By Seweryn Bialer

AFTER A TWO-WEEK visit I left Moscow on March 3, seven days before Konstantin Chernenko's death. The mood was one of gloom, frustration, impatience and embarrassment -- gloom about the country's huge problems, frustration with the inactivity of those who were supposed to lead, impatience with an "old guard" of party leaders who refused to yield power and embarrassment that a great nation and great power was essentially leaderless.

The embarrassment reached its apex in the macabre attempt to prop up, for election to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic, what everybody knew was a living corpse, President Chernenko.

Beneath that grim mood, however, there was also hope that soon there would be a new leader, and that leader would be Mikhail Gorbachev. People were so eager to believe that Gorbachev would really be "new" that during Chernenko's year in power, a mini- cult of personality formed in Moscow around Gorbachev -- a most unusual development.

Now Gorbachev has been named leader. In just six years a rank-and-file party official from provincial Russia became the inevitable choice to lead the Soviet Union. The story of how this could happen illuminates the workings of the Soviet system.

Gorbachev's rise to the top was blocked a year ago, when the Politburo selected Chernenko to succeed Yuri Andropov. Chernenko's colleagues knew that he was very ill and that his personal credentials to be the top Soviet leader were, to say the least, questionable. The old men selected him in a rear- guard battle to continue the rule of their generation, fully aware that he could be nothing more than a transitional leader.

Gorbachev understood the old guard's game, and he adopted ingenious tactics to outmaneuver it. His elevation to the leadership of the Communist Party signals the demise of the men born in the first dozen years of his century who have been running the Soviet Union for a generation.

In recent years those old men had fragmented power in the Politburo, the party secretariat and the council of ministers. There were unmistakable signs of an ongoing power struggle. The fragmentation of power gave Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko extraordinary powers to shape Soviet foreign policy, and gave the civilian head of the armed forces, Dmitri Ustinov (who died in December), similar powers with regard to security policies. Premier Nikolai Tikhonov had wide latitude in economic matters.

Without the support of the conservative Chernenko, reforms initiated or planned by Yuri Andropov in the brief period of his leadership ground to a halt.

The highly bureaucratic and centralized Soviet party-state was unable to come up with solutions to pressing domestic crises and to the foreign challenge from a reinvigorated America.

Gorbachev's selection as secretary general of the party will quickly end the period of fragmentation of power (though a power struggle could continue for some time). Gorbachev is not a transitional leader, but will be in place for years. It may not be so important that Gorbachev belongs to a new generation of Soviet leaders. What is really important is that Russia again will have a continuity of leadership at the top and a new, vigorous and probably strong leader at its apex.

The Western media have had a field day with Gorbachev's appointment. He seems suave, witty and vigorous, not only in comparison to the last three leaders but in his own right. What is hidden behind the unusual facade of this young, new leader? Consider Gorbachev's "organizational" and political profile, as it has emerged in the last few years from published and unpublished Soviet sources.

A Russian by origin, Gorbachev was born in 1931 in a major souhern province of Russia, Stavropol. After finishing high school he went to study law at Moscow State University where he became a Communist Party member in 1952, before the death of Stalin. After his graduation in 1955 he returned to Stavropol and served there in various political positions for the next 23 years.

In 1978 he was transferred to Moscow to become secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in charge of agriculture. In 1979, while still a Central Committee secretary, he was named a candidate member, and in 1980 a full member of the party's highest decision making body, the Politburo. Although he has a law degree, there is no evidence that he has spent a day of his life practicing law. He entered the university when Stalin was still in power -- which meant the study of law was not exactly a prestigious pursuit. Nor is Gorbachev an agricultural economist, although he graduated from a local correspondence school of agricultral economics. What Gorbachev is, first and foremost, is a professional party politician and an organization man.

At Moscow University he was the secretary of his faculty's Young Communist League (Komsomol). Between 1955 and 1978 he occupied staff positions in the Stavropol Komsomol and then the Communist Party organization, ending up as provincial first secretary.

Gorbachev's career until his transfer to Moscow was quite different from the "old guard" Soviet apparatchiki. Far from being broad and varied, it was geographically and functionally narrow. But it was a typical career pattern for senior party functionaries of his generation.

Nothing in Gorbachev's performance in Stavropol was especially notable -- nothing visibly innovative and transforming that would explain his major promotion to Moscow in 1978. Perhaps he stood out because of his intelligence or special organizational talents. He certainly must have had a high- ranking patron in Moscow, but we don't know for certain who it was -- perhaps Mikhail Suslov, for years the party's chief ideologist, or the previous secretary for agriculture. F.D. Kulakov. At some point Yuri Andropov adopted Gorbachev as his own proteg,e.

