A child of American privilege, Nelson Strowbridge Talbott III has been enthralled by Russia and its challenges for three decades. Now, in a treacherous double election year, he is crafting Washington's policy toward Moscow. Is he - is anyone - up to the job?

The first Russian Strobe Talbott got to know at all well was Sergei Milyutin, a young hustler who dreamed of going to America. They met in the terrace cafe of the Metropole Hotel on Revolution Square, midway between the Kremlin and the Lubyanka prison.

It was December 1968, and Moscow was the drab and regimented city of the confident Soviet era. Portraits of Politburo members lined the streets along with slogans denouncing America as the bastion of "world imperialism" and exhorting the populace to "build communism." Just a few months earlier, these same Politburo members had sent tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to crush Alexander Dubcek's experiment in "socialism with a human face."

Talbott was hungry for insights into the lives of ordinary Russians. He was a 22-year-old Rhodes scholar making his first trip to the Soviet Union. Educated at Hotchkiss and Yale, like his father and grandfather before him, Nelson Strowbridge Talbott III was a fledgling representative of what Soviet propagandists then referred to as the American "ruling circles." He had been engrossed in the study of the Russian language and Russian literature since the age of 16, and had come to Moscow to research a thesis about the revolutionary Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Sergei Milyutin, for his part, was obsessed with America. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of American popular music and spent hours each day trying to tune in the Voice of America through airwaves thick with electronic jamming. He acted out his rebellion against an oppressive, inhumane regime by dressing and talking like an American. Desperate to make the acquaintance of a real American, he would hang out after work in places where foreigners were likely to congregate.

"That's an American, for sure," Milyutin remarked one day to a friend as a slim, serious-looking figure with a black mustache weaved his way toward him. When the American sat down at the next table, Milyutin seized the moment.

"D'ya laike georrn wain?" he asked, attempting to emulate the dulcet tones of Phil Irwin, host of the "Breakfast Show" on VOA, whom Milyutin regarded as the epitome of American cool.

The American looked puzzled, not quite sure what to make of the question.

"D'ya like georrn wain?" Milyutin repeated insistently.

It dawned on Talbott that he was being asked for his opinion of John Wayne. He had watched "The Green Berets" on the ship during his Atlantic crossing and had despised the blood-and-guts glorification of America's role in Vietnam. A strong supporter of the war, John Wayne was a symbol of the America that Talbott and his antiwar friends at Yale and Oxford were struggling against.

The Duke, Talbott informed his new Russian acquaintance gravely, was "an extremist."

It was Milyutin's turn to look puzzled. "Do you like Georgian wine?" he repeated once again, offering to fill Talbott's empty glass. "IT SEEMED TO ME a strange question," Talbott is telling Milyutin. "I had to give you a frank answer."

It is 28 years later and the red banners with their uplifting communist slogans have all come down, replaced by new banners with slogans like "Christ Is Risen" and "Put Your Trust in the Russian Credit Bank." Churches, banks, Western-style supermarkets and obscenely expensive restaurants seem to be sprouting all over Moscow. The vast Cathedral of Christ the Savior, torn down by Stalin, is being rebuilt on the banks of the Moscow River. Soaring 335 feet, it already towers over the Kremlin. Around town, once-ubiquitous statues to proletarian heroes are being replaced by monuments to tsars and generals.

Talbott, now the U.S. deputy secretary of state and the Clinton administration's most important architect of American policy toward Russia, is in Moscow to accompany President Clinton to a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The official schedule is heavy with meetings, public appearances and the inevitable diplomatic toasts. Yet Talbott finds an hour to reunite with Milyutin. They meet outside Talbott's suite on the top floor of the Radisson Hotel. Seeing each other for the first time in more than a decade, the two hug enthusiastically.

Between incoming calls to Talbott, they catch up on each other's news. Talbott has gained some weight and lost a good deal of hair over the years. Otherwise, he is remarkably the same: serious, decent, a little aloof. His diplomatic pin-stripe suit has a rumpled, lived-in look, as if getting dressed were at the bottom of his well-ordered list of priorities. He is still the kind of man, as he was in his student days, who rises at 3 a.m. to write and put his thoughts in order. He wears the same metallic glasses he sported as a young man; they add to his generally intellectual air. He exudes a Boy Scout-ish, straight-arrow quality. Although he has dozens of other things on his mind this morning -- negotiating Russian participation in a worldwide nuclear test ban, for instance -- he acts as if there is nothing he would prefer to be doing than meeting with an old friend.

"This is definitely a high point of the week for me," he enthuses.

Talbott's career, of course, has had a rocket's trajectory since the days of the Metropole. His resume reflects both the natural inheritances of a wealthy WASP investment banking family and some extraordinary good fortune. Talbott's most famous and important bit of luck was his choice of a housemate at Oxford: an ambitious Arkansan who often predicted that he would become president of the United States. Between then and the fulfillment of Bill Clinton's prophecy in 1993, Talbott earned his own reputation as the star foreign policy commentator at Time magazine; as the translator of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs; and as the author of half a dozen books about arms control and U.S.-Soviet summitry. Colleagues predict that he could well end up as national security adviser in a second Clinton administration.

