Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko first came to the United States as a charge' d'affaires at the Soviet Embassy in 1939. George Shultz was a freshman at Princeton. Ronald Reagan was appearing in "Naughty but Nice."

Gromyko, who has been the Soviet Union's foreign minister since 1957, will sit across a negotiating table from Secretary of State Shultz today in Geneva. He has met with 14 secretaries of state and every president starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt. And yet, at 75, Andrei Gromyko remains a shadowy figure to most Americans.

When Gromyko was the Soviet Union's representative to the U.N. Security Council in the late 1940s, reporters used to approach him regularly for interviews on subjects more personal than the latest foreign policy initiative. Gromyko's standard reply:

"My personality does not interest me."

For want of much other information, descriptions of Gromyko have always relied heavily on his "dour" mien: the coal-dark eyes, the stern brow, the pouting lower lip, the sallow complexion. Over the years he has been dubbed "Grim Grom," "Old Stoneface," "Mr. Nyet," and, not without irony, "Amiable Andrei." Dean Acheson, secretary of state under Harry Truman, speculated that Gromyko's "impenetrable mask" may have "contributed to his amazing and unique record of survival." And Dwight Eisenhower wrote of Gromyko, "When he spared us a smile, he did so with the greatest effect."

As a servant of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov and, now, Chernenko, Gromyko has rarely taken a misstep that would make him the subject of popular anecdote. There was a bit of an uproar when he expressed admiration for "Gone With the Wind," a film widely condemned in the Soviet Union for its supposedly sympathetic view of slavery. But he rarely errs. Former ambassador Averell Harriman wondered if Gromyko "had schooled himself out of any human foibles."

He is the implacable career diplomat who sat glumly next to Nikita Khrushchev as the Soviet leader banged his shoe on a desk at the United Nations. At the Kremlin's direction, and despite American evidence, he insisted to President Kennedy that the Soviet Union had not stationed offensive missiles in Cuba. Now, according to U.S. intelligence and leading experts, Gromyko is not merely an emissary of Soviet foreign policy but its prime architect as well. Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko has little foreign experience and defers extensively to his foreign minister. One intelligence expert says that since the death of Yuri Andropov, Gromyko, in fact, is to the Soviet Union what Alexander Haig once aspired to be -- namely "the czar of foreign policy."

" 'I've been there. I know what went on. ' Gromyko said that to me many times," says former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Malcolm Toon.

Talleyrand remained in power through the French Revolution, the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The Russian czars also had foreign ministers who served for decades. Gromyko himself is an admirer of Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov, who helped rebuild the country after the Crimean War. If only in terms of his ability to survive extreme shifts in leadership, Gromyko has been the Bolshevik equivalent of Talleyrand or Gorchakov. And yet we hardly know him.

Gromyko is like Alexy in Leo Tolstoy's novel, "Anna Karenina." He is a minister who is his job, who reveals so little of himself that his every remark and gesture are a source of mystery. "Every moment of his life was filled up and apportioned," Tolstoy wrote of Anna's husband. "And in order to perform all the tasks allotted to each day, he observed the strictest regularity. 'Without haste and without rest' was his motto."

Gromyko and his wife Lidia live in an apartment on Shchuseva Street in central Moscow. Lidia, according to a number of American visitors, "looks like a typical Russian babushka," but she is "very lively, very outspoken and knowledgeable," according to one diplomat. The Gromykos have two children, Anatoly, 52, who is a director of the Africa Institute in Moscow and the author of a book on the Kennedy administration, and Emilia, who is married to a diplomat. Anatoly and journalist Vladimir Lomeiko are the authors of a new best-selling and influential book on international affairs, "New Thinking in the Nuclear Age."

Anatoly was a rambunctious teen-ager. When police once stopped him for speeding here they discovered he was driving without a license. According to a story in Collier's magazine published 35 years ago, Lidia Gromyko "once startled a demure Long Island tea party by saying quietly that she and her husband used to lie awake nights worrying because in the event of war their boy would be one of the first to go."

Gromyko is in fine physical condition for a man of his age. "He told me in 1976 that he adheres to a regular program," says Walter Stoessel, the ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1974 to 1976. "He said he uses hand weights every morning." At the funeral of defense minister Dmitri Ustinov last month, young soldiers and party elders tried desperately to stay warm in freezing temperatures. They all tried to keep moving. Gromyko stood still, unperturbed by the cold.

Gromyko dresses in somber suits, usually gray or dark blue. Although they often have a boxy cut and are tailored in Moscow, the suits appear to be made of expensive, European worsted wools. He favors dark ties -- gray, blue or maroon -- and heavily starched white shirts. According to a report 34 years ago in The New York Times, he wears a size 12 shoe. In colder weather he often wears a felt homburg instead of the more standard Russian fur hats.