The process of participating in the work of the Politburo, and the access to data and analysis available to Politburo members, must have been exhilarating and broadening experiences for Gorbachev. In Stavropol he would not have had any access to official materials on foreign policy or defense issues, but suddenly he found himself exposed to all the most sensitive -- and interesting -- official information.

His career was still focused on the chronically unhappy (and dangerous for its supervisors) state of Soviet agriculture. Soviet agriculture performed badly during the years ('78-'83) when Gorbachev was responsible for it, but his stature was not diminished. This suggests either a very powerful patron, or the judgment of the top leaders that he did everything he could under bad circumstances, or both.

By early 1982 he had earned a reputation among his colleagues in the party elite for high intelligence, considerable organizational abilities, political acumen and a talent for survival. He started to be looked upon as one of the young men of the future.

Gorbachev's great chance came with Brezhnev's debilitating illness in the early 1980s, the death of Suslov in 1982 and the transfer of the KGB chief, Andropov, to the central Party Secretariat in May of '83 -- changes that began the "post- Brezhnev" era even while Brezhnev was still alive. There are numerous indications that Andropov took Gorbachev under his wing soon after Andropov was transferred from the KGB to the party secretariat, making the younger man a key lieutenant. Evidence of their close ties grew stronger after Andropov replaced Brezhnev in November 1982. By mid-'83 there were strong indications that the old and sick Andropov considered Gorbachev his eventual successor and was preparing him for this immense job.

For example, Gorbachev was sent on a mission to Canada, where he first demonstrated his ability to deal effectively with westerners. He began to appear at receptions of leaders and delegations from foreign capitalist and socialist countries. He developed a group of unofficial aides and experts who advised him on foreign policy and military matters. Together with Nikolai Ryzhkov, another young party secretary appointed by Andropov, he worked on plans for economic reforms. He made important speeches at the plenary meetings of the party's central committee and at meetings of party leaders and activists in many areas of the country. Through his closeness to Andropov, his growing visibility and his power in the party secretariat, he started to develop a power base on his own in the party and state apparatus.

It seems likely that if Andropov had survived and remained active for another year, Gorbachev would have been his successor. But when Andropov died in February 1984, the old guard could still argue that Gorbachev, through growing in stature, was still too young and inexperienced. They chose Chernenko instead, knowing that he could not provide the leadership needed to meet foreign or domestic challenges, but knowing also that his weakness would maximize their own power, as it did.

There is sufficient evidence to conclude that neither Gorbachev nor his allies challenged the selection of Chernenko in February of '84. This fact, and Gorbachev's behavior during the Chernenko interregnum, demonstrates his good political sense, his patience and most of all his talent for tactics.

Gorbachev's tactic in the Chernenko succession was to become Chernenko's close ally and supporter, instead of opposing him. This was the decisive step in Gorbachev's later ascendancy to the top.

In the fragmented arrangement that prevailed during the year Chernenko was in power, Chernenko himself was responsible only for ideological affairs -- the preparation of a new party program to be unveiled late this year -- and supervision of the party apparatus. From almost the beginning, Gorbachev became Chernenko's right-hand man, while his own responsibilities eventually expanded to culture, world communist affairs, the economy and personnel questions.

Gorbachev never showed any sign of disloyalty to Chernenko and never questioned his judgment. Despite the prodding of his more impatient allies, his basic tactic was to capitalize on his youthful, energetic image as the man of the future while working to combine the support of former Andropov appointees and followers with that of Chernenko and many of his loyalists. He managed to stay in the public eye, as on his trip to Great Britain, while avoiding overexposure which would have infuriated the old guard. So he decided not to go to the United States himself this month on a scheduled visit of Soviet parliamentarians (members of the Supreme Soviet exchanging visits with Congress), but sent instead politburo member Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the Ukrainian party boss.

Last year, when Chernenko dropped out of most official activities, Gorbachev became in fact, if not in title, the second secretary of the central committee. He routinely began to chair meetings of the secretariat of the central committee, and he organized the work of the other secretaries during Chernenko's absence.

Chernenko's patronage proved decisive. He established important precedents in the early stages of his illness by opening the meetings of the politburo and then turning over the chair to Gorbachev -- against the wishes of old-guard figures like Gromyko, Premier Tikhonov and Moscow party boss Viktor Grishin. There is evidence that in the last few months, Gorbachev became in fact, if not in title, the official chairman of the Politburo. There are also reasons to believe that Gorbachev chaired the meetings e military council, the highest party-military body which prepares decisions on security matters for the Politburo's approval.

Defense Minister Ustinov would have been a crucial actor in the succession drama, but little is known for certain about his view of Gorbachev. There were rumors in Moscow after Ustinov's death in December that Ustinov had thrown his support to Gorbachev, both because he was an Andropov loyalist and because he became friendly with Gorbachev in the few months before his death from cancer, which Ustinov knew was coming. There are also clues that after Ustinov's death it was not the party secretary in charge of military industry, Grigori Romanov, who became responsible in the Politburo for military affairs, but Gorbachev as de facto chairman of the military council.

