Soviet leader Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko -- who after 13 months in power died yesterday at 73 of heart failure brought on by emphysema and other ailments -- came to rule the Soviet Union by patience and by being in the right place at the right age.

Edged out of the top job in November 1982 after the death of his patron, Leonid Brezhnev, Chernenko stayed on as a loyal number two, even giving the speech nominating his rival, Yuri Andropov, to the post that he had sought himself.

When Andropov died 15 months later, Chernenko emerged partly by default, partly as a result of his own adroit maneuvering. In any case, he was a safe choice for the aging veterans in the Politburo who, at that stage, still were reluctant to move power into the hands of a younger generation.

Chernenko got his second chance on Feb. 13, 1984, when he became the sixth general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. In a shorter period of time than anyone before him, he accumulated the other two titles of the Kremlin's triple crown -- president of the Soviet Union, or head of state, and chaiman of the Defense Council.

In the history of the Soviet Union, that was a rare feat; more typically in an autocratic state, a second-place finish is as good as a dead end.

That he made it to the final rung of the Soviet hierarchy was testimony to Chernenko's skill as a political survivor. He did not have Stalin's ruthlessness, nor Khrushchev's brashness, nor Andropov's shrewdness. He was not an orator. Although the most published member of the Politburo, he was not known for advancing any new ideas, either.

Instead he played the game in a way countless Soviet bureaucrats and apparatchiks could understand: by making the right friends, lying low and waiting. The time spent waiting was not wasted. Chernenko, regarded as an adept practitioner at the art of party politics, never lost track of his support within the system.

His greatest debt was to Brezhnev: the two met in 1950 in Moldavia, where Brezhnev was first party secretary and Chernenko was secretary in charge of propaganda and agitation, the arm of the party charged with motivating the public.

He followed Brezhnev to Moscow in 1956 and in 1965, Brezhnev, by then party boss in a troika with Aleksei Kosygin and Nikolai Podgorny, appointed him head of the general department of the Central Committee, where he oversaw the daily administration of the party and acted as Brezhnev's chief of staff.

Together with Andrei Kirilenko; Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the Ukrainian party leader, and Prime Minister Nicolai Tikhonov, Chernenko was a member of Brezhnev's inner circle, sometimes called the "Dnepropetrovsk Mafia." The name came from the town in the Ukraine, where Brezhnev spent his early career, and while Chernenko was not with him then, their close friendship gave him honorary membership to the club.

Chernenko rose steadily during the 1970s, first through the party's Central Committee, and in 1976 to the party secretariat, when he continued to be in charge of administration. By 1978, after only one year as an alternate member, he became a full voting member of the Politburo.

At the time he was 67, then the youngest man sitting both on the Politburo and the Secretariat, the executive arm of the party -- the two requisite posts for a candidate for general secretary.

Seven years later, when he was named general secretary, Chernenko was the oldest man to hold the position. And in the view of many analysts, he was chosen precisely because in 1984, the other two contenders -- Mikhail Gorbachev, now 54, and Grigori Romanov, 62, the only other Politburo members in the secretariat -- were too young.

Chernenko's power and visibility grew during Brezhnev's later years, giving rise to the speculation that he was the anointed heir. Chernenko accompanied Brezhnev on several trips abroad -- to the United Nations in 1974, to the signing of the Helsinki agreement in 1975 and the signing of the SALT II treaty in Vienna in 1979.

His role on these occasions appeared to be more one of a loyal aide than of a policy maker. People who saw the two on their joint trips do not recall an instance when Chernenko asserted his own views, although at the SALT II signing, Brezhnev was noticed turning to him for assistance.

But Chernenko's closeness to the leader inevitably enhanced his authority. At a 1978 session of the Supreme Soviet, or Soviet parliament, Chernenko alone conferred with Brezhnev as reports were passed up to the leadership podium. When a paper was brought to another Politburo member, it was then passed around to Chernenko, as if to a higher authority.

While Chernenko never had the opportunity to meet a U.S. president at a summit, it is possible to imagine him, like Brezhnev, giving bear hugs and engaging in conversations about grandchildren.

A harsher portrait of Chernenko's character was drawn by former Soviet diplomat Arkady Shevchenko, who defected in 1978. In his recent book "Breaking with Moscow," Shevchenko described Chernenko as "a pragmatic, businesslike man who knows what he wants" and who could also be "demanding, rude, authoritarian, arrogant."

Shevchenko, who was in New York at the United Nations when Chernenko became a full member of the Politburo, also called him a "master of wheeling and dealing on the Central Committee," who used his friendship with Brezhnev to its utmost, arousing the resentment of his colleagues.