Milyutin's story is more tormented. "We all rested at one time or another," he explains of himself and his friends. In "rested" Milyutin is using the Russian euphemism for being locked up in jail.

"How many years did you rest?" Talbott asks politely.

"I rested four years," he says.

Milyutin goes on to explain that he got involved in a street fight and was charged with hooliganism.

Talbott listens impassively.

After his release from prison, Milyutin continues, he landed a job as the administrator of a security company, providing protection to Russia's post-communist new rich. Personal security is one indisputable growth area of the Russian economy these days.

The conversation turns briefly to politics. Milyutin is not a great fan of Boris Yeltsin, in whom Talbott and America have invested so much, but he shudders at the thought of an old-style Communist, Gennady Zyuganov, winning power in the upcoming presidential election, whose first round is scheduled for next Sunday. "You just have to look at his face and decide that you don't like him," Milyutin says of Zyuganov. "I hope that God will save us from this danger."

Talbott reacts as if this comment were addressed to the U.S. government. He gives a long sigh. A journalist is listening. He switches back into senior American diplomat mode.

"We support the reforms," Talbott declares, without explaining what kind of reforms the United States supports or who the reformers are.

His unusual inarticulateness about Russian politics reflects not only the awkward setting for an American policymaker, but also the caution of a man and an administration approaching the treacherous crossroads of a double election year -- America's 53rd presidential election, and Russia's first as an independent country. Officially, Washington does not have a candidate in the election. In practice, the Clinton administration cast its vote last March by lobbying in favor of a $10.2 billion international loan to Russia. By enabling the Russian government to meet the debts of bankrupt companies and pay disgruntled workers, the West gave Yeltsin a fighting chance of remaining president.

As Russia approaches its vote, Talbott finds himself increasingly obliged to wrestle with the long-term consequences of his policies. In the broadest sense, the strategy is simply to buy time until a less ideologically warped generation of Russian leaders takes over. Tactically, Talbott and Clinton have concentrated their attention on the person of Boris Yeltsin. They hope Yeltsin can get past the two-round election and keep weaving between the conflicting demands of economic reform and Russia's wounded national identity until the momentum to a free market democracy becomes irreversible.

The unspoken endorsement of Yeltsin in this month's election is the product of a typically Talbottian calculation. It goes something like this: Yeltsin can be infuriating, and suffers from authoritarian tendencies, but remains the best bet under the circumstances. The Russian Communists have little in common with their reform-minded counterparts in Eastern Europe. While a return to full-blooded communism seems improbable, Zyuganov could attempt to restore a strong, centralized state with a nasty nationalist flavor. At the same time, however, Talbott's thinking goes, it is necessary to avoid giving the impression that a Communist victory at the polls would inevitably lead to a new East-West confrontation. We should not burn our bridges with a man who might be the next ruler of Russia.

These short-term challenges reflect a much larger uncertainty: Where is Russia headed? This is perhaps the most vital strategic question of all. Russian philosophers used to refer to such existential issues as the "cursed questions," the kind of tormented musings about character and national identity that Western countries have seemingly resolved. Talbott sounds confident about his own answers to these questions -- after all, he's spent a lifetime thinking about them -- but he knows his approach to Russia policy will be seriously tested. In the event of a Zyuganov win, Republicans might even be tempted to raise the question, however unfair, "Who lost Russia?"

Everybody agrees that Talbott, the first journalist to rise to such a high position in the State Department, is superbly qualified, at least on paper, to run Russia policy. His in-depth knowledge of the country, his ability to write a well-argued memo and his close friendship with the president have combined to give him a unique position in the administration. Policymakers in both America and Russia seem united in their admiration of Talbott's diplomatic skills. He has relatively few interdepartmental enemies in Washington. His counterpart at the National Security Council, Samuel R. Berger, praises Talbott's ability to shepherd decisions smoothly through the often unwieldy interagency process. In Russia, former foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev describes Talbott as "a good partner who always defended American interests . . . Strobe's contribution is considerable. He is both balanced and decent."

The criticism aimed at Talbott generally comes not from insiders but from outsiders of various kinds, from Henry Kissinger to Russian parliamentarians. On the American side, a recurring theme is that Talbott and the Clinton administration have pursued a foreign policy of good intentions rather than one rooted in realpolitik and the balance of power. Russian criticism tends to focus on the ways in which Talbott and Clinton have tolerated and even encouraged Yeltsin's autocratic impulses, such as his unconstitutional dissolution of parliament in October 1993, and his conduct of the brutal Chechen war. Critics on both sides argue that the Clinton administration, like the Bush administration, has overinvested in a small circle of Russian leaders.

"You can't deal only with the top leader because then you are isolated from the rest of society," says Alexei Arbatov, a close adviser to liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The Americans "focused on shock therapy and the people who promoted it. {This} provoked dissatisfaction from a huge proportion of the population. The next logical step was to start curtailing democracy in order to continue economic reforms."

