“Russ Chief Secretly Fancies Art”

“Russ chief secretly fancies art”! So screamed a headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel on 29 January 1983. The “Russ chief” in question was Soviet politician Yuri Andropov, who on 12 November 1982 succeeded Leonid Brezhnev to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – and therefore leader of the USSR.

According to the newspaper report, which quoted the Times of London, Andropov had been covertly amassing a vast collection of abstract art, despite its low status behind the Iron Curtain. Similar claims were made in other major Western publications, including Time and the Washington Post, which also credited Andropov with an apparent love of jazz music and tango dancing. This news no doubt would have surprised many in Moscow. During his years as chairman of the KGB, and as a leading figure in the Soviet campaigns to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, Andropov had acquired a fearsome reputation as a hardliner and a ruthless suppressor of Soviet dissidents. The allegations also raised the suspicions of the New Republic magazine, which in February 1983 exposed them as fantastical rumours, conjured up by an alcoholic Soviet defector who may have never even met Andropov. While the reasons for the hoax are still unclear, it appears that the lack of factual information about the new leader had caused the rumour mill to go into overdrive.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had also declared that Andropov’s passion for modernist painting meant that soon “abstract art no longer would be labeled decadent by Communist Party ideologists.” Yet in the coming months, artists including cartoonist Vyacheslav Sysoyev (1937–2006) were jailed by the new regime. However, whatever the reality of Andropov’s aesthetic tastes, he didn’t have time to make much of a impact on the Soviet art scene one way or the other. Only 15 months after his election, on 9 February 1984, Andropov died of kidney failure, having spent most of his term confined to hospital.

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Image: Cartoon by Vyacheslav Sysoyev, 1987.

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