MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union enters a new year with ailing President Yuri Andropov missing from public view for 4 months and haunted by questions over how the Communist superpower is being run.
The Kremlin has taken great pains in giving the impression that Andropov is firmly in control, but only a few people, and apparently no Westerners, really know.
Andropov has not been seen in public since Aug. 18 when he met with a group of visiting U.S. senators. The Kremlin has given two excuses for his 135-day public absence.
A letter released by Tass Oct. 29 and attributed to Andropov said he had a cold. He later was absence from the reviewing stand for the military parade through Red Square on Nov. 7.
Seven weeks and several missed public occasions later, a message from Andropov was read at the twice-yearly session of the Communist Party Central Committee together with his 1983 economic review.
The message said 'temporary causes' kept him away from the session.
The Soviet media has so successfully played down Andropov's public absence that most citizens are unaware of it. His name, speeches, posters and photographsappear prominently in newspapers and on television.
When he is absent from a Politburo gathering, television cameras never focus on the group, so only the most attentive can tell he is not there.
Word increasingly trickles out through sources hinting that Andropov is firmly in charge behind the scenes, perhaps from a hospital bed or his dacha.
In the latest such report, the German magazine Der Spiegel quoted an unidentified Soviet propagandist Saturday as saying Andropov 'is dependent on apparatuses'' and needs ''the atmosphere of a clinic.''
Der Spiegel said Andropov's recovery was complicated by a virus infection that had spread to his nose, mouth and head area and that his freedom of movement was complicated.
'He has trunks filled with files brought to him and he receives 'working visits' from colleagues on the Politburo,' the magazine said.
Andropov's limousine motorcade has sped to the Kremlin every morning since early December and returned every evening in the direction of his dacha.
But Western diplomats and correspondents who have watched the formation said they are unable to determine if Andropov or anybody is inside.
Two of Andropov's men, Vitaly Vorotnikov and Viktor Chebrikov, were made full voting members of the Politburo at last week's Central Committee meeting, indicating he is consolidating his power.
A third Andropov protege, Yegor Ligachev, was given a powerful Central Committee position.
Speeches and proposals are read out and issued in Andropov's name, though a senior Western diplomat said they 'could have been written by anybody.'
One theme runs through the information -- or disinformation -- that official and unofficial Soviet sources have fed to Western correspondents over the past few weeks.
All say that Andropov's mind is alert but he is temporarily physically incapacitated. The incapacitating illness is said to be paralysis, convalescence from surgery or only a mild infection that keeps Andropov in bed because of his age, 69.
A newspaper article recently praised at length a book describing invalid President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the best U.S. leader ever. A Western diplomat said that may even be the start of a campaign to prepare the public for a physically handicapped Andropov.
Although speculation about succession has again become a favorite topic of Kremlinologists, most diplomats and correspondents agree there is neither a clear-cut favorite nor firm evidence of the composition of any 'collective leadership' that may be running the country if Andropov is not able.