Talbott's reply to such criticism is that the United States has no choice but to deal with the person in power, and that the personal relationship between Yeltsin and Clinton has already yielded substantial rewards. The former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been persuaded to give up their nuclear weapons. Russian troops have withdrawn from the Baltic states. Sixty percent of Russian industry has been "privatized," at least in name. The worst-case scenario for the breakup of the communist superpower -- that the former Soviet Union would turn into a "Yugoslavia with nukes" -- appears to have been averted.

One of the key problems that Talbott faces in selling the administration's Russia policies is that the promise of partnership between Washington and Moscow, and of a new world order, has been oversold in the past. Yeltsin was too glib in boasting that he'd buried communism; Presidents Bush and Clinton never really delivered on pledges of enormous direct aid packages.

The resulting imbalance -- the sense that America won the Cold War, while Russia ended up downtrodden and humiliated -- informs every aspect of Talbott's involvement with the fallen superpower, even his relationships with ordinary Russians like Milyutin.

At one level, of course, a friendship is just a friendship; Talbott has been gracious, warm and loyal in his relations with Milyutin and other unofficial Russians over many years, his Russian friends say. Yet not too far beneath the surface these days lie the facts of inequality -- a personal version of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Away from the deputy secretary's five-star hotel suite, Milyutin describes the consequences of his Soviet-era outreach to Talbott and America. He says that he was frequently called in for questioning about his American friend. On one occasion, KGB agents nabbed him off the street just as he was about to meet Talbott at their regular rendezvous point, the Karl Marx monument opposite the Bolshoi Theater. "They held me and my wife for several hours," Milyutin recalls. "They said, We know this person is a spy, so why do you cooperate with him?' I replied that I don't cooperate with him. We are just friends.' Then they gave me some piece of paper to sign." In order to get the KGB off his back, Milyutin was obliged to participate in weekly debriefings. He says the information he gave the KGB about Talbott was innocuous. "They seemed to be fulfilling some kind of five-year plan," he recalls.

At one point during the early 1970s, Talbott agreed to part with his striped jeans with the zipper up the front and a pocket button in the back. Thrilled, Milyutin wore the jeans for many years. When they eventually fell apart, his mother cut them up into neat squares. As of last month, the deputy secretary of state's 25-year-old trousers were still in service in the Milyutin household as dishrags.

"You had to be a Russian, to be born here, to understand how much this kind of contact meant to us," Milyutin says. "Life was so tasteless, colorless, uninteresting, stifling. When I met with Americans, I felt that I was standing on the prow of a ship, with my face to the wind."

Milyutin recalls that Talbott once asked him why he liked America so much "when we have so many problems over there."

"You can't appreciate it, you were born there," the Russian shot back.

Instead of replying, Milyutin recalls, Talbott drew a picture of a man standing behind a fence. He then wrote a caption: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

"It was his commentary on my dream of living in America," Milyutin explains.

THE FIRST COPY of Time magazine that Strobe Talbott ever read had a cover dedicated to the heroes of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. The following year, the Soviet Union launched the world's first satellite. For days, the 11-year-old Talbott would look up in wonder at the nighttime sky, asking himself when America would match the Soviet accomplishment.

Such was the scale of question typically contemplated amid the Rockefeller Republican noblesse of his family's Shaker Heights, Ohio, household, where duck hunting and discussions of the national interest were the rites of Talbott's initiation. Thinking about the great and abstract challenges of the Cold War was, from the beginning, a natural part of Talbott's upbringing.

He was 16 at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The headmaster at Hotchkiss summoned all the boys to the prep school chapel. "We literally got down on our knees and prayed that the human race would survive the threat of global thermonuclear war," Talbott recalls. It was also at Hotchkiss that Talbott was inspired by a brilliant teacher named Clinton Ely to study Russian language and literature. Russia was the one country in the world that posed a deadly military threat to America. It also had a rich cultural and spiritual heritage, stretching back a millennium. Intellectually, that made for a very stimulating combination.

"This was the yin-yang of my whole view, or shtick, of Russia," Talbott remembers. "There was the Russia that I admired -- which was more than just cultural, more than just literary -- and there was also the Russia that was profoundly dangerous. I saw them both at about the same time. I was getting one in my classes with Clinton Ely and another in the Hotchkiss chapel in October 1962."

Even as an adolescent, Talbott had a very grown-up aura about him. He joined the establishment even as he rebelled against it. At Yale, he was selected to tell Secretary of State Dean Rusk what America's youth felt about Vietnam. He distinguished himself aschairman of the Yale Daily News, writing editorials urging his fellow students to become "the coat-and-tie standard-bearers" of the anti-Vietnam rebellion. After graduation, he was elected to the Yale Corporation -- the board of trustees -- at the exceptionally young age of 30, and he began circulating in an elite world that he has never really left.

