MOSCOW, March 11, 1985 (UPI) - Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, was chosen today to succeed President Konstantin Chernenko as Communist Party chief, finally bringing to power the post-World War II generation.
Gorbachev, 54, was first named to head the committee organizing Wednesday's funeral for Chernenko who died Sunday night at the age of 73.
Just four hours after the official Tass news agency announced Chernenko's death, the central committee of the Communist Party unanimously chose Gorbachev as general secretary of the party.
Gorbachev, a member of the ruling Politburo, had been considered the most likely candidate to succeed Chernenko.
An indication of his standing in the Kremlin hierarchy came in December when he was chosen to announce the death of Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, even though he was visiting Britain at the time.
After a decade of sickly leaders and three presidents in 28 months, the selection of Gorbachev finally broke with the old-guard generation of the Stalin era.
Gorbachev, with an image more of a bureaucrat than a laborer, took power only four hours after the report of Chernenko's death in a transition that appeared planned well in advance.
While every previous leader since the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 had started the long climb to power by filling the jobs left vacant in the carnage of purges and war, Gorbachev is firmly a post-war product.
He was a 14-year-old boy when World War II ended and did not even join the Communist Party until the year before Stalin died, 32 years ago last Friday.
''There is an entire generation that has missed out,'' a West European diplomat said.
''The fact that they had an elderly and not publicly impressive leader has perhaps been a problem,'' said the diplomat. ''There have been few windows of opportunity in recent years to travel to meet an American president.''
However, the Politburo rules by concensus, which means Gorbachev cannot move too much faster than the old men who still surround him and may still be suspicious of change.
''It's a conservative society,'' said another Western diplomat. ''It's a big ship. It turns slowly, if at all.''
The only alternatives to Gorbachev had been members of the old guard -- Viktor Grishin, 70, or Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, 75.
Instead of calming talk about the succession, recent TV appearances by Chernenko had steered speculation in a whole new direction. In both of the carefully staged events, Grishin was the one member of the Politburo seen with Chernenko.
This, combined with a speech Grishin gave in which he mentioned Chernenko many times, had shifted succession talk to Grishin.
The man once thought to be Gorbachev's chief competition, 62-year-old Grigori Romanov, had disappeared from the picture.
Gorbachev's relative youth, viewed in the West as an obvious asset, was also considered his biggest handicap in seeking the support of the other members of ruling 12-man Politburo.
Despite the death of Andropov just 15 months after taking over from Leonid Brezhnev, the Politburo repeated itself by putting an already ailing Chernenko in office.
Even with Gorbachev now taking over, he is not likely to be any easier for the West to deal with than other Communist Party leaders. And his need to rule with the support of fellow Politburo members means he might be unable to move quickly to change Soviet direction anyway.
''I don't think much will change,'' said a diplomat who has watched the Soviet Union through a quarter century. ''It's a pretty conservative society.''