Like most officials at his level, Gromyko is driven in a ZIL limousine to his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at 32-34 Smolyenskaya Sennaya Square.

He often meets foreign visitors at the Kremlin or in one of the Foreign Ministry's conference rooms, but occasionally he greets westerners in his seventh-floor office.

"Most of all, I remember the office as dark. There was very little light in it," says Jacob Beam, ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1973. Former secretary of state Cyrus Vance remembers a green-baize table for group meetings. The carpeting is dark, and "I seem to remember some birch furniture," says Stoessel.

Brezhnev's office in the Kremlin was cluttered with memorabilia and knickknacks, including a timed cigarette dispenser. Visitors to Gromyko's office at the foreign ministry remember nothing of the kind. His desk is clean, often absolutely so. A portrait of Lenin hangs on the opposite wall. There are no other pictures in the room. "Very, uh, beige in there," Stoessel says. "Very austere," says Beam. "And very, very dark."

Gromyko does not smoke. He rarely drinks. At embassy receptions he often holds a scotch-and-soda or a glass of wine without finishing it. "In the old days," says Toon, "the Russians used to try and drink the Americans under the table. They've gotten a little more sophisticated about it, but Gromyko was always moderate."

George McGovern met with Gromyko last summer in Yalta: " 'I drink very little,' he told me. 'Just a little wine with dinner.' He told me he was swimming three times a day with his grandsons in the Black Sea."

To relax, Gromyko takes brisk walks, collects stamps, plays chess with his wife and reads. He enjoys reading diplomatic archives from the czarist period. When he was in the United States he frequently went to the movies, was a voracious reader of the New York papers and was even said to glance at a comic book or two.

Gromyko likes to hunt for boar and bear. Apparently, he is a hunter of uncommon efficiency.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, an aide to Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, went hunting for boar with Gromyko and Leonid Brezhnev in an old czarist hunting preserve about 100 miles north of Moscow: "The boar have set patterns of movement. You knew exactly where to wait, and with those telescopic sights on the Russian guns, it was almost impossible to miss. Gromyko waited very carefully to get them in his sights. He fired two shots and killed two boar. Brezhnev missed, I remember."

Lidia Gromyko once told former British prime minister Lord Alec Home, "If you buy a gun for my son Anatoly , buy a better one than you buy for my husband, because my son lets the ducks rise off the water."

A sampling of Gromyko's doodling casts some doubt on his ability to relax completely, according to a reporter who once examined one of Gromyko's note pads at the U.N. Gromyko made straight lines pressed deeply into the paper by repeated pencil strokes.

In a speech honoring Gromyko's 70th birthday five years ago, Brezhnev paid special tribute to his foreign minister's capacity for work. By all accounts, that capacity is extraordinary. In a recent session of the United Nations, Gromyko met approximately 80 foreign ministers in 10 days, a routine that required constant briefings.

His attention span and memory have startled American visitors for years. According to one observer, "he will sit listening to some speech for a couple of hours, never taking a note and wearing a kind of sleepy expression. But when it's over and it's his turn, Gromyko seems to have the whole thing memorized and he starts asking very precise, pertinent questions."

"I always knew I was talking to someone who knew exactly what he was talking about," says Cyrus Vance. "He brings to that job continuity and memory. He has a photographic memory."

Vance's wife Gay and Gromyko's wife Lidia were once riding together from Andrews Air Force Base to downtown Washington. Gay Vance said she hoped the Gromykos weren't too tired and that Andrei Andreyevich would not have to work too late that night.

"Oh, no," Lidia Gromyko said. "He has been foreign minister for 20 years and he already knows everything in those papers."

At his press conferences, Gromyko is a master. "Those performances are brilliant," according to Dusko Doder, The Washington Post's Moscow bureau chief. "He works without notes, usually no papers at all. He is like a professor with his students. First he gives a lecture, a statement, and then he takes questions. He will listen to the question, then rephrase the question to expose its weakness and then answer. He never makes a single mistake."

Gromyko has grown comfortable with foreigners and the Western press. He is patient with photographers and is even something of a television performer. After the SALT II agreements were signed by Carter and Brezhnev, an American television reporter asked Gromyko, "Andrei Andreyevich, could you tell our American viewers, what would the Soviet Union do if the Senate changes the treaty before it's ratified?" Gromyko took off his glasses, waited for the television lights to go on and in his basso voice, he said in English: "The Soviet Union will never, never permit changes to the treaty we've signed."

The lights went off.

Gromyko put on his glasses and turned to his questioner.

"Okay?" he said.