In public, too, their closeness was occasionally apparent. When Brezhnev gave Chernenko an Order of Lenin in the fall of 1981, both men appeared to be moved emotionally by the event. As Brezhnev's health waned, Chernenko was on hand to help his friend. A Soviet official with the SALT II delegation in Vienna in 1979 reportedly likened Chernenko's position to that of Hamilton Jordan, President Carter's chief of staff -- and to that of Rosalynn Carter.

During the competition for the top job after Brezhnev's death, Chernenko relied on a power base in the party apparatus that he largely inherited from Brezhnev. To the extent that he added to it on his own, he drew on his long-time service in the party, on his central position in the party apparatus and, finally, on the loyalty of his generation.

Once in power, his style was reminiscent of Brezhnev's. Conservative on domestic issues, he shared Brezhnev's inclination toward detente with the West in foreign policy.

Even before he took office, Chernenko's turn in the Kremlin had the looks of an interregnum. The transitional nature of his leadership was not only due to his age: Andropov, while three years younger, was a member of the same generation and lasted in the top job only two months longer than Chernenko.

But, Andropov was seen as a man who took power with a purpose. He moved quickly to assert his position on several fronts, although it took him seven months to accumulate all three top jobs. Since his death, Andropov has emerged almost as a cult figure in the Soviet Union, a leader who people believed set out to make the Soviet system work.

Chernenko, a stocky barrel-chested man with a broad face and thick white hair, conveyed a different impression. And in the last six months, as his health worsened, then improved and then worsened again, he seemed more and more remote, appearing on ceremonial occasions with a blank, almost beatific look.

The Soviet people, schooled in ways of gleaning a personality from the opaque official portraits of their leaders, reacted accordingly. Even people who objected to Andropov's style of leadership did not joke about it. They did about Chernenko, openly and not only among themselves.

The expectations raised by Andropov, which seemed even greater in retrospect, probably had something to do with the widespread impatience with Chernenko. After the lull of Brezhnev's waning years, when the Soviet economy neared stagnation, people were eager for some direction from the top.

Andropov's blunt talk about the system's problems and the need for improvements struck a chord, even if he never had the time to put his ideas into practice.

Chernenko, in his speeches and statements, kept alive Andropov's drive against corruption, inertia and sloppiness, but somehow the words, coming from him, lost their edge.

In his first speech as general secretary, Chernenko promised to continue Andropov's program and in the budget proposal for 1985, the last year of the 11th five-year plan, expanded the scope of experimental economic reforms to 24 ministries.

But the same acceptance speech revealed Chernenko's basic conservatism, when he said what had been achieved had to be evaluated realistically, without exaggeration or wishful thinking. "In the renewal of the economic structures, we would do well to observe that wise old saying, 'look before you leap,' " he said.

There were other differences between Chernenko and Andropov. Andropov had tried to cut down on some of the heavy ritual that had begun to burden Soviet ceremonies. He made shorter speeches, cut down on televised award ceremonies and reduced the number of slogans for the annual Nov. 7 and May Day parades.

Nine months after his death, the number of Red Square slogans started to creep up again and the leader's speeches grew more long-winded. Chernenko also proved more partial to televised ceremonies, although some of these also had the purpose of providing a forum for a personal appearances to squelch speculation about his waning health.

But while Chernenko never became a popular leader, he was a reassuring one. Given his age, few expected him to do more than guide the system to its next transition -- when a younger, better educated generation would take charge.

As much as the Soviet people are aware of the need for change, as a rule, they are also nervous about what change will bring. This is especially true for a bureaucracy wedded to its powers and privileges, and to those bureaucrats, the Chernenko era was undoubtedly seen as a welcome breathing spell.

Chernenko seemed to understand his limits. He was given to more self-promotion than Andropov, but it never blossomed into a personality cult. There were no posters of him, as there had been of Brezhnev, crowned with trumpeting slogans.

In meetings and in some statements, Chernenko took care to note that he was speaking on behalf of a collective leadership -- "at the behest of my comrades," he said in an interview. In many ways, the Chernenko era was a supreme example of a collective Politburo, where the leader served more as chairman of the board than as chief executive.

A scene at Andropov's funeral in February 1984 indicated that Chernenko's stature did not loom large above his colleagues. As the Politburo stood at attention during the ceremony, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko turned to Chernenko and under his breath but loud enough for a microphone to pick up, said, "Don't take off your hat."

