Young, Gifted and Red, Mikhail Gorbachev Injects New Blood into the Kremlin Gerontocracy

UPDATED 03/25/1985 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/25/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

When Mikhail Gorbachev visited England in December, he skipped the wreath-laying ceremony at Karl Marx's grave and went instead to the Tower of London to check out the Crown Jewels. When he addressed a crowd of British capitalists, he did not denounce them for their crimes against the working class. Instead, he sometimes sounded like a Republican at a Rotary Club luncheon: "Businessmen have more confidence in facts and figures than in words," he said, as the businessmen applauded. When photographers mobbed him and his 50ish wife, Raisa—surely the most elegantly attired professor of Marxist-Leninist studies at Moscow University—he warded them off with a joke. "Comrades, economize your supplies," he said. "That's enough." When he met with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for a three-hour chat, she was so charmed that she paid him the ultimate capitalist compliment. "I like Mr. Gorbachev," she said. "We can do business together."

Now that Gorbachev has risen, at the tender age of 54, to the U.S.S.R.'s top political position as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Western leaders are hoping that Mrs. Thatcher's evaluation is correct. But the new Soviet leader is unlikely to make sudden changes in his country's foreign policy. Gorbachev is far from radical. He is a career Communist Party bureaucrat who has come up through the ranks, from Communist Youth League organizer to Party boss in the Caucasian city of Stavropol to Party Secretary for Agriculture to Politburo member. He did it by avoiding controversy and cultivating powerful mentors like Party ideologist Mikhail Suslov and the late leader Yuri Andropov.

In fact, Gorbachev might owe at least some of his success to the presence of mineral waters in his native Caucasia. Many Soviet bigwigs—Aleksei Kosygin and Andropov among them—have enjoyed rest and recreation in those healing waters. As local Party boss, Gorbachev had ample opportunities to impress them.

Arkady Shevchenko, the former Soviet diplomat who defected to the U.S. in 1978, wrote in his recently published best-seller, Breaking With Moscow: "Gorbachev is intelligent, well educated and well mannered.... At his post in Caucasia, he earned a reputation as an energetic regional Party leader and manager and as a competent agricultural specialist. He was also known as a reasonable man with less arrogance than most professional Party apparatchik."

While Gorbachev is no wide-eyed reformer, he does represent a striking change from his aged predecessors at the pinnacle of the Soviet hierarchy. A graduate of a rigorous program at Moscow University, he is the first Soviet leader since Lenin to possess a law degree. He belongs to a new generation of Communist leaders born after the 1917 revolution and not permanently warped by the brutality of the Stalin years. He is also, as his London visit proved, articulate, media-wise and clearly at ease in the give-and-take of international diplomacy. Gorbachev's style will bring fresh breezes to the Kremlin, but no one knows whether they will blow fair or foul. "Gorbachev can be dangerous for us," warns Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a former Henry Kissinger aide now at the Brookings Institution. "He has already demonstrated that he is an effective advocate of the Soviet point of view in Europe and that he may add a spark of dynamism to the international Communist movement."

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