits Lenin,
who spoke both English and German).
Yet despite such flat assertions, Andropov's
grasp of English turns out to be questionable. No Western
journalist has yet interviewed him. Malcolm Toon, the former
U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, who has spoken with Andropov
several times, did so in Russian.
Ambassador Toon says he strongly doubts
that Andropov has any noteworthy ability to speak English.
If it had been known in the diplomatic commurut~ in Moscow,
he savs, he would have been briefed on it Zebigniew Brzezinski,
President Carter's national security adviser, shares Toon's
skepticism. The C.I.A.'s national intelligence officer for
the Soviet Union, who had helped prepare the classified
C.I.A. biography of Andropov,, also denied to me that there
had been "any eviJence"that he had a "fluent
command of English." John F. Burns, the Moscow correspondent
of the Times, reported on November 20, "Mr. Andropov's
English ... is open to doubt ... since he did not use it
in his meetings with Vice President Bush on Monday, and
even had his written documents in English read to him by
an interpreter," The possibility remains, of course,
that he is a closet English-speaker. But the columnist Joseph
Kraft, who was in Moscow last month for The New Yorker,
came to the conclusion, after countless interviews with
Soviet officials and Western diplomats, that Andropov's
comprehension of English, if it exists at all, has been
ludicrously exaggerated. Specifically, Kraft was told by
Giorgi Arbatov, the Soviet Union's most prestigious "Americanologist"
and an associate of Andropov's, that Andropov, to his knowledge,
does not speak English-though he had taken English lessons
at one time. If this assessment is correct, the accounts
of Andropov running an English-language salon in a home
crammed with Americana are apocryphal.
IN THE hectic excitement following Andropov's
succession, newspapers dredged up eyewitness accounts containing
flaws and implausibilities that, under different circumstances,
might have disqualified them even as journalistic evidence.
For example, The Wall Street journal, in a story headlined
"Andropov's Ways: Those Who Met Him Call Soviet Boss
Charming But Ruthless," featured the account of a British
citizen, of Russian origin called Nikolai Sharigan. Sharigan,
who had been arrested for espionage in Moscow, claimed that
he had been hauled before Andropov when the latter was "head
of the K.G.B.," and that he heard Andropov remark,
"I think the English Queen won't declare war on us
just for Sharigan." Sharigan was then packed off to
a Soviet labor camp, where he says he spent ten years before
being released in 1976. According to this chronology, however,
Sharigan's putative meeting with Andropov would have to
have taken place in 1966 at the latest. Yet Andropov did
not join the K.G.B. until May 1967, which means that if
Sharigan did meet the head of the K.G.B., he did not meet
Another witness cited in the same "Those
Who Met Him" story is Boris Vinokur, a Russian 6migre'
who publishes a Russian-language newspaper in Chicago. Vinokur
is quoted as saying, "he could smile at you and still
bite your arm off." Although Vinokur describes Andropov's
speech as "articulate," his dress as "quite
elegant," his manners as "polite," his home
furnishings as "Hungarian," his sports as "tennis
and swimming," and his smile as "The Andropov
smile ... faintly sinister though outwardly friendly,"
it turns out that he has mnever spoken to Andropov. Vinokur,
who defected in 1976, claims only to have seen Andropov
at a sanatorium for high-level officials in a forest outside
Moscow. Andropov was standing in a group of men some distance
from him. He didn't speak with him or even shake hands with
him, he says, and the best description he can give of his
height is that it is the same as Brezhnev's; i.e., very
short. Yet he is also quoted-this time by The Washington
Post-as saying that Andropov "has the highest I.Q.
in the Politburo."*
The remaining witnesses who surfaced
were Hungarians claiming to have had peripheral encounters
with Andropov at diplomatic functions more than a quarter
of a century ago. For example, Sandor Kopacsi, a former
Budapest police chief, recalls Andropov borrowing the Police
Department's gypsy band for a party (though it is not clear
why such arrangements would be made personally by the Soviet
Ambassador). In a book written in 1979, Kopicsi said that
he met Andropov once, at a New Year's Eve party in Budapest
in 1955, where he watched Andropov dance with his wife for
an hour, and the next day questioned her about her conversation
with him. The historical anecdote hunt flushed out a dozen
or so Hungarian 6migr6s willing to claim a brush with Andropov,
but not a single concrete detail of his life-such as the
name of his wife and/or dancing partner.
WHAT EMERGES from these attempts
to piece together a version of Andropov's life is a portrait
worthy of "Saturday Night Live": the head of the
K.G.B. as one wild and crazy guy. After a hard day at the
office repressing dissent, Brezhnev's heir spends the evening
at home, telling antiregime jokes in fluent English and
playing jazz. for dissidents. To be sure, not all the reporting
joined this stampede from reality; there were a number of
fine examples of more solid and careful reporting, notably
the dispatches of John F. Burns and Hedrick Smith in the
Times. But why the stampede in the first place? Some commentators
have made dark references to the Soviet disinformation apparatus.
It is unnecessary, however, to plumb such murky depths for
an explanation. The excesses that led to the invention of
a media Andropov proceed directly from a common conceit
of journalism that witnesses and "color" can be
found for any great event. When it turned out that the C.I.A.
and the State Department had few details about Andropovnot
even the name (or fate) of his wife (or mistress)--the press
took whatever it could find in the goulash of defectors
and emigres desirous of becoming Andropov experts. For the
press, the humbler-and more honest-alternative is to admit
that virtually nothing is known about this man called Andropov:
not the names of his parents, not his ethnic background,
not his education, not his war service, not his preferences
in music and literature, not his linguistic abilities, not
his ideas. He stands at the head of Russia, but we don't
even how tall.