The turning point in Chernenko’s career was his assignment in 1948 to head the Communist Party’s propaganda department in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. There he met and won the confidence of Leonid Brezhnev, the first secretary of Moldova from 1950 to 1952 and future leader of the Soviet Union. Chernenko followed Brezhnev in 1956 to fill a similar propaganda post in the CPSU Central Committee in Moscow. In 1960, after Brezhnev was named chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (titular head of state of the Soviet Union), Chernenko became his chief of staff.
Andropov died in February 1984, after just 15 months in office. Chernenko was then elected to replace Andropov, despite concerns over his own health. Yegor Ligachev writes in his memoirs that Chernenko was elected general secretary without a hitch. At the Central Committee plenary session on 13 February 1984, four days after Andropov's death, Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers and Politburo member Nikolai Tikhonov moved that Chernenko be elected general secretary, and the Committee duly voted him in.
Arkady Volsky, an aide to Andropov and other general secretaries, recounts an episode that occurred after a Politburo meeting on the day following Andropov's demise: As Politburo members filed out of the conference hall, either Andrei Gromyko or (in later accounts) Dmitriy Ustinov is said to have put his arm round Nikolai Tikhonov's shoulders and said: "It's okay, Kostya is an agreeable guy (pokladisty muzhik), one can do business with him...." Even more irksome was the Politburo's failure to pass the decision for him to run the meetings of the Politburo itself in the absence of Chernenko, who predictably began to miss those meetings with increasing frequency. As Nikolai Ryzhkov describes it in his memoirs, "every Thursday morning he (Mikhail Gorbachev) would sit in his office like a little orphan - I would often be present at this sad procedure - nervously awaiting a telephone call from the sick Chernenko: Would he come to the Politburo himself or would he ask Gorbachev to stand in for him this time again?" At Andropov's funeral, he could barely read the eulogy. Those present strained to catch the meaning of what he was trying to say in his eulogy. He spoke rapidly, swallowed his words, kept coughing and stopped repeatedly to wipe his lips and forehead. He ascended Lenin's Mausoleum by way of a newly installed escalator and descended with the help of two bodyguards. Chernenko represented a return to the policies of the late Brezhnev era. Nevertheless, he supported a greater role for the labour unions, and reform in education and propaganda. The one major personnel change that Chernenko made was the firing of the chief of the General Staff, Nikolay Ogarkov, who had advocated less spending on consumer goods in favor of greater expenditures on weapons research and development.
In foreign policy, he negotiated a trade pact with the People's Republic of China. Despite calls for renewed détente, Chernenko did little to prevent the escalation of the Cold War with the United States. For example, in 1984, the Soviet Union prevented a visit to West Germany by East German leader Erich Honecker. However, in the late autumn of 1984, the U.S. and the Soviet Union did agree to resume arms control talks in early 1985. In November 1984 Chernenko met with Britain's Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock.
Because the U.S. had boycotted the 1980's Summer Olympics held in Moscow, the USSR, while under the Administration of Chairman Chernenko, boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It caused 14 Eastern Bloc countries and allies including the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany (but not Romania) to boycott these Olympics. The USSR announced its intention not to participate on 8 May 1984, citing security concerns and stating, that "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States", but some saw it as revenge for the boycott of the Moscow Games. Among those subscribing to the revenge hypothesis was Peter Ueberroth, who was the chief organizer of the Games, in a press conference after the boycott was announced. Iran was the only country not to attend either Moscow or Los Angeles.
The boycott influenced a large number of Olympic events that were normally dominated by the absent countries. Boycotting countries organized another major event in July-August 1984, called the Friendship Games.
For differing reasons, Iran and Libya also boycotted.
The boycott was announced on the same day that the Olympic Torch Relay through the United States began in New York City.
By the end of 1984, Chernenko could hardly leave the Central Clinical Hospital, a heavily guarded facility in west Moscow, and the Politburo was affixing a facsimile of his signature to all letters, as Chernenko had done with Andropov's when he was dying. In what was almost universally regarded, even by his opponents, as a cruel act against Chernenko, Politburo member Viktor Grishin dragged the terminally ill Chernenko from his hospital bed to a ballot box to vote in the elections in early 1985.
Emphysema of the lungs and aggravated lung and heart insufficiency worsened significantly in the last three weeks of February 1985. Another, accompanying illness developed - chronic hepatitis, or liver failure, with its transformation into cirrhosis. The cirrhosis of the liver and the worsening dystrophic changes in the organs and tissues led to a situation where the state of his health gradually deteriorated. On 10 March at 3:00 p.m. he fell into a coma, and at 7:20 p.m. he died as a result of heart failure.
The impact of Chernenko—or the lack of it—was evident in the way in which his death was reported in the Soviet press. Soviet newspapers carried stories about Chernenko's death and Gorbachev's selection on the same day. The papers had the same format: page 1 reported the party Central Committee session on 11 March that elected Gorbachev and printed the new leader's biography and a large photograph of him; page 2 announced the demise of Chernenko and printed his obituary. Cities with populations ranging from 250,000 to 600,000 had been named for Brezhnev, Andropov, and Ustinov at their deaths, but Chernenko's name was given to the Siberian town of Sharypo, with 20,000 inhabitants.
After the death of a Soviet leader it was customary for his successors to open his safe and look in it. When Gorbachev had Chernenko's safe opened, it was found to contain a small folder of personal papers, and more surprisingly, large bundles of money; money was also found in his desk. It is not known what Chernenko wanted the money for.
Chernenko was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour; 1976, in 1981 and in 1984 he was awarded Hero of the Socialist Labor: on the latter occasion, Minister of Defence Ustinov underlined his rule as an "outstanding political figure, a loyal and unwavering continuer of the cause of the great Lenin"; in 1981 he was awarded with the highest Bulgarian honour and in 1982 he received the Lenin Prize for his "Human Rights in Soviet Society."
He had a son by his first wife (whom he divorced) who became a propagandist in Tomsk. His second wife, Anna Dmitrevna Lyubimova (b. 1913) married him in 1944, bore him two daughters, Yelena (who worked at the Institute of Party History) and Vera (who worked at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC), and a son, Vladimir, who was a Goskino editorialist.