Both of his parents died early and he went to work at the age of 14. He was educated at the Rybinsk Water Transport Technical College before he joined Komsomol in 1930. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1939 and was First Secretary of the Central Committee of Komsomol in the Soviet Karelo-Finnish Republic from 1940 to 1944. During World War II, Andropov took part in partisan guerrilla activities. From 1944 onwards, he left Komsomol for party work. In 1947 he was elected Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of the Karelo-Finnish SSR. He moved to Moscow in 1951 and joined the party secretariat.
Andropov played a key role in crushing the Hungarian Revolution. He convinced a reluctant Nikita Khrushchev that military intervention was necessary. He deceived Imre Nagy and other Hungarian leaders that the Soviet government did not order an attack on Hungary at the very moment of this attack. The Hungarian leaders were arrested and Nagy executed.
In 1973, Andropov was promoted to full member of the Politburo. Andropov played the dominant role in the decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979. He insisted on the invasion, although he expected that the international community would blame the USSR for this action; the decision led to the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979 - 1988).
Andropov was the longest-serving KGB chairman and did not resign as head of the KGB until May 1982, when he was again promoted to the Secretariat to succeed Suslov as secretary responsible for ideological affairs. Two days after Brezhnev's death, on 12 November 1982, Andropov was elected General Secretary of the CPSU being the first former head of the KGB to become General Secretary. His appointment was received in the West with apprehension, in view of his roles in the KGB and in Hungary.
In foreign policy, the war continued in Afghanistan. Andropov's rule was also marked by deterioration of relations with the United States. U.S. plans to deploy Pershing missiles in Western Europe in response to the Soviet SS-20 missiles were contentious. But when Paul Nitze, the American negotiator, suggested a compromise plan for nuclear missiles in Europe in the celebrated “walk in the woods” with Soviet negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky, the Soviets never responded. Kvitsinsky would later write that, despite his own efforts, the Soviet side was not interested in compromise, instead calculating that peace movements in the West would force the Americans to capitulate. In August 1983 Andropov made a sensational announcement that the country was stopping all work on space-based weapons. One of his most notable acts during his short time as leader of the Soviet Union was in response to a letter from an American child named Samantha Smith, inviting her to the Soviet Union. This resulted in Smith becoming a well-known peace activist. Meanwhile, Soviet-U.S. arms control talks on intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe were suspended by the Soviet Union in November 1983 and by the end of 1983, the Soviets had broken off all arms control negotiations.
Cold War tensions were exacerbated by the downing by Soviet fighters of a civilian jet liner, Korean Air Flight KAL-007, that had strayed over the Soviet Union on 1 September 1983. Andropov was advised by his Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and by the head of the KGB Victor Chebrikov to keep secret the fact that the Soviet Union held in its possession the sought-after "Black Box" from KAL 007. Andropov was encouraged to state that the Soviet Union engage in the deception that they too were looking for KAL 007 and the Black Box. Andropov agreed to this and the ruse continued until Boris Yeltsin disclosed the secret in 1992.
When he could no longer work in the Kremlin or attend the Politburo meetings, from September 1983, he adopted an original way of governing: he would suggest ideas to his assistants and speech writers, who would then prepare analytical 'notes' for the Politburo.
On a Saturday preceding a Tuesday plenum of the Central Committee, Arkady Volsky, an aide to Andropov, came to Andropov's room at the Central Clinical Hospital in Kuntsevo to help him draft a speech. Andropov was in no shape to attend the plenum and he would have one of his men in the Politburo deliver the speech in his name. The last lines in the speech said that Central Committee staff members should be exemplary in their behavior, uncorrupted, responsible for the life of the country. Then Andropov gave Volsky a folder with the final draft and said, "The material looks good. Make sure you pay attention to the agenda I've written". Since the doctor walked him to the car, he didn't have time to look right away at what he had written Later, he got a chance to read it and saw that at the bottom of the last page Andropov had added in ink, in a somewhat unsteady handwriting, a new paragraph. It went like this: "Members of the Central Committee know that due to certain reasons, I am unable to come to the plenum. I can neither attend the meetings of the Politburo nor the secretariat. Therefore, I believe Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev should be assigned to preside over the meetings of the Politburo and the secretariat (of the Central Committee)." Andropov was recommending that Gorbachev be his inheritor. Volsky made a Xerox copy of the document and put the copy in his safe. He delivered the original to the Party leadership and assumed that it would be read out at the plenum. But at the meeting neither Chernenko, Grishin, Tikhonov, Ustinov nor any of the other politburo members made mention of Andropov's stated wishes. Volsky thought there must have been some mistake: "I went up to Chernenko and said, 'There was an addendum in the text.' He said, 'Think nothing of any addendum.' Then I saw his aide Bogolyubov and said, 'Klavdy Mikhailovich, there was a paragraph from Andropov's speech….' He led me off to the side, and said, 'Who do you think you are, a wise guy? Do you think your life ends with this?' I said, 'In that case, I'll have to phone Andropov.' And he replied, 'Then that will be your last phone call'". Andropov was furious when he heard what had happened at the plenum, but there was little he could do
In his memoirs, Mikhail Gorbachev recalled that when Andropov was the leader, he and Nikolai Ryzhkov, the chairman of Gosplan, asked Yuri Andropov for access to real budget figures. "You are asking too much," Andropov responded. "The budget is off limits to you."