Kevin Klose, The Post's Moscow bureau chief between 1977 and 1980, tells this story: "I once met Gromyko at the Foreign Ministry and, in my best Russian, I introduced myself and tried to ask him a question. He interrupted me and, in English, he said, 'Yes, Mr. Klose. You are a representative for The Washington Post. That is a newspaper that every day prints the truth. And some days a little more than the truth.'

"Well, I called Craig Whitney, who was The New York Times bureau chief then. I started to tell him the story and he broke in and said Gromyko had told him the same thing about The Times in Bonn in 1974. The guy is a pro."

"Even if you're just sitting with Gromyko or having a drink with him, he never lets go," says former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. "No one fully lets go -- you don't want to give the other side a glimpse that may somehow reveal too much -- but Gromyko reveals nothing."

Gromyko is known, however, for a very wry sense of humor -- so wry, in fact, that some Americans miss it entirely.

Someone once asked him for his opinion of American women and Gromyko answered, "I am not impressed." The questioner seemed upset and so Gromyko added, "Madam, that is a joke."

At the U.N. a diplomat tried to break the ice and asked Gromyko if he had enjoyed breakfast.

"Perhaps," said Gromyko.

When he was less powerful, Gromyko was the butt of his leaders' jokes. With Gromyko standing there, Khrushchev told visiting Americans, "When I tell Gromyko to take off his pants and sit on a cake of ice, he does it. And he keeps sitting there until I tell him to get up."

"I heard Khrushchev say that and there was just sort of a sour smile on Gromyko's face when he heard it. He didn't feel like he was in a position to dispute it," says Toon.

Sonnenfeldt remembers Brezhnev needling Gromyko: "We'll send you up in a satellite and we won't let you down until you have an agreement."

In his memoirs, Kissinger wrote, "Gromyko's face would crease in smiles when he was the butt of heavy-handed joshing. Only his eyes remained wary and slightly melancholy, like those of a beagle who has endured the inexplicable foibles of his master yet bent them to his own will."

"The jokes were to show who was boss," says Sonnenfeldt. "But as time went by, these cracks didn't go over too well."

Now Gromyko does the joking.

"He was quite funny. It was the way he did things," says Paul Warnke, the chief U.S. arms negotiator from 1977 to 1978. "He looked like a borscht-belt comic, a lot of funny faces and broad gestures. He thinks of himself as a wit."

"We met for the first time at a reception given by the president for heads of delegations at the United Nations in September 1969," Kissinger wrote. "Gromyko walked up to me and said: 'You look just like Henry Kissinger.' I replied: 'You look just like Richard Nixon.' This took him a few minutes to hoist aboard, especially as his entourage was reluctant to laugh until he had given the signal. By the next year he had absorbed the style.

"During the Moscow summit of 1972 one of our Xerox machines broke down. Knowing the KGB's reputation for Orwellian ubiquity, I asked Gromyko during a meeting in the elegant St. Catharine's Hall in the Kremlin whether he could have some copies made for us if we held certain documents up to the chandelier. Gromyko replied without missing a beat that unfortunately the cameras were installed by the tsars; they were adequate for photographing people but not documents."

Gromyko was once asked by a westerner about unexpected changes in the Politburo. Gromyko replied, "You know how it is around here -- a bit like the Bermuda Triangle. Every now and then one of us disappears."

Gromyko even makes the gossip columns. He appeared in Liz Smith's column in an issue of the New York Daily News last month, joining show business types and socialites as an object of speculation:

"Maybe Uncle Sam should ask one of his favorite nieces, Dolly Parton, to think about a good-will tour of Russia! I am told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko simply dotes on Dolly and recently dispatched his chauffeur to Sam Goody's on Broadway, where the latter bought two copies of every Parton album in stock."

Gromyko was born July 18, 1909, in Starye Gromyki (Old Gromyki) in the Gomel province of Byelorussia. He once said that 90 percent of the people in the town were named Gromyko. "Grom" means "thunder" in Russian.

Gromyko's parents were peasants, but well-to-do compared with other peasant families in the region. Most people in Starye Gromyki were Byelorussian but the family was part of a sizable Russian minority.

Until he was 17, Gromyko attended local schools and worked on the family farm. In 1926 Gromyko was admitted to a professional technical school in Borisov, near Minsk. This began a lengthy education, primarily in agricultural management and economics, that culminated in both a kandidat degree (similar to a Western PhD) and an even more advanced degree in economics. "I had an irrepressible passion for study," he once said.

Gromyko joined the Communist Party in 1931 but little is known of his political activities while he was a student. After gaining the last of his degrees in 1936, Gromyko was employed as a senior research associate at the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Economics and as secretary of the editorial board of "Problems of Economics," the leading Soviet economic review. Both jobs were highly political.