Yet mixed somewhere in with his desire to please his elders, and with a hyper-rational outlook on life, lay a romantic streak. At Yale, he quickly abandoned premed for Russian studies. His interest in Russia seems evidence of this romanticism: Soulful, convulsive Mother Russia is everything that WASP America is not. "I would describe Strobe as a romantic midwesterner," says Talbott's best friend at Yale, Derek Shearer, now U.S. ambassador to Finland. "If you are a midwesterner, you don't display your romanticism through effusive personal behavior. You display it by playing the guitar with great intensity, by writing serious poetry, by being romantically and deeply in love with one person." (That person is Shearer's sister, Brooke, whom he met while at Yale and who is as spontaneous and outgoing as Talbott is controlled and rehearsed.)

Talbott winces slightly when his brother-in-law's remarks are relayed to him. He has devoted considerable effort to fending off suggestions that he is "romantic," i.e. wishy-washy, about Russia. "Romantic is a funny phrase," he says. "In a political and diplomatic context, it could be pejorative. It has an association that I would deny exists."

If Talbott disappointed his parents by giving up so quickly on medicine, he made it up to them at the end of his senior year at Yale by presenting them with a 256-page thesis on Fyodor Tyutchev, a 19th-century Russian poet. "Maybe, with this evidence at last before you, you will be a bit assured that my esoteric ventures of the last four years have at least produced something bulky and bound," he wrote on the title page in his neat, flowing hand.

A few months after completing his thesis, Talbott set sail for England with 31 other Rhodes scholars. Talbott and his new acquaintances, particularly Clinton, spent a good deal of time talking about Vietnam and the morality of evading the draft. Unlike Clinton, Talbott was safe; a doctor friend of the family had recommended a medical deferment. In an article for Time in April 1992, Talbott would confess to a "moral discomfort bordering on guilt" about the gimpy knee that kept him "out of the Mekong Delta but not the squash courts and playing fields of Oxford."

Talbott quickly sought out the Russian emigre community at Oxford, including the sisters of the writer Boris Pasternak. In the winter of 1968, while many of his fellow Rhodes scholars headed south to warmer climes, Talbott boarded a train for Moscow. He returned a month later, bubbling with excitement. "I remember Strobe coming back and telling me about the station at Brest-Litovsk," says fellow student David Satter, referring to the frontier post where trains are hoisted by cranes as they switch to the broad-gauge Russian railway system. "It piqued his feelings about the romanticism of the place. He was full of impressions. His enthusiasm was definitely contagious."

Thanks to Talbott, Russia became an almost-obligatory stop on the Grand Tour for his circle of Rhodes scholars. Clinton made the pilgrimage to Moscow the following winter, a trip that his political opponents would seize upon in 1992 as evidence of his supposed lack of patriotism.

Talbott himself returned to Russia in the summer of 1969, as an intern for Time. The magazine's Moscow bureau chief, Jerrold Schecter, introduced him to some of his dissident friends, including Viktor Shachsuvar, a computer scientist who would later emigrate to the United States. Shachsuvar visited the diplomatic ghetto on Kutuzovsky Prospekt for long talks about politics and literature. Talbott would smuggle him past the KGB guards, whom they referred to derisively as the "Ton-ton Macoutes," after the notorious Haitian militia. Once inside the Time-Life apartment, Talbott would strum his guitar and sing songs by the popular Russian balladeer Bulat Okhudzhava.

One night the conversation went on until 4 a.m., Shachsuvar remembers. "We talked through the night about the destiny of Russia and the future of the world," he recalls. "Russians are very keen about solving the problems of the world because we cannot solve mundane things such as getting a telephone installed." The two friends walked outside as dawn broke over the Ukraine Hotel, a Stalinist wedding cake building on the Moscow River. Shachsuvar remembers Talbott turning to him and saying, "This is my spiritual homeland."

Talbott says he cannot recall ever making such a remark, and a friend expresses concern that it could be used against him by crass political opponents. But as Shachsuvar explains it, the remark had nothing to do with politics. "There is a quality about the Russian soul that attracts the most sophisticated people in the West," he says. "Strobe's interest in Russia was more than just an emotion; it was a deep intellectual interest."

Talbott began to attract the attention of the KGB. The secret police routinely eavesdropped on the conversations of foreign journalists and kept tabs on them as they moved around the city. "It was easy to find a taxi in Moscow in those days," Talbott recalls. "I seemed to have my own personal chauffeur."

The KGB's interest in Talbott shot up after 1970, when the first volume of Khrushchev's memoirs was published. Western publication rights had been acquired by Time, which selected Talbott to edit and translate 180 hours of tape-recorded ramblings.

The official Soviet reaction to publication was fury over revelations of intimate Kremlin secrets. When the second volume came out, in 1974, Soviet newspapers attacked Talbott as "a young sapling of the CIA." The denunciation caused more problems for his Moscow friends. "The article referred to him as Nelson Strowbridge," recalls Milyutin. "I remember {my friend} Volodya's mother reading it, and saying, What are you doing with this guy? He is even hiding behind a different name. His real name is Nelson.' "

The Soviet authorities punished Talbott by turning down his request for accreditation as Moscow correspondent for Time. By the time the ban was lifted in 1980, he was moving in much grander journalistic circles and was busy writing books. He no longer felt like leaving Washington. As a result, despite his reputation as one of America's leading Soviet specialists, he never lived in Russia for more than one or two months at a time.

