Nikolai Viktorich Podgorny, born into the family of a foundryworker in the Ukrainian countryside 74 years ago, had a successful career as an engineer in sugar-beet refineries before he began his rise in the Communist Party hierarchy.

He joined the Young Communist League shortly after the revolution, but it was not until the end of World War II that he received his first significant political position, Ukrainian representative to the Soviet government in Moscow.

In 1950 he was made party leader in the important Kharkov region of the Ukraine, and seven years later he was named leader of the Ukrainian party. That position led to his membership in the Politburo, first as a candidate member and in 1960 as a full member.

When his friend and backer Nikita Khrushchev brought him into the Kremlin in 1963 as a party secretary, he was considered a possible successor to Khrushchev along with another new party secretary - Leonid Brezhnev. The fact that they were in such similar positions contributed to the impression that they were competing with each other. Brezhnev won decisively.

In 1965 Podgorny was name president, replacing Anastas Mikoyan, one of the few Soviet leaders of the first rank to retire with his political stature more or less intact.

While not actually a rival of Brezhnev, Podgorny was never considered one of his closest supporters. In the uncertain period that followed Khrushchev's downfall, Podgorny was thought to favor certain economic reforms that Brezhnev opposed.

When, he was "elevated" to the presidency - the formal title is chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the Parliament - it was considered something of a setback to his political ambitions since in the arcane maneurering of the Kremlin, the job has been a sinecure in the past.

Podgorny remained one of the most visible of Soviet leaders, however, ranking second at times to Brezhnev and frequently a world traveler. In March he visited southern Africa, the first top Kremlin official to do so.