MOSCOW -- Casting aside the sinister label of ex-chief of the secret police, Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov climbed the last rung of the Soviet hierarchy today with his unanimous election as general secretary of the Communist Party.
But analysts and Soviet sources said they expected Brezhnev's dual posts as head of state and chief of the Communist Party to be split between two men, at least initially.
Gray-haired and 68 years old, the one-time Volga boatman was never a career officer of the KGB.
Instead he made his way through a series of domestic and foreign assignments as the man representing the party apparatus.
At age 23 his party career began with a jolt when his predecessor was purged as regional organizer of the Young Communist League.
He made his name as ambassador to Hungary in 1954, when Soviet troops moved in force to put down what Moscow saw as a threat to take that country out of the East bloc.
As the ambassador to Budapest, he reportedly told Hungarian leaders that Russian troops were ready to withdraw only a few hours before they invaded and crushed the revolt.
That was followed by responsibility at party headquarters for relations with the ruling Communist parties of Moscows allies.
His 15-year term at the KGB also was a party job, since the ruling Politburo wanted to keep a civilian at the head of the powerful agency.
But he left that behind after the death this year of Mikhail Suslov, the party's chief ideologue and widely considered the most powerful man in the Kremlin after Brezhnev.
Although Brezhnev put forth his own candidate, Konstantin Chernenko, for Suslovs job, Soviet sources say Andropov beat him out in a Politburo vote.
Chernenko is said to have gathered some support since then among regional party officials who were afraid Andropov would crack down on their local fiefdoms.
But Chernenko was in no position to challenge Andropov after Brezhnev died, and it was he who nominated Andropov for the top job.
Despite his own decades as right-hand man to the late Soviet leader, Chernenko was quoted by Tass news agency as saying Andropov was Brezhnev's closest co-worker.
Analysts noted that Andropov was named general secretary -- the same title held by Brezhnev and Josef Stalin.
Reforms are expected in the Soviet economy if he comes to power, but Andropov is no liberal despite his reputation as one of the most open minds in the Politburo.
The ambassador of an Asian country once said Andropov expressed a great interest in Buddhism. Those who know him say he speaks good English, reads Western books and enjoys French wines.
But it was during Andropov's 15-year term as head of the KGB that the Soviet Union's tiny dissident community was effectively silenced - by criminal prosecutions andforced exile.
He also had international responsibilities as the head of the Kremlin's intelligence network -- one of the factors that makes him attractive to the military and the foreign policy establishment.
Soviet sources say it was their support that helped him beat Chernenko in the May vote to replace Suslov as secretary for ideology.
Andropov is stooped, bespectacled and balding, with long, gray strands of hair combed over his skull from the back.
At a recent public appearance he looked thinner than he did earlier in the year, sparking rumors he may be seriously ill.
Soviet sources say he suffers from a mysterious sickness known as the Armenian disease, said to be an ailment striking people of that ethnic group, weakening them for a month or two and then passing.