The episodic contact with Russia, and the continuous uncertainty about when he would be allowed to return, strengthened Talbott's feelings about the place. "You didn't know if you would get back, and you didn't know if the people you were with would be available to you again," he recalls. "You always felt you had to get the most out of the experience."

Talbott approached Russia through the prism of his interests in Russian literature, arms control and superpower diplomacy, which gave him a different perspective from some of the correspondents actually based in Moscow. The contrast was particularly strong with his friend and fellow Rhodes scholar, David Satter, who represented the Financial Times in Moscow during the mid-1970s. They would debate each other endlessly. Satter regarded the Soviet Union as a living case-study in 20th century totalitarianism. As far as he was concerned, the Communists were as bad as the Nazis. It was impossible to have a "rational discourse" with people who did not share Western values, he argued.

Talbott agreed that communism was an abhorrent and unnatural ideology but felt that it was essential for the West to find a way of dealing with Soviet leaders.

"David's attitude was always one of complete rejection," says Slava Luchkov, a Russian psychologist and former dissident who has been friends with both men since the early 1970s. "Strobe was the product of a very different social environment . . . When he came here, he was a good-hearted, innocent American boy. It is difficult for such a decent person to believe that this country is as bad as all that."

"I have gotten a lot over the years listening and talking to David Satter," Talbott says, "but the question I keep coming back to, particularly now, is what this means for policy. You are the United States of America. What do you do? . . . The implication of much of what David has thought and written over the years is that you cast first the Soviet Union, and now Russia, into the outer darkness, and that I am somehow naive and woolly-headed to think you have to do business with them. I think it is self-evident that you have to do business with them. They are a great big country, and they have the wherewithal to blow us up. The business that we have to do with them is to make sure they do not blow us up."

But in the 1970s, the Moscow dissidents that Talbott knew -- intellectuals struggling against persecution -- tended to side with Satter in this debate. "We regarded not only Strobe, but most of the Western correspondents, as hopelessly naive and liberal," says Shachsuvar, who helped distribute information about political trials in Moscow. "Strobe, and many of my other American friends, committed the sin of anthropomorphism. They humanized the Soviet leaders. They dealt with creatures with a different mentality, a different hierarchy of values, and couldn't help supplying a Western rationale for their behavior." WHEN MIKHAIL GORBACHEV came along in 1985, after a long succession of geriatric and uncompromising Soviet leaders, Talbott was enthusiastic.

He had reacted with horror in March 1983 when Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and predicted that communism was destined for "the ash heap of history." Writing in Time, Talbott had described such rhetoric as dangerous "bear-baiting."

Now, in Gorbachev, there was at long last proof that the rotten communist system was capable of reforming itself: The doves in the United States had been right all along. Gorbachev would take over from where Khrushchev left off. A Russian journalist friend, Yuri Schekochikhin, compares Talbott to the Communist Party reformers who came of age under Khrushchev, the so-called shestidesyatniki, or "men of the '60s." It was somehow fitting that the American editor of Khrushchev's memoirs would also believe in the possibility of a communist reformation.

In common with nearly all Sovietologists, Talbott was very late in understanding the full significance of what was happening in the Soviet Union. In his columns for Time, he described Gorbachev as the energetic reformer who was changing the world for the better through more or less purposeful actions. It was a classic example of the "Great Man" view of history. With hindsight, of course, it is now clear that Gorbachev's historical mission was not to succeed, but to fail. He was practically illiterate about economics and had no clear strategy for transforming the Soviet Union into a modern country. In attempting unsuccessfully to tinker with the Soviet system, he brought it crashing down around him. This was his greatest achievement. Gorbachev's genius was that he fooled himself, and a great many other very clever people, into believing that there was a master plan.

One reason why Sovietologists like Talbott were wrong was that they paid too much attention to Gorbachev's sayings and doings, and not enough to the crumbling social and economic fabric of the world's first Marxist state. There was an abstract, self-absorbed quality about many of the discussions on the international think tank circuit that was unrelated to what was really going on in the Soviet Union. This was particularly true in the debates about arms control.

"I think that Strobe, like many of us, was hypnotized by the strategic dimension of Soviet-American relations," says Igor Malashenko, a former official in the International Department of the Soviet Communist Party, who was a regular on the think tank circuit himself. "Strobe was an attentive listener and a very insightful observer of Soviet-American relations, but he was too elitist in his approach."

To his credit, unlike many others, Talbott acknowledged his lack of foresight. In a commentary for Time on December 30, 1991, five days after the Soviet Union was consigned to the "ash heap of history," he wrote that while he had been coming to Moscow for 23 years, "In none of my previous 30-plus visits did I ever think I would outlive the Soviet state. Yet now that it is upon us, the demise of the Soviet Union makes both moral and historical sense."