But the power of the party general secretary ultimately overrides all other authority in the Soviet Union. It is a power that Chernenko -- like others before him -- sought to protect with the help of a loyal staff.

During his 13 months in power, Chernenko made no changes in the Politburo or in the Secretariat. The reluctance to add new blood indicated that the balance of competing interests, of personalities and of generations was set to his liking and to his advantage. Ultimately the decision to change was his -- and he did not make it.

But there were some initiatives during the Chernenko administration -- particularly in foreign affairs, an area he seemed to concentrate on most during his first spring in power.

During those first few months, Chernenko maintained a heavy schedule of meetings with foreign visitors and while accompanied and guided by Gromyko during some, he met others -- such as French President Francois Mitterrand -- on his own.

The most significant shift came in East-West relations. Although Gromyko was seen as playing the key role in developing the policy, it was with Chernenko at the helm that the Soviet Union edged its way back to the negotiating table with the United States.

Chernenko's speeches from the beginning had emphasized the need for better relations with the United States. In that sense, he was more like Brezhnev; Andropov's style had been more confrontational, particularly after the Korean airliner disaster in September 1983 and as the U.S.-Soviet talks in Geneva broke down.

Chernenko also took charge on some domestic initiatives. In a speech on the 50th anniversary of the Writers' Union, he called for closer attention to the political goals of art and literature.

He also sought to enhance the role of the deputies to the republic and National soviets, and of the people's controllers, people charged with "monitoring, warning and correcting shortcomings" in the workplace.

"The task here is to ensure that those mass bodies of government learn to use their constitutional powers in practice," he said in a speech last Oct. 5.

He also was one of the principal backers of education reform, begun this year. In the fall, he announced a new land reclamation program, another attempt by the Soviet leadership to resolve the country's continuing problems in agriculture.

But these were not initiatives that addressed the more fundamental problems faced by the Soviet Union and sensed by many of its people -- problems of an overly rigid centralized system, lack of initiative and motivation and a sclerotic economic structure.

Like Andropov, Chernenko never got a chance to hold power with sustained good health. The first public evidence of his poor health came before he took power, in the spring of 1983 when he disappeared from public view, missing a number of key Kremlin ceremonies.

At the time, his absence led to speculation that his fortunes, as Andropov's old rival, were on the wane. But when he appeared, he gave a major speech on ideology, traditionally the responsibility of the second-ranking member of the party.

A little more than a year later, Chernenko, then the leader, again faded from view. Although said to be on summer vacation, Chernenko, already known to suffer from emphysema, was reportedly hospitalized during August, although his ailment was not known.

He reappeared Sept. 5 for a ceremony to award medals to Soviet cosmonauts, but his posture was wooden, his breathing was short and his gaze glassy.

After that, his health seemed to have its ups and downs. Not long afterward, for instance,, he stood in a large room, and read a speech without difficulty.

In an interview with Washington Post Moscow bureau chief Dusko Doder on Oct. 16, he seemed in good health, too, with a firm handshake and a cheerful demeanor.

That interview, the only one in which he agreed to meet with a foreign reporter, also revealed something of his personality. He seemed relaxed and made a few jokes, chuckled and appeared to have less trouble speaking extemporaneously than when reading speeches.

Like many in his generation of Soviet leaders, Chernenko's background was limited in terms of education and exposure to influences from outside the Soviet Union.

Born into a family of Siberian peasants on Sept. 24, 1911, near Krasnoyrsk, Chernenko got his early training in that region, pausing in the early '30s for a tour as a border guard in Kazakhstan.

He joined the party there in 1931 and by 1941 had became a local party boss in Krasnoyarsk. During part of World War II, he attended party school in Moscow.

In 1948, he made the move to Moldavia, a region seized from Romania during the war and then newly incorporated into the Soviet Union. Two years later, he met Brezhnev and from then on, his career was blessed.

Chernenko's lack of wartime service is unusual for his generation and a drawback in a country that devotes much attention to the war and its heroes.

Since he took power, that gap has been filled with accounts of Chernenko's service in the border guards, where former colleagues, in print and in a recent documentary film, have recounted that he was a crack shot and a loyal Communist with leadership potential.

As a man who stood in waiting to Brezhnev for so many years, that potential was never displayed until he took supreme power. Unlike Andropov, who headed the KGB secret police for 15 years, Chernenko never held responsibility for an enterprise or a government agency.

His skill, and his survival, depended more on his ability to execute and administer the policies of others. For years, he did it for Brezhnev, and during his year in power, he spoke less for himself than for a collective of the Soviet Union's aging but tenacious leadership.