Son of a railroad worker, Yuri V. Andropov proved something of a trackside switchman in his brief tenure as leader of the Soviet Union. His 15-month rule - clouded by serious illness for nearly half that period - formalized a consensus for change after Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year tenure. It particularly focused on the domestic economy, while also spotlighting the limits to change in the USSR.
Partly, Mr. Andropov's health-shortened rule limited what he could accomplish. But there were limits, too, built into the Soviet system, and into Soviet and Russian history.
Mr. Andropov's generally cautious style of rule jibed with a keen awareness, which he shared with those around him, that any rapid housecleaning - Nikita Khrushchev being the prime example - might prove at best, impossible and at worst, counterproductive.
The watchwords of Mr. Andropov's rule - one in which domestic issues got what a senior official termed ''long overdue'' priority over international ones - were ''discipline,'' ''efficiency,'' and ''improvement of the economic mechanism.'' This last phrase is Soviet shorthand for a cautious, piecemeal move toward sorting out the Soviets' inefficient system of central economic planning by fostering at least a measure of local initiative.
Indeed, a mix of improved discipline, greater attention to transportation and other infrastructure factors, and far better farming weather at least temporarily reversed in 1983 an economic slowdown in the USSR, yielding a good grain harvest and renewed overall economic growth. This alone should ensure Andropov kind consideration by that most fickle of juries, Soviet history.
Internationally, Mr. Andropov pursued an inherited campaign to improve at least the climate of relations with the USSR's giant communist neighbor, China.
But, as in the years before he assumed the party mantle, ties with the United States were the top foreign-policy priority. Here, he proved unable to deter or delay Western Europe's deployment of new US nuclear rockets in replying to the Soviets' own modernized ''Euromissiles.'' And a slight atmospheric thaw in the ties with the US last summer fell victim to fresh word-slinging over the Soviets' downing of a Korean Air Lines jumbo jet.
Mr. Andropov's rule - like Brezhnev's and Khrushchev's before him - was part of a long corrective process in Soviet political life since the death of Josef Stalin some three decades ago.
Mr. Andropov, taking over after a Brezhnev era in which stability had increasingly sired stagnation, laxness, and corruption, was part of a wide official consensus that it was time to get the country moving again. Indeed, this priority had become evident during the final years of Mr. Brezhnev's rule. Another encouraging move in this direction was a growing sense in the Soviet armed forces hierarchy, at time of tension with the West, that military strength is impossible amid economic weakness.
Mr. Andropov - who rose under Stalin, but prospered under Khrushchev and Brezhnev - held various advantages in the eyes of his colleagues as a candidate to succeed Brezhnev in November 1982. For one thing, Andropov had much foreign-policy experience. Though he never traveled outside the communist world, he was ambassador to Hungary when Soviet tanks rolled into that country in 1956. Then he returned to Moscow to become the leadership's top specialist in East European and communist-world affairs, a biographical note that must have pleased Kremlin colleagues still smarting from the upheaval next door in Poland.
Andropov later moved to the KGB apparatus, heading it for 15 years from 1967. Amid a widespread official sense that the Soviet economy needed new discipline and efficiency - and that society, in general, needed to be purged of its attraction to things Western - Andropov's KGB credentials made him a logical pick.
On Moscow's street corners, too, there was a genuine thirst for direction and even discipline, fueled in part by the inefficiencies, shop-counter shortages, and official corruption of the later Brezhnev years.
As a pedestrian put it in a bus-stop chat during Andropov's first month in power, the longtime KGB chief managed skillfully to touch this ''discipline'' chord without encouraging natural concern the he might become ''a Beria,'' a reference to Stalin's despised secret police chief. Still, Andropov - a tall, bespectacled man who was intensely private even by Kremlin standards - never did earn the kind of oddly personal warmth from ordinary Russians that Khrushchev and Brezhnev both managed in their longer tenures.
For the men in the Politburo, however, Andropov's main claim to the party mantle was likely that he had managed to distance himself from his one-time patron Brezhnev in the run up to transition - unlike his main rival, Brezhnev aide and protege Konstantin Chernenko.
By preference a consensus leader and by Soviet political necessity a cautious one, Andropov avoided any move to oust Chernenko from the ruling circle. Senior officials credited Andropov with a seriousness of purpose - ''Poltitics is not only his work, but his hobby,'' remarked an associate some months back - and a ''modest'' leadership style suited to overseeing gradual change with a minimum of political bureaucratic dislocation.
Andropov did visibly emerge as first among equals much more quickly than past rulers. It was he, alone among the Politburo members, who received US Vice-President George Bush and other key foreign visitors to Brezhnev's funeral. Andropov's name was promptly tagged to major domestic- and foreign-policy statements.
Yet the pace of personnel changes in the leadership and bureaucracy was measured - leaving, even after nationwide party elections early this year, the great majority of Brezhnev-era local leaders in place. And when party chief Andropov assumed the added, ceremonial post of Soviet President last June - years earlier in his tenure than Mr. Brezhnev did, Soviet sources suggested the move might reflect weakness as well as strength.
Andropov's health and personal distaste for the ceremonial trappings of power had initially made him reluctant to assume the presidency. But as an official was to put it later, it became clear such a move was essential, and better for projecting the image throughout the country and its sluggish bureaucracy that Yuri V. Andorpov was the uncontested man at the switch.
The man at the switch wanted action. Still, his key departure from his predecessor's approach involved tone of voice. He spoke in tougher, more direct, terser fashion, abandoning Brezhnev's bent for cushioning criticism with purple paeans to what was right with the economy.
Andropov's evident assumption was that promising policy directives remained on the plate from the Brezhnev years - whether designed to improve discipline and efficiency, or cautiously to decentralize some aspects of economic decisionmaking. What was needed now was a concerted move to counter bureaucratic resistance or inertia, and implement such moves; or, in Andropov's own preferred phrase: ''not slogans,'' but action.
And a year ago, police began to swoop down on Moscow shops, cinemas, and other public gathering places to apply the ''discipline campaign'' to the thousands of workers who had long taken a daily chunk from their nominal work time for shopping or other endeavors.
But having made the point, the Kremlin called off the police checks, as if in acknowledgement that recourse to what one official termed ''shock tactics'' was neither a desirable nor, short of a full-scale reversion to Stalinist tools, a workable means of putting the economy in order.
That task, Andropov knew, could be only a long-term one. It would have to involve a mix of sustained disciplinary improvement - all official Soviet campaigns seem to do better at the start than in the long term - and a gradually revised economic mechanism that might encourage, rather than deaden, local initiative.
A pilot project along these lines, announced last year, got under way this January. It involves two selected national ministries and a small number of regional plants.
Still, Andropov's main achievement was to formalize the emerging consensus strategy for change in the economy. His rule, a prominent, pro-Andropov official said privately a few months back, ''is an important page, maybe even a chapter, in a gradual search in recent years for an improved approach to running the Soviet Union and its troubled economy in the 1980s.''
Whether this effort moves from page to chapter in Soviet history now rests with Yuri Andropov's successors. But it does seem likely that most of the present Politburo shares the publicly expressed priorities of the ''Andropov era ,'' - a support made evident by the remarkable pursuit of these objectives even during Andropov's absence from public political activity for the last six months of his life.