IT WAS EARLY in 1993, after two decades as an outsider, that Strobe Talbott changed roles and became a direct architect of American policy toward Russia. In March, he was confirmed as President Clinton's ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union. The title was vague, but his colleagues on the gathering Clinton foreign policy team guessed that Talbott's real power would flow from his personal relationship with the president. And they would soon be proven right.

Talbott and Clinton inherited from the Bush administration uncontroversial, bipartisan policy goals in the former Soviet Union -- strategic arms reductions, denuclearization, assisting in the transition to free markets, and so on. But Clinton's team also inherited from Bush a more debatable identification of American interests with Russian President Yeltsin personally. It was the Great Man problem all over again. Yeltsin was the first freely elected president in a millennium of Russian history. But should he be the sole repository of American hopes for Russian democracy?

Talbott made clear where he stood. "President Yeltsin is the personification of reform in Russia," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing. "It is impossible to support reform and reformers without putting a name to reform in the current context, and that is President Yeltsin's name."

When Talbott first moved into his office in Foggy Bottom and began to shuttle back and forth to White House conferences with Clinton and his National Security Council aides, Yeltsin was trying to make a decisive break with the communist past. His government included many Western-oriented intellectuals who saw themselves as the kamikazes of "shock therapy." They knew their plan of action would provoke intense political opposition in the short term, but were convinced that it would put Russia on the road to long-term economic recovery.

The Russian parliament, or Supreme Soviet, which had also been freely elected, was doing its best to block many of these changes. It included many holdovers from the Soviet era. Both parliament and president were operating under an amended Soviet-era constitution that failed to make a clear distinction between the powers of the executive and legislative branches. The constitution was a recipe for political paralysis.

Yeltsin's first attempt to break the deadlock came in March, when he moved to dissolve parliament, even though he lacked the constitutional authority to do so. In the Oval Office, Clinton, Talbott and other key advisers met to decide what the United States should say and do. "The criterion we adopted was: Was it democratic?" Talbott recalls. "Would Yeltsin adopt an approach to the resolution of the crisis that gives the Russian people a say in the outcome?" When the Clinton team realized that Yeltsin also intended to hold a referendum to ratify his action, they decided that he had met the democracy test. But Yeltsin shied away from an immediate confrontation after parliament voted to impeach him.

On September 23, 1993, Yeltsin decided to force the issue. He ordered the parliamentarians to leave the building, and cut off electricity and water, while at the same time promising to hold new legislative elections under a constitution of his own devising.

When news of Yeltsin's gambit reached Washington, Talbott rushed over to the White House. Clinton was in his upstairs office. At Talbott's urging, the president decided to call the Kremlin, even though it was nearly midnight in Moscow. Yeltsin came on the line and told Clinton that after he was done dissolving the old parliament, elections for a new parliament would be held on a free and democratic basis. Armed with this promise, Clinton issued a statement expressing "full support" for the Russian leader's course.

In Moscow, the embattled parliamentarians voted to replace Yeltsin with Vice President Alexander Rutskoi. A bunker mentality began to set in at the parliament building. The standoff exploded in violence on Sunday October 3 when supporters of parliament tried to storm the television center. The army's loyalties were unclear; military leaders wanted to keep out of the constitutional dispute. For a few agonizing hours, power effectively lay in the street.

With White House officials distracted by Somalia, where U.S. soldiers were engaged in ferocious street battles with Somali militiamen, responsibility for the Russian fiasco devolved substantially to Talbott. He spent the next 36 hours camped in his office at State.

At 1:30 on Monday morning, Talbott took a call from the deputy Russian foreign minister, Georgi Mamedov, who was sitting in his office on the seventh floor of the Russian foreign ministry building. It was 9:30 a.m. in Moscow. Talbott was in the operations center on the seventh floor at State. As they spoke, both men were watching live coverage of the crisis on CNN.

Mamedov was in the middle of explaining to Talbott that there were two ways of capturing the parliament building -- either by going in like gangbusters or by attacking slowly, floor by floor -- when a T-80 tank opened fire on the building at point-blank range.

"Are you seeing what I'm seeing?" Talbott asked Mamedov in amazement, as the CNN camera zoomed in on the shell-shattered facade of the parliament. It was, as Talbott put it later, "a real Ted Turner moment."

Battered by tanks and small arms fire, Yeltsin's opponents finally surrendered late Monday afternoon. Rutskoi and his allies were led away to prison. In Washington, an exhausted Talbott went down to the State briefing room to congratulate Yeltsin on the victory. He described the storming of the parliament building as "a tragic episode" but expressed the hope that it would pass "as quickly as possible into history."

RUSSIAN HISTORY, however, could not be controlled so easily. If Zyuganov wins the presidential election, the new Russian government will be largely made up of people whose most searing political experience was the storming of the parliament building in October 1993. Many of these people are bent on revenge and deeply mistrustful of the West. "All the talk in America about democracy and respect for elected parliaments lost any sense after this happened," argues Andrei Podberyozkin, a top foreign policy adviser to Zyuganov, who tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise between the parliament and Yeltsin. "It seems there is one set of standards for America, and another for Russia."

