MOSCOW — Control of the Kremlin passed to a new generation Monday when 54-year-old Mikhail S. Gorbachev became Communist Party leader following the death of President Konstantin U. Chernenko at the age of 73.
Gorbachev's firm grip on power was shown when he was selected for the Soviet Union's top job--general secretary of the party--within five hours after Chernenko's death was announced to the public.
Although he is the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, Gorbachev has been widely regarded as heir apparent ever since the ailing Chernenko succeeded President Yuri V. Andropov on Feb. 13, 1984.
3rd Shift in 28 Months
It was the third transfer of power inside the Kremlin within the last 28 months, starting with the death of President Leonid I. Brezhnev on Nov. 10, 1982.
Despite Chernenko's death, U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control negotiations will begin today in Geneva as scheduled, officials there said.
A medical report said Chernenko suffered from lung, heart and liver ailments that ended his life Sunday at 7:20 p.m. (Moscow time). In addition to emphysema, his doctors said, he had chronic hepatitis, which worsened into cirrhosis of the liver.
His funeral will be conducted Wednesday in Red Square after his body lies in state at the Hall of Columns today and Wednesday morning. Many world leaders are expected to attend and to seek meetings with Gorbachev.
Black-bordered red flags flew on central Moscow streets, and three days of official mourning were declared in honor of Chernenko, a stout, white-haired man who held Communist Party posts all his adult life.
A protege of Brezhnev's, Chernenko apparently shared his fondness for the concept of detente, which dominated the period of relatively relaxed Soviet-American relations in the 1970s. The opening of the new arms control talks today, following the breakdown of negotiations at the close of Andropov's tenure, is widely regarded as the chief accomplishment of Chernenko's abbreviated rule.
Gorbachev, a baldish man with a birthmark on his forehead, has a reputation as a champion of change within the slow-moving Soviet hierarchy, but he has been careful to avoid offending Kremlin conservatives.
He was a close associate of Andropov in the latter's campaigns against corruption and for greater labor discipline. Although he has been in charge of agriculture, Gorbachev somehow has escaped blame for almost five years of poor Soviet grain harvests.
In a speech to an emergency meeting of 300 members of the party Central Committee after his selection as party leader, Gorbachev immediately reaffirmed the Soviet Union's goals at the Geneva talks and held out hope of improving Soviet relations with China, as well.
At home, the new leader said, he favors speeded-up social and economic development and improvements in the lagging economy.
"I promise you, comrades, to do my utmost to faithfully serve our party, our people and the great Leninist cause," he told the committee members.
Observers were surprised by the speed with which Gorbachev moved into command of the party and of the Soviet government.
When Chernenko's death was announced, Gorbachev was appointed chairman of the funeral commission, considered to be a certain indication of succession to the top party post. Then, just a few hours later, the government news agency Tass disclosed that Gorbachev had already been elected party general secretary.
This contrasted sharply with the three days of internal wrangling after Andropov's death before Chernenko was selected for the leadership role. And it took two days after the death of Brezhnev for Andropov to be elected party leader--and that was considered a to be a quick transition at the time.
No Apparent Rivals
Gorbachev apparently had no rivals for the succession, although Western diplomats said in advance that the workings of the Politburo are too mysterious to make flat predictions of leadership changes.
Even before Chernenko's death, though, Gorbachev's hold on the No. 2 role was confirmed by other signals of his position as first among equals in the Politburo. His place in Politburo lineups and in order of speaking in a recent regional election campaign showed his status as successor, Western diplomats said.
In fact, there was evidence immediately after Chernenko succeeded Andropov last year that Gorbachev had moved up to replace Chernenko as second in the Soviet hierarchy, making him the mostly likely successor to the new but already ailing Soviet leader.
This suggested to some Western analysts at the time that during the three days it took to announce the succession, a compromise was reached within the ruling Politburo under which Chernenko would be allowed to assume power if the "real" transition to a new, younger generation of leaders would follow immediately after his departure.
That would mean that for the first time since V. I. Lenin's death in 1924 that the Soviet Union had at last been able to prearrange the transfer of power and to stick to the agreement.