Chernenko, Konstantin [Черненко, Константин; Černenko, Konstantin], b 24 September 1911 in Bolshaia Tes, Krasnoiarsk krai, Siberia, Russian Empire, d 10 March 1985 in Moscow, RSFSR. Soviet Communist Party official; second-to-last general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Chernenko, remembered mainly as Brezhnev’s briefcase carrier, began his long and undistinguished career as a Komsomol official in 1929. He joined the Communist Party in 1930. In the early 1930s, he served in the border detachments of the Cheka on the frontier of Kazakhstan, and in the latter half of the decade was said to have been employed in the execution of purge victims in Dnipropetrovsk. By 1941 he was secretary of the Krasnoiarsk Party oblast committee in the Soviet Far East, and in 1945 he completed the Higher School for Party Organizers of the CC VKP(b) (as the Party was then known). For the next three years he was secretary of the Penza oblast committee. From 1948 to 1956, he worked in the apparatus of the CC of the CP of the Moldavian SSR, where he became a client of Leonid Brezhnev, the republic’s first secretary in 1950–52. During this period, he also completed by correspondence a degree in education at the Kuibyshev Teachers’ College. In 1956 he moved to Moscow to work in the apparatus of the CC CPSU, where Brezhnev had just been made a secretary. Between 1960 and 1965, he was head of the secretariat serving the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, concurrent with Brezhnev’s occupancy of the chairmanship of that body.
Brezhnev became first secretary of the CC CPSU in 1964 (from 1966 termed general secretary) upon the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev. In 1965 Chernenko returned to the CC CPSU apparatus as head of the general department. He was co-opted into the CC CPSU as a candidate member in 1966, and promoted to full membership in 1971. In October 1977, he became a candidate member of the Politburo, and a full member in November 1978. He had already been a secretary of the CC CPSU since March 1976. All of these promotions were due to his patron, Brezhnev. When Brezhnev died in November 1982, he was, however, passed over for the position of general secretary by Yurii Andropov, but succeeded to it on 13 February 1984 on the latter’s death. Chernenko was thus the oldest individual to assume the office; his chronic emphysema constrained his subsequent leadership which was brief and marked by an absence of major departures in policy for the CPSU and USSR. It was ‘Brezhnevism without Brezhnev.’ After a series of missed engagements due to prolonged illness, he died not unexpectedly of heart failure and was succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev, for whom he thus helped pave the way.
[This article was written in 2002.]