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Soviets Hail Andrei Gromyko, Dead at 79, as 'Devoted Soldier'

July 04, 1989|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Former Soviet President Andrei A. Gromyko, who became known as the world's most durable diplomat after 28 years as foreign minister for the Soviet Union, was hailed Monday--a day after his death--as a "devoted soldier" to the nation.

But reaction in the capital to Gromyko's death at age 79 was low key. Soviet television announced that the man whose career ended when he was pushed out of the then-largely ceremonial post of president in September, 1988, will be buried Wednesday in Novodevichy Cemetery, primarily a resting place for prominent Soviet artists and military and politicians, instead of being interred beside the Kremlin walls, the traditional place of honor for top leaders.

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who announced Gromyko's death Monday to the Supreme Soviet and then asked its members to stand for a moment of silence, told Western journalists during a break in the legislature's session that he would not alter plans to begin a two-day visit to Paris today.

The cause of Gromyko's death was not immediately announced. Soviet television said simply that he died after "a long, difficult illness." A Foreign Ministry spokesman announced three days ago that Gromyko had undergone surgery for an unspecified vascular problem, and he apparently was in the hospital at the time of his death.

Lie in State

The national television evening news program "Vremya" said that before the funeral, Gromyko's body would lie in state for five hours Wednesday in the Red Banner Hall of the Central House of the Soviet Army so that the public could pay last respects.

"Good memories about him will stay forever in our hearts," the television announcer said after recounting his career. "The party and the Soviet people have lost a devoted soldier."

Gorbachev, in speaking to the Supreme Soviet, said of Gromyko: "His whole life was connected with history, with our achievements, our problems, with everything that falls on the lot of a person in the thick of events for whole decades."

Radio Moscow did not program solemn music, however, as is common on the death of a state leader, and a profile by the official Tass news agency was skimpy. It remembered Gromyko as a leader who "came from a peasant family and, due to his abilities and personal qualities, succeeded in rising to the top posts of the party and state."

Worked With Stalin

One of the last survivors of the Kremlin leaders who worked closely with Josef Stalin in World War II, Gromyko was elevated to the presidency shortly before his 76th birthday in 1985. The promotion was engineered by Gorbachev, then newly installed as Soviet leader, to make way for his own official in the Foreign Ministry, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, in July, 1988.

Four months later, Gorbachev elbowed Gromyko aside from that post after having initiated reforms to give it far greater power. Those constitutional reforms were carried out earlier this year.

Gromyko lost his last remaining key post in the Soviet leadership in April when he was dropped from the ruling Politburo. He simply did not fit with Gorbachev's "new thinking," which called for younger, more vigorous leaders capable of coping with the Soviet Union's massive social and economic problems and its desire to present a new face to the world.

Gromyko became a pensioner, living quietly and, through rare interviews, offered only an occasional glimpse into his long life as a key player in the momentous decisions of World War II and the East-West confrontations that followed.

"I feel sad over the fact that my position within the Communist Party has changed," he said in an October, 1988, Central Committee meeting. "But age is a stubborn thing and there is no getting away from it."

'Iron Teeth'

Gromyko was widely believed to have been a major supporter of Gorbachev for the post of general secretary of the Communist Party--the power position in the Kremlin. He reportedly nominated Gorbachev by saying: "This man has a nice smile--but he has iron teeth."

The new leader, however, clearly wanted to dominate the conduct of foreign policy, and Gromyko was effectively pushed into the ceremonial presidency.

After he assumed that post, Gromyko remained out of the limelight. Although he helped arrange the Soviet-American summit in Geneva in November, 1985, he was not a member of the delegation that went with Gorbachev for the meeting with then-President Ronald Reagan.

And although Gromyko had been a member of the Soviet elite for decades, enjoying access to special shops and health facilities, he was assigned early in 1986 to tour food stores, medical clinics and hospitals and listen to ordinary citizens' complaints about poor services.

Yet Gromyko dutifully carried out his chores, traveling to provincial cities and greeting foreign delegations, without ever indicating that he missed his former role at the center of power.

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