Shortly before he was due to leave the Crimea, Andropov's health severely deteriorated. The lightly dressed Andropov had become tired, and had taken a rest on a granite bench in the shade; his body became thoroughly chilled, and he soon began shivering uncontrollably.
For the last two months of his life Andropov did not get out of bed, except when he was lifted onto a couch while his sheets were changed. He was physically finished but his mind was clear. Throughout his last days Andropov still worked even if it meant little more than signing papers or giving his assent to his aides' proposals.
On 31 December 1983 Andropov celebrated the New Year for the last time. Vladimir Kryuchkov alongside with other friends visited Andropov. He was very thankful that his doctors let him drink a glass of champagne. They visited him for about an hour and a half. After they went and Andropov stayed alone with Kryuchkov, he said to him that he wished health and success to all the friends. At that moment, Kryuchkov understood that Andropov was going to die. In January, the future prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov visited Andropov. Andropov kissed him and told him to go.
In late January 1984 the gradual decline in his health that characterized his tenure suddenly intensified, and he deteriorated sharply due to growing intoxication in his blood, as a result of which he had periods of failing consciousness. On 9 February 1984, Andropov's last day, the nurse came to Boris Klukov, one of his many bodyguards and said that he didn't want to eat. She asked him to try to convince Andropov to eat. Klukov came up to Andropov and convinced him that he must eat. Andropov finally agreed to eat and they ate together. Then, Boris Klukov left the room for some time. And after half an hour everything became noisy. Doctors ran to Andropov's room and the assistant of the security director also went there. Klukov called the assistants. He came up to Andropov's room, looked at the display and observed his slowing pulse. Andropov died on that day at 16:50 in his hospital room. Few of the top people, not even all the Politburo members, learned of the fact on the same day. According to the Soviet medical report, Andropov suffered from several medical conditions: interstitial nephritis, nephrosclerosis, residual hypertension and diabetes, which were worsened by chronic kidney deficiency.
A four-day period of nationwide mourning was announced. His body was lying in state in an open coffin in House of Trade Unions in Moscow. Inside the hall, mourners shuffled up a marble staircase beneath chandeliers draped in black gauze. On the stage at the left side of the hall, amid a veritable garden of flowers, a complete symphony orchestra in black tailcoats played classical music. Andropov's embalmed body, dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black-and-red tie, laid in an open coffin banked with carnations, red roses and tulips, faced the long queue of mourners. At the right side of the hall, in the front row of seats reserved for the dead leader's family, his wife Tatyana Filipovna with her reddish-tinted hair held in place with a hairclip, sat alongside with her their two children, Igor and Irina.
On 14 February, the funeral parade began. Two officers led the funeral parade, carrying a large portrait of him followed by numerous red floral wreaths. Then officers in tall Astrakhan hats appeared, carrying the late leader's 21 decorations and medals on small red cushions. Behind them, the coffin rested atop a gun carriage drawn by an olive-green military scout vehicle. Walking immediately behind were the members of Andropov's family. The Politburo leaders, almost indistinguishable from one another in their fur hats and look-alike overcoats with red armbands, led the last group of official mourners. As the coffin reached to the middle of the Red Square it was taken out of the carriage it was placed on, and with its lid removed, it was placed on a red-draped bier facing the Lenin Mausoleum. At exactly 12:45 p.m. Tuesday, Andropov's coffin was lowered into the ground as foghorns blared, joining with sirens, wheezing factory whistles and rolling gunfire in a mournful cacophony.
He was succeeded in office by Konstantin Chernenko.
Despite Andropov's hard-line stance in Hungary and the numerous banishments and intrigues for which he was responsible during his long tenure as head of the KGB, he has become widely regarded by many commentators as a humane reformer, especially in comparison with the stagnation and corruption during the later years of his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev. Andropov, "a throwback to a tradition of Leninist asceticism," was appalled by the corruption during Brezhnev's regime, and ordered investigations and arrests of the most flagrant abusers. The investigations were so frightening that several members of Brezhnev's circle "shot, gassed or otherwise did away with themselves." He was certainly generally regarded as inclined to more gradual and constructive reform than was Gorbachev; most of the speculation centres around whether Andropov would have reformed the USSR in a manner which did not result in its eventual dissolution.
The Western media favored Andropov because of his supposed passion for western music and scotch.
The short time he spent as leader, much of it in a state of extreme ill health, leaves debaters few concrete indications as to the nature of any hypothetical extended rule. As with the shortened rule of Lenin, speculators have much room to advocate their favourite theories and to develop the minor cult of personality which has formed around him.
Andropov lived in 26 Kutuzovski prospekt, on the same building of which Suslov and Brezhnev also lived in. He was first married to Nina Ivanovna. She bore him a son who died in mysterious circumstances in the late 1970s. In 1983 she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a successful operation. He met his second wife, Tatyana Filipovna, during WW2 in the Karelian front when she was Komsomol secretary. She had suffered a nervous breakdown during the Hungarian revolution. Andropov's chief guard informed Tatyana about the death of her husband. She was too grief-stricken to join in the procession and during the funeral her relatives helped her to walk. Before the lid could be closed on Andropov's coffin, she bent to kiss him. She touched his hair and then kissed him again. In 1985, a respectful 75-min. film was broadcast in which Tatyana (not even seen in public until Andropov's funeral) reads love poems written by her husband. Tatyana was ill, and died in November 1991. Andropov had also a son, Igor (died June 2006) and a daughter, Irina (born 1946).