"Once a person has broken the constitution once, he has no difficulty doing so again," says Yuri Voronin, the former deputy speaker of the parliament who could become finance minister in a Communist-led government.

In America, Yeltsin's attack on the parliament building was generally seen in black-and-white terms, a case of "the good guys versus the bad guys." In Russia, the episode is much more controversial. On the one hand, the parliamentary camp included many die-hard Communists and nationalists. On the other hand, Yeltsin acted unconstitutionally in dissolving the parliament and, to a certain extent, provoked his opponents into attempting an armed rebellion. One consequence of the episode stands out: It helped to split the fragile, fledgling Russian democratic forces into pro- and anti-Yeltsin factions.

The pro-Yeltsin group, which included such prominent reformers as Yegor Gaidar and Andrei Kozyrev, felt the Clinton administration had made the right choice in a difficult moment. But the anti-Yeltsin group increasingly blamed America for encouraging Yeltsin's worst authoritarian tendencies.

"Strobe Talbott is a nice, warm, brilliant person, but today he is part of the problem," argues Sergei Rogov, director of the USA Institute in Moscow. "He is more responsible than anyone else for the fact that U.S. policy has become personalized and identified with Yeltsin. The attack on the {parliament building} was a major blow to the democratic process. After this mini-civil war, the attempt to create a system of checks and balances is over. We in Russia have never suffered from the excessive authority of the legislative branch. Today, there are no checks on the power of the executive branch. In that sense, Yeltsin's decision to dissolve parliament led directly to the Chechen war."

Rogov is by no means alone in this analysis: Other Russians normally well-disposed to the West see a straight line connecting the tanks with gun barrels lowered at the Moscow parliament and the tanks still indiscriminately blasting Chechen civilians -- and they criticize the Clinton administration for failing to speak out strongly enough in both cases.

In this political environment, it has become difficult to fend off Communist propaganda blaming the West for Russia's ills. "At the beginning of the reforms, Western values were very popular," says Galina Starovoitova, a leader of the most liberal faction in the Russian parliament. "Now even Westernizers like me are obliged to hide our sympathy for the West. We are trying to avoid using words like democracy, reform and pluralistic society. These values have all been compromised."

Talbott says he finds such criticism "very puzzling." As evidence that parliament still has significant power, he cites the fact that it has held up ratification of the START II nuclear arms treaty. "What we were supporting in 1993 was not Boris Yeltsin the man, but rather the idea of giving the Russian people a voice in their own fate," he says. "This was not Yeltsin, our man, right or wrong. It was moving Russia further in the direction of democracy. The Russian people got a chance to vote. That was key then, and it is now."

A FEW WEEKS AFTER the Russian parliament crisis, Talbott invited George Kennan to Washington to talk with the dozen or so officials who were responsible for running Russia policy. As a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the late 1940s, Kennan had come up with the strategy of "containment" that provided the intellectual basis for four decades of American policy toward the Soviet Union. A scholar steeped in the history and culture of Russia, he remains one of Talbott's great heroes.

The meeting took place in Room 208 of the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House, in a suite of offices once occupied by Cordell Hull, secretary of state under President Franklin Roosevelt. At the end of his two-hour presentation about America's role in the world, the then 89-year-old Kennan summed up his thoughts: "My generation's responsibility was to contain the Soviet Union. Your generation's responsibility is to engage a democratic Russia."

"We all felt that captured what we were trying to do," recalls Nicholas Burns, then the National Security Council's Russia expert. "We don't want to isolate Russia. We want to bring it into the Western system."

Talbott thinks there is a "cosmic, all-purpose lesson" to be drawn from Kennan's ideas about Russia that is as relevant today as it was in the early Cold War era. "Kennan's doctrine, as applied, was very simple, and one that will also work in the post-Cold War period," Talbott says. "Clarity, steadiness, continuity. Not letting ourselves get rattled when they get rattled. This is a country that embarked on a wildly bad idea {communism}. They will get over it: The phrase Kennan used is mellowing.' If we can just stay firm and clear, (a) on what we are for, (b) on what we are against, and (c) on what we will do about it if they go too far, over time we will prevail, because our ideas are rooted in universal principles that will eventually take root in Russia."

A key element of Talbott's strategy -- and here he is at odds with Kennan -- is to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization eastward, toward Russia's borders. Initially, Talbott thought this was a bad idea because it might provoke a backlash in Russia. But he changed his mind, amid political pressures, as he came to believe in the need to consolidate the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe. He started paying even closer attention to the problems of Eastern Europe after his promotion to deputy secretary of state in February 1994.

Since then, Talbott has come under fire from both sides. The American right accuses him of stretching the process of NATO expansion out far too long; the Russian political elite maintains the new security arrangements for Europe have left Russia dangerously out in the cold. Talbott argues that the United States has a balanced approach that leaves room for partnership with Russia while building a new and more stable Europe. The strategy includes what American officials refer to as "the hedge factor," the idea that an expanded NATO could once again contain an expansionist Russia if the present reforms fail.

