Putin puts Yuri Andropov back on his pedestal

RUSSIA: Soviet-era strongman's memory is being rehabilitated, writes Dan McLaughlin , in Moscow

RUSSIA: Soviet-era strongman's memory is being rehabilitated, writes Dan McLaughlin, in Moscow

A once-familiar shiver of mingled fear and respect ran through Petrozavodsk this month, when an old face reappeared on the streets of the northern Russian town.

For many older people, the newly unveiled bust of the late Yuri Andropov, who led the KGB for 15 years before becoming Soviet supremo, recalls a time when order and discipline reigned, corruption and dissent were crushed, and the world listened when Moscow spoke.

For many liberals and younger Russians, Mr Andropov's return is a sign that the security services he controlled are regaining their baleful influence under a man who views him as a hero - President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin used to run the FSB, a successor to the KGB, which marked yesterday's 90th anniversary of Andropov's birth with a ceremony for its own top brass in the southern Stavropol region where he was born.

Andropov is notorious for committing dissidents to closed psychiatric wards or exile, for planning the Red Army's 1956 bloody invasion of Hungary and authorising the shooting down of a South Korean airliner over Soviet territory in 1983, killing 269 passengers.

Mr Putin is not coy in his admiration for Andropov's avowed determination to restore Soviet power, dignity and pride, after rampant graft and general dissipation took hold in the final years of the ailing Leonid Brezhnev.

Not only did Mr Putin make an almost identical pledge in 2000, when succeeding the sick, often drunk and corruption-tainted Boris Yeltsin, but he reinstated a plaque in honour of Andropov on the wall of the dreaded Lubyanka, the KGB's Moscow headquarters, almost a decade after it was torn down as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mr Putin is reputed to have tried to join Andropov's KGB at the age of 15, and to have kept a photograph of him in his office as he quietly climbed the security service ladder before being plucked from St Petersburg to work in Mr Yeltsin's Kremlin. He has praised Andropov's "honesty and uprightness", and laid flowers on his grave.

On taking power from Mr Brezhnev in 1982, Andropov immediately enacted his mantra of "order and discipline", demanding weekday raids on cinemas and "banya" steam rooms in a hunt for skivers avoiding work.

Andropov died after barely 15 months in power, but supporters believe had the brains and drive to restructure the Soviet economy while preserving Moscow's empire, a task to which Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he brought to Moscow from southern Russia, proved unequal.

Critics call Andropov an old-school authoritarian, intelligent perhaps, but devoid of democratic instincts. Twenty years on, Mr Putin presents a similar conundrum.

While gradually streamlining the economy and promising to defend human rights and free speech, he is prosecuting a dirty war in Chechnya and has overseen the emasculation of independent television and political debate.

He has restored the Soviet national anthem, albeit with new words, and flooded the halls of power with old allies from the KGB, who support a strong state and security services, but whose commitment to democracy and openness is questionable.

And today, Russia's richest man, Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky, goes on trial for tax evasion and fraud, in what the oil baron's supporters call a Kremlin-backed drive to stifle his political ambition and silence criticism of the authorities.

Mr Putin says the case is a purely legal matter, part of his drive to submit Russia to a "dictatorship of the law". Human rights groups wonder why many tycoons with equally murky backgrounds but a more compliant attitude still flourish here unmolested.

The world will watch how Russia deals with its highest-profile trial in recent memory, for signs of how the balance of power lies between the Kremlin's dwindling band of liberal reformers and the ascendant clique of ex-KGB hardliners.

And Russians will also be mindful of the 90th birthday of a controversial leader, to see how highly Mr Putin now regards a man who thought reform was best pushed through by the iron first of unyielding state power.

At the unveiling of the statue to Andropov in Petrozavodsk, where he led underground resistance to the Nazis in the 1940s, several people stepped forward to lay wreaths below the bust: "From victims of the KGB and FSB," read the ironic message on one.

"From victims of the Afghan War" read another, and "From grateful Hungarians" a third.

Local leader Mr Sergei Katanandov was appalled. "The people of the USSR and Russia link Andropov's name to a very important time in their lives, when law and order were restored, efforts were made to bring discipline at work and measures were taken to fight corruption," he said, as police led the protesters away.

"You know, these are very topical issues right now."