Grigori Romanov, 62, has been a Politburo member since 1976 and a secretary of the Central Committee since June. Romanov has long been considered Gorbachev's strongest competitor because the two are the only Kremlin leaders who are members of both the Politburo and the Central Committee Secretariat.

The Soviet Politburo is the 10-member executive policy-making arm of the 300-member Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Romanov rose steadily through the party leadership in Leningrad, and in 1970 became the regional party leader there.

In Leningrad, Romanov bloomed as a tough administrator, an ideological conservative, and an outspoken supporter of the Soviet military industrial establishment. Under his leadership, the Soviet economy increasingly became dominated by heavy and defense-related industries, a sector that Romanov now oversees on a national level. The new Soviet leadership, with its keen interest in national defense, is certain to draw more and more heavily on Romanov's expertise in that area.

Romanov was born in the Novgorod region in 1923. He served in the Soviet Army during World War II, and graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute in 1953, the year Stalin died. He then launched his career as an engineer in shipbuilding and a party organizer. Like Gorbachev, Romanov, early in his career, came under the influence of the late Mikhail Suslov, the ideologist of the Soviet Party and longtime Politburo member. Romanov also fared so successfully under both Brezhnev and Andropov that his name often has been mentioned as a possible Kremlin leader.

The well-groomed, handsome Romanov has been handicapped by a lack of experience with the national party apparatus and minimal exposure to the world.

Romanov also is alleged to have a great penchant for the high life. During Brezhnev's decline -- as Romanov was being mentioned as a possible successor -- a rumor circulated that Catherine the Great's dinner service, borrowed from the Hermitage Museum, was smashed at the wedding party of Romanov's daughter. Whether true or not, the story is part of Romanov's reputation within western and Soviet circles.