12/27/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
He works in the dark, as Kremlin leaders always have, but the shadows that envelop Yuri Andropov, 68, are deeper than most. For 15 years he served as spymaster of the Soviet KGB, yet when he took over for Leonid Brezhnev last November a flurry of wishful reports made him out a kind of lovable eccentric. He was hailed as the first Russian leader to read and speak English, a fan of Jacqueline Susann and Chubby Checker, a connoisseur of modern art and Scotch. More reliably, he is known as a lethally adroit disseminator of "disinformation." When Vice-President George Bush, a former head of the CIA, met Andropov "spook to spook," as he put it, at the Brezhnev funeral, he came away saying, "It is a good time to be taciturn."
Andropov began his rise through the party ranks in the Stalin era and never faltered. He was Khrushchev's ambassador to Hungary during that nation's revolt in 1956 and figured prominently in its ruthless suppression. As chief of the feared KGB, Western analysts believe, he turned his power base to his own uses, orchestrating a subtle smear campaign against Brezhnev in preparation for his accession.
How securely he holds power remains a question. Though he inherited the chairmanship of the party, he was not made head of state; that post remains vacant. The State Department is now mulling over juicy reports that the evidence linking Bulgarian agents to the Pope's shooting last May was leaked by enemies of Andropov; if the link proves out, Andropov, as KGB chief at the time, will be held responsible for the assassination attempt.
Supposedly "inside" information on Andropov is retailed continually to Western reporters by their Soviet bloc counterparts: Andropov wants detente but because of Kremlin hawks cannot make a show of it; Andropov wants to get out of Afghanistan; Andropov's priorities are domestic. Against such dubious gleanings stands the testimony of Sandor Kopacsi, the chief of police in Budapest in 1956, who remembers that as he was being led off to jail he saw Andropov waving goodbye to him, smiling broadly.