The Soviet Union seems set to leave a lot of its past behind. Moving with unprecedented speed, it has installed 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev as the youngest leader in its 68-year history.
The decision was made public within five hours of yesterday's announcement that Konstantin Chernenko had passed away Sunday evening.
The rapidity of the succession convinced many Western analysts that the changeover was worked out well in advance, suggesting that the Kremlin has established a mechanism for transferring power smoothly. Most analysts expect it will be years before Mr. Gorbachev consolidates his grip on power.
The selection of Gorbachev also marks a generational change in the Soviet leadership. He is a full 18 years younger than his predecessor was upon taking power, and was only a teen-ager during World War II. He did not see combat duty, and he was not involved in the excesses of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
He appears to be more self-confident than many previous Soviet leaders, and seems somewhat more forthcoming and open. Although he is expected to engineer some policy changes, one key Western Kremlin-watcher cautions, ``It's a mistake to cast him as a liberal.''
He is, the analyst continues, ``very much in the mold of [former Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov'' -- a tough disciplinarian, an orthodox communist, and a man anxious to see the nation break out of economic stagnation.
To do that, however, he may well be willing to take some fairly radical steps. But, for the immediate future, many analysts predict he may be constrained by domestic political considerations.
``There will be no 100 days,'' the diplomat continues, cautioning against expecting an initial burst of major initiatives.
Further, other diplomats say, Soviet foreign policy is likely to stay on much its current course.
``It's important to distinguish between style and substance,'' another Western analyst says.
While Gorbachev may bring a more energetic style to the Soviet leadership, the analyst predicts, he is unlikely to strike out in bold new directions.
In particular, Soviet demands at the Geneva arms control talks, scheduled to open today, are expected to remain unchanged. The Soviet Union did not ask for a delay in the start of the talks despite Mr. Chernenko's passing.
One diplomat concedes that the transition, coming now, is a ``complicating factor'' in the arms talks. The reason, he says, is that some people -- particularly West Europeans -- may expect the US to make initial concessions at Geneva ``as a sort of goodwill gesture to the new leadership.''
That, he says, will be a difficult call to fend off.
President Reagan may have had similar considerations in mind when he chose not to attend Chernenko's funeral on Wednesday. Chernenko will be buried in the Kremlin wall.
The first sign that Gorbachev would take his place came when he was named head of the commission planning Chernenko's funeral. During the two previous leadership changes, the head of the funeral commission was eventually named general secretary of the Communist Party.
Western analysts were surprised at the swiftness of Gorbachev's appointment, but not at the outcome. Some theorized that Gorbachev's accession was brokered earlier, perhaps right after the death of Yuri Andropov in Feburary 1984. Gorbachev, they suggest, deferred to the more senior Chernenko in return for an agreement that he would be made the No. 2 man in the Kremlin and, eventually, the party leader. In return, the older leaders avoided an inter-generational power struggle.
The question, Kremlin-watchers asked, is whether the bargain would hold? Apparently it did.
Gorbachev was nominated for party leadership by a prominent member of the party's old guard, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Tass, the official Soviet news agency, noted that Gromyko was ``acting on an instruction of the Poliburo,'' the 10-man policymaking body. The party's Central Committee unanimously approved the recommendation, according to Tass.
The leadership was clearly at pains to avoid conflict, even to the point of naming party unity as its paramount goal. The official account of the Central Committee meeting noted that Chernenko ``cherished as the apple of his eye the unity of our Communist Party, collective character of the activities of the Central Committee, and its Politburo.''
Doubtless there will be conflicting accounts of what Gorbachev had to promise -- or whom he had to cross -- in order to gain the leadership. The haste with which he was chosen suggests, at the very least, that all 300 members of the Central Committee were not at the meeting.
Gorbachev has sounded a note of impatience in recent speeches. One of the most significant was made last December, when he officially took the mantle of the party's chief ideologist. But in the speech he did confine himself to ideology, dwelling instead on this country's economic problems.
``Truly revolutionary solutions'' are needed he said, especially in science and technology. A top priority is ``a restructuring of the forms and methods of economic management.''
He was, in part, referring to the economic reforms started under Yuri Andropov, which he said must be ``not only consolidated but extended.''
It is likely Gorbachev will attempt to move like-minded men into the ruling Politburo and the Central Committee Secretariat.
The Politburo now has only 10 full members, down six full members from 1976.
The Secretariat has stayed fairly stable over the years, with roughly 10 members.
As one Muscovite noted approvingly, ``My generation has finally taken power.''