Wrung by a painful transition in the Kremlin's top leadership, the Soviet Union is ending one of the most difficult years in its postwar history, but the system here appears to have demonstrated more resilience and maturity than many thought it had.

The gloom and frustration that gripped the country after the death in February of pres-ident Yuri Andropov were only intensified by the selection of Konstantin Chernenko as his successor. It is hard to recall a Soviet figure who faced as adverse a public reaction as Chernenko.

Nevertheless, what started as a dubious holding operation 10 months ago has turned into a relatively viable political enterprise.

Chernenko's reign remains a transition within a transition, yet the 73-year-old general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party appears to have risen to the occasion and forged a political compromise based on the concept of "continuity."

On the one hand, positive trends set into motion by Andropov have been continued by Chernenko. The country's political and social life appears more complex and much more difficult for the old style of clique politics, and the emergence of competing elites has injected a greater degree of deliberation as well as a sense of compromise at the upper echelons. This ultimately resulted in greater stability.

It could be argued, on the other hand, that while the Soviets have not done all that badly in a crisis year, this has been more luck than skill or strength of the system.

Moreover, the very nature of compromise means that the basic problems merely have been postponed.

As his position became stronger, Chernenko seemed to have gained more room for action, although he is believed to be acting as chairman of the board for the ruling council. Toward the end of the year, for instance, he simply dropped Moscow's former insistence on the removal of U.S. medium-range missiles from Western Europe as a condition for the resumption of the Geneva talks.

There were also indications of a Chernenko cult as the general secretary began to dominate the news much in the way the late Leonid Brezhnev.

Exactly how political power was consolidated following Chernenko's accession remains opaque because of Soviet secrecy. But the last two power transitions seemed to have introduced more coherent and consistent processes on at least two important questions.

One is the thorny issue of succession itself; the other is the question of historical continuity, something that had plagued the Kremlin for decades.

Since the death in 1924 of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, and until Andropov's election as party leader in November 1982, the absence of a succession mechanism has been one of the main flaws in the system.

Stalin rose to the top over the corpses of Lenin's Politburo colleagues; Nikita Khrushchev defeated his rivals by denouncing Stalin and ousting Stalin's closest Politburo associates; Brezhnev replaced Khrushchev in a palace coup and denounced Khrushchev's policies as "harebrained schemes." A new and more orderly pattern of succession has emerged during the past two years.

Andropov, who served for 15 years as chairman of the KGB secret police, had been moved into the party's Secretariat to take charge of ideology, the second position in the party hierarchy, under Brezhnev. When Brezhnev died, Andropov was named his successor.

Chernenko, a Brezhnev protege who was defeated by Andropov in the succession struggle, was appointed to the same second spot in the Secretariat.

After Andropov's death, Chernenko was elected secretary general while the second spot was given to Mikhail Gorbachev, 53, an Andropov protege. Judging by Gorbachev's duties in the leadership and his visibility, there seems to be no doubt at least for the time being that he is Chernenko's heir apparent.

Whether this pattern of succession is now a permanent feature of the Soviet system is not known. But during the last year of Brezhnev's life, when distinct factions were jockeying for positions in a long-running succession contest, it was said that the ruling elite had come to believe that it was mandatory to devise a succession mechanism.

According to this argument, the flaw in the system already had extracted huge social and political costs, leading to ideological upheavals and preventing the party from developing civic and cultural resources to ensure respect for its own institutions.

It appears likely that the mechanism involved in the last succession was agreed upon at the time of Brezhnev's death.

The question of historical continuity is closely related to the succession issue, but its significance is wider.

As Stalin rose to the top, he denounced Lenin's old associates as criminals and had virtually all of them executed. After Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev turned the dictator into a nonperson and denounced his entire career, including his wartime leadership and diplomatic achievements. Khrushchev in turn became a nonperson after he was ousted by Brezhnev in 1964.

Such practices have left the Soviet Union a country without a past. The 40 years of its history under Stalin and Khrushchev are glossed over in textbooks, as history books have been rewritten several times, eliminating references to Stalin and Khrushchev.

Andropov is given credit here for putting an end to this cycle of denunciations. An almost revolutionary step in this direction came in Andropov's first speech as party leader, in which he had some nice words to say about an already dismissed Politburo member. Andropov also made sure that his predecessor was secured a place in history, a practice being continued by Chernenko.

It is difficult to say whether Andropov's 15 months in power will turn out to be a major chapter in Soviet history or a mere footnote.

All indications suggest that his political program remains popular with large sectors of the population and particularly with better educated young generations.

There are widespread concerns among these groups that the command economy no longer can be expected to secure growth and rising living standards that have been key stabilizing factors since the war.

If one were to put Andropov's program into capsule form, it has coupled social discipline with cautious changes designed to reduce the rigidity of a centralized economic system and make some concessions to the laws of economics and human nature.

In practice, this meant using economic levers to stimulate and regulate the economy and lessening the role of the plan. This, in turn, meant enhancing the role of economic managers and individual initiative.

But the scope of changes envisioned by Andropov and particularly the haste with which he was trying to push them onto a reluctant economy thoroughly frightened the party bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy has resisted changes on ideological grounds, arguing that reforms and decentralization would undermine the cohesion of the state. Once begun, it is feared, the changes may acquire a degree of inevitability that would ultimately challenge the bureaucracy's own prerogatives.

Chernenko's rise to power brought about an immediate slowdown in the implementation of Andropov's program, although the new leader remained rhetorically committed to it.

However, Chernenko has made no effort to stop Andropov's experiments already under way. Despite his conservatism and his long association with the party bureaucracy, he seemed toward the end of the year to move closer to the position of the so-called reformers.

Diplomatic observers here believe that Chernenko is the spokesman for the old guard Politburo members who are a majority on the ruling council. Among them are Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, 79, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, 75, Dinmukhamed Kunaev, 72, Mikhail Solomentsev, 71, and Viktor Grishin, 70.

Apart from Gorbachev, younger Politburo members include Grigori Romanov, 61, Gaidar Aliyev, 61, Vitaliy Vorotnikov, 57, and Vladimir Shcherbitsky, 66.

Alliances are as impermanent in the Politburo as in any other political group, and it is not possible to know to what extent they run along generational lines. After the death of marshal Dmitri Ustinov, the defense minister, this month, the decision to replace him with a 73-year-old career soldier revealed the old guard's reluctance to give a top position to a younger man.

It is more likely, however, that the divisions in the ruling body are those between "reformers" and "conservatives." It is in this context that Chernenko's position as secretary general is pivotal, for he is in a position to shift decisions in the direction he desires.

That such divisions exist was evident during December.

In an article published in the monthly Kommunist, Chernenko talked about the need to "move forward" in the area of economic improvements. But he emphasized that such a move was linked to a continued "strengthening of the party's role" in running it.

The article appeared to be an effort to bridge the differences between the reformers and conservatives by talking about the need for changes in the economy while emphasizing that the party's responsibilities "will not diminish, but will be increased."

Gorbachev, giving a keynote address at an important ideological conference earlier in December, assessed the economy somewhat differently. Significantly, his speech was not reported in full by Pravda and other Soviet newspapers. The full version of the speech was issued as a separate booklet.

This does not suggest any struggle for power between Chernenko and Gorbachev, however. There is no reason to believe that Gorbachev is anything but a loyal lieutenant to Chernenko. Nevertheless, Gorbachev's pronouncements reflect continued debate in the Kremlin over how to achieve better economic results.