Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the newly named Soviet leader, was still a child during the decade of Stalin's great terror. He was only 10 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

That removes from his biography at least two pivotal events that for the last 30 years have marked the adult lives of Soviet leaders and makes him by definition a member of the Kremlin's new generation.

At 54, Gorbachev is in fact the youngest member of the Politburo, a group now numbering 10 that effectively rules the Soviet Union. He will also be the first leader since Lenin to have completed regular higher education.

In choosing Gorbachev, his elders on the Politburo crossed a threshold that had been beckoning for several years. In a system where power and privilege are wedded to position, seniority is not easily relinquished, and it took time for the inevitable generational change to take place.

Already on the Politburo by 1980 at the age of 49, Gorbachev's stature rose even higher with the blessing of the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. During the 13 months that Konstantin Chernenko held the top job, Gorbachev emerged as the Kremlin's No. 2 man, someone whom people here and abroad saw as being groomed for power.

The western public got its closest look at Gorbachev last December when he and his wife Raisa, 51, visited London and attracted rave publicity. The couple's relaxed and stylish appearance was favorably contrasted with the more dour, stolid Soviet stereotype and after his meetings with British politicians, Gorbachev was described as bright, authoritative, with a sense of humor and a friendly touch.

For all the advance speculation, Gorbachev's views on several key issues, including foreign policy, are relatively unknown. What can be expected is that as a new leader he will hew closely -- at least in the near future -- to the consensus politics that have held sway in the Kremlin.

On domestic issues, where he has most experience, Gorbachev has also stuck close to the prevailing line. His expertise is in agriculture and during Andropov's tenure, he, like Andropov, stressed the need to pay attention to questions of motivation and incentive on the farm, and disparaged some of the more expensive cures for the ills of Soviet agriculture prescribed in the past.

But when Chernenko last fall adopted a massive program of land irrigation and reclamation, Gorbachev's voice was silent. By that time, he had already made the shift from agriculture to ideology, traditionally the domain of the second-ranking party chief. But still it appeared that Gorbachev knew when and how to steer clear of controversy.

Today, in a speech accepting the nomination as general secretary, Gorbachev returned to some of his old themes.

"The point at issue is the perfection of the system of social relations, above all economic ones," he said. "The point is also the development of the individual, qualitative improvement of the material conditions of his life and work, of his spiritual makeup."

Gorbachev (pronounced Gor-BAH-chof), born in a family of Russian peasants in the Stavropol region in the northern Caucasus, joined the Communist Party at age 21, three years before graduating from the law faculty at Moscow State University.

By 1956, he began climbing the party ladder, first as a secretary of the local Komsomol, or Communist Youth League. By 1963, he was chief of a department in the Stavropol region and by 1970, its first party secretary.

He developed his expertise in agriculture during this period, earning a degree from the Stavropol Agricultural Institute in 1967. Stavropol, a region with rich earth and a favorable climate, was one of the rare places in the Soviet Union hospitable to agriculture, which undoubtedly helped Gorbachev's career.

In 1971, Gorbachev became one of the 300 members of the Central Committee -- a leap which some say was owed to Mikhail Suslov, for years the party's powerful ideologist who had old ties to the Stavropol region.

In 1978, Gorbachev was elevated to the secretariat of the Central Committee and charged with superivising Soviet agriculture. It was a thankless job and yet, while he oversaw a series of bad harvests, Gorbachev never seemed to suffer any setbacks.

By 1980, Gorbachev was admitted to full Politburo membership, a rapid rise for someone so young. When Andropov took power in 1982, Gorbachev's fortunes continued to rise. As Andropov's health worsened, Gorbachev was said to have deputized for him.

On Andropov's death, the top post went to Chernenko, who had vied for the job 15 months earlier, lost, and then assumed the No. 2 spot. Gorbachev's accession has continued the progression from second place to first, a sign that in the course of three deaths in less than three years, the Soviet leadership appears to have settled on an orderly procedure for succession.

Gorbachev's status as the next in line after Chernenko was made evident on Feb. 24, the day of local Soviet elections. In the absence of the leader, who voted in a separate place, foreign reporters and camera crews were directed towards Gorbachev, who voted with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

Bantering with photographers who asked him to pose again by the ballot box, Gorbachev quipped that one vote was all that was allowed. His easy and open response displayed a confidence that visitors have said is characteristic of the new leader.

But perhaps the most important thing Gorbachev brings to the job -- aside from his education and his poise -- is his relative youth.

Within the Soviet Union, where he is a dim figure to the population at large, the fact that he is young, evidently capable and healthy is enough to make him popular.

Abroad, he will become the first Soviet leader since Leonid Brezhnev's health began to fail whose presence in the international arena can be counted on for many years.