It was during that period that Joseph Stalin began his purges. Many bureaucrats were found disloyal and were imprisoned or killed. Those government positions had to be filled. Many of the upper-echelon bureaucrats in the Soviet Union today began their careers during the purge period, 1938-1940. Such was the case with Gromyko.

At the age of 30, Gromyko received an appointment from Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to go to Washington as a counselor at the Soviet Embassy. It was 1939. Because of his serious demeanor, Gromyko quickly became known as "the oldest young man in the capital" -- to which Gromyko replied, "How old does a man have to be in America to be old?" He ascended to the ambassador's job in 1943 and stayed at the embassy until 1946.

Gromyko was perhaps most visible to Americans when he served as the Soviet Union's representative to the U.N. Security Council from 1946 to 1948. He was famous for his 26 vetoes and numerous walkouts. One walkout, over a crisis in Iran, lasted 13 days, 21 hours and 46 minutes. For years afterward at ballparks in New York, when a batter walked it was known as "pulling a Gromyko."

Gromyko was even something of a teen idol at the U.N. He was known as "Diplomatic Dreamboat No. 1" and "Krasvets-Diplomat" ("Handsome Diplomat").

Gromyko served as an assistant foreign minister and then as ambassador to the Court of St. James's in 1952. When Khrushchev came to power in 1953 he recalled Gromyko from Britain and made him first deputy of foreign affairs under Molotov and Molotov's successor, Dmitri Shepilov. When Shepilov was disgraced, Khrushchev elevated Gromyko to the post of foreign minister.

That was February 1957. Gromyko has held the position ever since.

Three years ago during a session of the Supreme Soviet, Gromyko was seated in the third row in the leadership. Andropov promoted Gromyko to the post of first deputy premier in 1983, giving him the same combination of jobs Molotov held under Stalin during World War II. Now Gromyko sits on the front bench after Chernenko and Premier Nikolai Tikhonov.

Gromyko interrupts Chernenko frequently during meetings with foreign vistors. Gromyko, who was said to be deferential toward Stalin, Khrushchev and Andropov, also interrupted Brezhnev as the late Soviet leader's health and memory deteriorated.

"In Brezhnev's company, Gromyko would take over," says Paul Warnke. "Brezhnev was sort of a basket case there at the end, and if he started rambling, Gromyko would interrupt."

Chernenko has little experience in foreign affairs and intelligence experts believe he must, and does, place his confidence in Gromyko's experience and skill.

"Gromyko's method of negotiation approached a stereotype," Kissinger wrote. "It seemed a reflection of the national character and of Russian history. Just as Russia had expanded over the centuries by gradually inundating the territories on the flat plain surrounding the original grand duchy of Muscovy, so Gromyko preferred steady pressure to the bold move."

Gromyko's reputation in the United States as the archetypal professional diplomat is longstanding. Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's secretary of state from 1933 to 1944, was impressed "most favorably by his practical judgment and efficiency." Vance says "he gives the Soviets the advantage of an institutional memory, a memory that helps protect you from pitfalls you've experienced in the past."

There are dissenters. "He is a typical Stalinist product, dour, with a proclivity for walking out, brow-beating and other such tactics," says Zbigniew Brzezinski. "There is an ignorant admiration for him, simply because he's survived so long and he's had more experience than many of our secretaries of state.

"I consider Gromyko to be a rather inept foreign minister. He was a useful technician for more broadly gauged leaders like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. In those situations, Gromyko was the implementer. But this has been his period of greatest ineptitude . . . As a product of that Stalinist training, he lacks subtlety or flexibility."

Jerry Hough, a professer of political science at Duke University, said Gromyko's 75th birthday celebration on July 18 was an indication of his increase in power. At first, Gromyko was awarded the Order of Lenin. Gromyko had won the Order six times before. Nearly three months later the accolades increased. Gromyko's birthday now warranted a laudatory speech by Chernenko printed on the front of Pravda. Gromyko is the author of several books on economics -- at least one written under the pseudonym of "G. Andreyev." He was awarded a special prize for his most recent work.

After his summer meetings with him, George McGovern sensed a change in Gromyko's confidence and manner: "When I saw him in August 1977, he was angry at Carter because of the alteration in the SALT II formulae. But the difference was that in 1977 he was just transferring messages. This time he was obviously in charge. I don't think he mentioned Chernenko once. It was always 'I'm willing to do this' or 'I'm willing to do that.' "

Today in Geneva, Gromyko may reveal precisely what he is willing to do.

"Gromyko's seen a lot of Second Comings in his time," says Stephen F. Cohen, a professor of Soviet politics at Princeton. "This meeting with Shultz is just one more of them."