Another factor working to Gorbachev's advantage was the changes Andropov was able to make during his brief tenure in many leadership positions. Andropov brought in new, younger people who were natural Gorbachev allies. Among them were the new premier of the Russian Republic, Vitali Vorotnikov, promoted to the Politburo; the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, an alternate member of the Politburo; the central committee secretary for personnel, Igor Ligachev; and the economic secretary, Nikolai Ryzhkov.

When Chernenko did die last week, the political momentum was strongly behind Gorbachev's elevation -- which explains the incredible speed with he was elected general secretary. Despite the fact that just six years ago he was an obscure provincial party secretary, by last week Gorbachev had emerged as the only logical choice to become the country's leader.

In my opinion he will now consolidate his power very quickly, reflecting the wishes of the Soviet elite and of the party activists. From now on, however, Gorbachev has to accept certain imperatives of party politics and power in the Soviet Union. By the tradition established in the Brezhnev period, he is entitled to the permanent chairmanship of the defense council and to the presidency of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which would give him the honorific of "president" as the Soviet head of state.

These positions are of strategic importance by themselves. When combined with Gorbachev's youth and tactical skill and the expectation that he will be in office for many years, we can anticipate a virtual rush of other state and party officials to proclaim their loyalty to the new leader and the support of his plans -- whatever they may be.

But imposing titles provide in the long run only the potential for great power; the opportunistic new loyalists who will flock to his standard give Gorbachev only the appearance of total dominance. To firmly establish his ascendancy, Gorbachev must establish a solid political base built on personal loyalties.

First of all, he has to deal with the old guard and put an end to the fragmentation of power at the top. This will mean easing out or neutralizing the most important old guard representatives -- Gromyko, Tikhonov and Grishin.

Dealing with the indestructible foreign minister will be Gorbachev's biggest challenge. There were credible reports in Moscow just before Chernenko's death that Gromyko had tried to engineer a "stop Gorbachev" scheme. Now, Gorbachev cannot tolerate for long the survival of Gromyko's kingdom within a kingdom -- the monopoly of foreign policy making he has established in the Foreign Ministry.

Perhaps the simplest way to ease Gromyko out would be for Gorbachev to forgo for the time being his own election as president of the Supreme Soviet's presidium, and saddle Gromyko with this largely symbolic position. That would allow the new general secretary to put the Foreign Ministry in its traditional place, subordinate to the central party apparatus and secretariat.

The timing of Chernenko's death could not have been more propitious for Gorbachev. It gives him multiple opportunities to build the personal political base he needs.

One opportunity comes from the shrunken size of the Politburo, which -- with Chernenko's death -- has fallen to 10 members. This gives Gorbachev a legitimate opportunity to add people loyal to him to this most important body.

Secondly, Gorbachev can now convene a plenum (meeting) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party which has been delayed a number of times and is overdue. At a plenum he can present his initial policy ideas, and can make the necessary personnel changes at the top.

Thirdly, the party leadership decided some time ago to produce a new party program to replace the one adopted at the 1962 party congress under Khrushchev. (This totally utopian -- and now embarrassing -- program predicted that by 1980 the Soviet Union would achieve the U.S. level of per- capita industrial production, a goal not even 50 percent achieved.) Gorbachev automatically inherits responsibility for the development of this plan, and can use it to introduce his own ideas about the Soviet Union's future.

Fourth and most important, a new party congress is due to take place late this year or early next. His "own" congress gives Gorbachev the unparalleled chance to proclaim his long-range plans for domestic reforms to the party and the nation, and allows him to "clean the stables," by making major personnel changes throughout the state and party bureaucracies.

Even as he consolidates power, Gorbachev will have to operate for a long while within the context of collective and oligarchic decision making established during the Brezhnev era. The extent of his freedom of action will depend on his ability to surround himself with leaders who will be responsive to his policy goals and loyal to him personally.

I expect Gorbachev to model his approach on Andropov, the leader whose promise of change was cut short by his untimely death. An activist attitude to the ills of Russia will require will power, political and manipulative talent, consistency and a broad vision. Gorbachev still has to demonstrate that he possesses all these in the right proportions.

The right leader in the right place at the right time can make a very major difference. Gorbachev's accession could represent the reassertion of Soviet power in the world, the determination to attack domestic malaise and to deal more successfully with foreign and military problems. Soviet elites and, probably, large segments of the Soviet population longed for just such a reassertion during the many years of interregnum and paralysis. Now they may discover their country's capacity for dealing with the many grave problems it faces.