March 25, 1985 12:00 PM

When Jonathan Sanders, 34, assistant director of the Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union, began discussing the riddle of the Soviet succession with PEOPLE, he was in New York, where he lives with his wife, Arlene. When the questioning resumed, he was in Moscow, virtually his second home since he started studying Soviet history 15 years ago. Coincidence found Sanders in the Russian capital the day that Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko’s death was announced. “That night,” he reports, “Red Square, which is usually busy day and night, was empty, and you could hear three sounds: a chipping, as ice was cleared from the square to prepare for the funeral; the slap of soldiers’ feet and their cadence calling as they practiced the ceremonial march, and the muffled sound of a diesel engine, which I took to be an armored personnel-carrier like the one that would carry the coffin. “Looking to the future rather than the past, Sanders spoke with Assistant Editor David Van Biema about the consequences of Chernenko’s passing.

How have Muscovites reacted to Chernenko’s death and Mikhail Gorbachev’s succession to power?

At first, in the official media, most of the talk was about Chernenko. But unofficially it has been all about Gorbachev. What you hear is, “They’ve finally stopped handing over power from one old man to another.” There’s a sense of anticipation that with Gorbachev there will finally be change—that the old guard holding up reform is finally passing from the scene.

Is that anticipation justified?

In terms of specific policy, we can only take educated guesses at exactly what Gorbachev will do. But people here are absolutely right in recognizing that he represents one very important change. Up until recently the men at the top of the Soviet pyramid—the Russians call them shishki, “the big bumps”—were born before the Revolution and spent their formative political years under Stalin. They got their training on the job; they were crude, yet, until Brezhnev’s last years, vital. But they aged. By the 1970s their physical frailty and lack of vigor in the face of the Soviet Union’s domestic problems had led to a national feeling of frustration. Gorbachev represents the long-delayed “next generation.”

Do he and his contemporaries share some new idea about how to run things?

No. But they share a historical perspective and most of them are eager to work on some of the internal problems that have gone largely unchallenged for a decade. Those include a stagnating, over centralized economy, widespread corruption and a morale problem among a people who feel their standard of living has been going down, not up.

How does Gorbachev see the West?

Right now we know more about how the West sees him. Traditionally, Americans think of Russian politicians in terms of the Boris Badenov character on the Bullwinkle show: They’re short and their suits don’t fit. Gorbachev’s suits fit. He’s comfortable in the world arena, and because of his education he may be the first Soviet leader to approach the West without a feeling of personal inferiority.

Does that mean he will be more liberal and easier for us to deal with?

Hardly. If we try to apply words like “liberal” to any Soviet leader, we just get lost—like the people who thought Yuri Andropov might be more “open” because he supposedly liked jazz and drank Scotch. Gorbachev may be ready to make certain social and economic changes to make the Soviet Union run better, but he’s no limousine marshmallow. Don’t look for him to ease up on dissidents; as a Party leader, he proved to be very concerned with control. And although all these guys would like a normalization of relations with the U.S.—it would give them the time to work on internal problems—we should remember that they grew up in a Soviet Union that was an equal superpower with America. They’ll do anything to keep it that way.

How much will Gorbachev’s succession affect the Soviet position in the current round of arms talks?

Not much at all. The Soviet arms position is a product of collective decision making guided by Andrei Gromyko, and that’s the way it will remain for some time. It’s important not to exaggerate Gorbachev’s clout, especially at the beginning. The Soviets are never going to allow a repetition of Stalin’s one-man dictatorship. Now more than ever, power is spread out among the Politburo members.

Does that mean Gorbachev will never attain the power of a Khrushchev or even a Brezhnev?

No. Remember, the Soviets like to talk in terms of five-year plans. If Gorbachev can wait long enough, the older generation will continue to die off, and he can try to appoint enough of his people, weaken the forces opposing him and begin to push things through. It may take four or five years. But he may be the first leader since Brezhnev who has that kind of time to spare.

Do you have any advice for Ronald Reagan regarding his new colleague?

I think Reagan should meet him. It’s a mistake that he decided not to attend Chernenko’s funeral. Not only do the Russians take that kind of ceremony very seriously, but it would have been a terrific chance for him to exert his personal charm on Gorbachev and other leaders of the Communist world and to break down some of their propaganda about him.

Will he have another chance?

Yes. In May there will be ceremonies in Moscow to commemorate the end of World War II. I think Reagan ought to go. After all, we were once allies. We fought together.

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