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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spies, Media Honor Andropov's Birthday

Russian media, security service officials and KGB veterans marked what would have been the 85th birthday of General Secretary Yury Andropov on Tuesday, one of the most controversial and mysterious leaders of the Soviet era.

The birthday celebrations began with Vladimir Putin, head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor of the KGB, laying flowers at Andropov's tomb on Red Square and at his monument at FSB headquarters. The newspapers Segodnya and Moskovsky Komsomolets ran long articles dedicated to the Soviet Union's fifth leader, and NTV television aired a 75-minute documentary on him.

While other Soviet leaders have already found their place in modern Russian history, Andropov's role is still debated 15 years after his death.

Some people believe that had Andropov not died in 1984 he would have launched reforms to pump life into the country's stagnating industrial complex while preventing the breakup of the Soviet Union - a dual task that his prot?g?, Mikhail Gorbachev, failed to accomplish. Others blame Andropov for pursuing political repressions reminiscent of the Stalin era.

Among Andropov's most memorable accomplishments as head of state was the push to improve discipline in the workplace. His policy of sending out squads to randomly catch people at public places such as movie theaters or the banya during regular work hours sent many slackers back to the office.

His role in history would be a lot clearer, historians say, had the Soviet leader had more time in office. Andropov succeeded Leonid Brezhnev two days after Brezhnev's death on Nov. 12, 1982. He served as the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party for just 15 months, six of which he spent in the hospital. He died on Feb. 9, 1984, and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko.

"Andropov's personality is the most relevant in Soviet history after Stalin's," Vladimir Kryuchkov said. Kryuchkov not only headed the KGB from 1988 to 1991, he was one of the coup plotters who tried to oust Soviet leader Gorbachev in August 1991.

"He gave the impulse to the policy [of reform] Gorbachev carried out later, but he didn't do any harm to our state," Kryuchkov said, adding that Andropov is still largely respected in Russia and has a lot of friends and followers.

Born in the Stavropol region in 1914, Andropov started his career as a Komsomol activist in northern Russia. During World War II he joined and then led a partisan movement in Karelia.

In the 1950s Andropov served as an embassy official and later as Soviet ambassador to Hungary. He was responsible for the arrest and execution of the leaders of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters, who staged the Budapest uprising in 1956. Andropov also arranged for Soviet tanks to enter the Hungarian capital to slaughter the remaining rebels.

Andropov headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982. As chief spymaster he promoted his agents as morally upstanding national heroes, featuring them in novels, movies and television series. Soviet spies and agents in series like "The 17 Moments of Spring" and "The Sword and the Shield" were depicted as intelligent, decent men.

And while his Cold War reign made him an ideological foe of all Western models, some report that Andropov was a big fan of James Bond, and that he wanted to introduce a new image for KGB officers based on the fictional British spy.

When it came to dealing with dissidents - particularly outspoken writers and artists - Andropov followed the brutal ways of his predecessor, Lavrenty Beria, maintaining heavy surveillance of intellectuals.

"Andropov came out of a totalitarian communist system. He is the flesh of its flesh," Yury Rybakov, a former dissident and State Duma deputy, said in an interview Tuesday.

"He was not as liberal as some people try to present him," said Rybakov, who was sentenced to six years in prison under Andropov. But even as he criticized Andropov, he gave him credit for exiling dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn rather than jailing him.

"We should remember that Andropov was in a different time with different laws," Kryuchkov said, adding that the leader was merely preventing crime, not launching a new era of repression.