BECAUSE TALBOTT and the Clintonites have interpreted Kennan's injunction to "engage Russia" as engaging with Yeltsin and his administration, they have been drawn deeper and deeper into a psychological chess game with an unpredictable, contradictory personality.

There have been 10 one-on-one meetings between Clinton and Yeltsin. Talbott, who was present at most of them as note-taker, argues that these sessions were decisive in resolving important questions such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states, the nuclear disarming of Ukraine and Russia's participation in the Bosnian peacekeeping force. Talbott says that Yeltsin has kept all the promises he has made personally to Clinton.

During these meetings, Yeltsin has displayed a classic Russian inferiority complex, which explains why he sets so much store on being viewed as the equal of the president of the United States and can be so prickly on matters of protocol. On the other hand, he can also be a bully. "He has the subtlety of a battering ram," says one American official. "He sees a door, and he busts right through it."

Unlike the general secretaries of old, Yeltsin does not speak in the name of a collective Politburo. He is an old-fashioned Russian vozhd -- supreme leader -- answerable only to himself. Talbott believes that this has created a unique diplomatic opportunity for someone like Clinton, who prides himself on his people skills.

In the American view, the way to deal with "Tsar Boris" is through a combination of patience and firmness. During his meetings with Yeltsin, Clinton has sought to establish a set of "red lines," making it clear what the United States will and will not accept.

Yeltsin's negotiating partners never know when he will embarrass them by throwing a fit about the possibility of a new "Cold War" in Europe, as he did in Budapest in December 1994. There are some matters on which he simply digs in his heels. A few months ago, Secretary of State Warren Christopher tried to get him to issue a statement formally committing himself to holding presidential elections on schedule. He grew visibly irritated with Christopher, and a Kremlin official later complained about American meddling in Russia's internal affairs.

Talbott and other Clinton administration officials have spent a good deal of time studying Yeltsin's personality, and attempting to predict his mood swings. They have pored over videotapes of the Russian leader walking with the support of aides in Kazakhstan and seizing the baton from an orchestra conductor in Germany. They have paid careful attention to his "health," a euphemistic way of referring to his periodic drinking bouts.

The "health issue" surfaced last October when Clinton invited Yeltsin to spend a day at Hyde Park in Upstate New York during the U.N. General Assembly session. The idea of holding a summit at FDR's birthplace appears to have originated with Talbott, who saw it as a way of conjuring up memories of the wartime U.S.-Russian alliance and appealing to Yeltsin's vanity. Clinton and Yeltsin flew up the Hudson River in separate helicopters and met each other on the lawn, gazing out at the brilliant fall foliage of the Catskill Mountains. Yeltsin was in a suspiciously good mood.

"We are planning peace, not war," he told journalists exuberantly, before presenting "my friend Bill" with a pair of hockey jerseys labeled "Yeltsin" and "Clinton." On the back of each jersey were the numerals "96."

Despite Yeltsin's high spirits, Clinton's media advisers were dead set against a joint press conference. They had been singed by Yeltsin before, and did not know what to expect. Their concerns were heightened by Yeltsin's performance at lunch, when he downed glass after glass of what press secretary Michael McCurry described to waiting journalists as a "splendid dry Riesling from the New York Finger Lakes region." By the end of the lunch, Yeltsin was thoroughly inebriated, according to several people present.

Yeltsin's condition raised eyebrows from members of his own entourage, one of whom later wondered aloud to a friend why the Americans dealt with him in such a state. U.S. officials insist that the main business of the day -- negotiating the terms of Russia's participation in the Bosnian peace force -- was done at a one-on-one session before the lunch. At this meeting the Russian leader seemed sober and clear-headed, according to an American source.

Brushing aside American objections, Yeltsin insisted on holding a press conference with Clinton. He turned maudlin, calling the summit the "best and friendliest" ever, and turned his aggression toward the press corps.

Yeltsin: Looking at the press reports, one could see that you were writing that today's meeting with President Bill Clinton was going to be a disaster. (Laughter). Well, now for the first time, I can tell you that you're a disaster. (More laughter).

Clinton: Be sure you get the right attribution there. (Both heads of state double up with mirth.)

Less than 48 hours later, Yeltsin suffered a mild heart attack that put him out of action for weeks.

More recently, especially over the past three months, Yeltsin has pulled himself together. The vigor with which he has thrown himself into the election campaign has reassured senior American officials who were beginning to wonder if he had the stamina to survive such an ordeal.

EVEN IF YELTSIN remains in power, Strobe Talbott no longer seems quite so upbeat about developments in Russia. It is hard to imagine him describing Yeltsin today in the enthusiastic and uncritical tones he chose in congressional testimony back in 1993. Talbott understands, even more clearly than he did three years ago, that reform in Russia is a decades-long project. At a meeting a few weeks ago with Russian students in Amherst, Mass., in the home of his friends Bill and Jane Taubman, Talbott described U.S. policy toward Russia as one of "buying time until your generation {the Russian students} takes over."

Igor Malashenko, now head of Russian independent television, believes that, "If you want to understand Russia today, the first thing you have to do is forget all the Sovietology you ever learned."

In the '80s, the most important thing to know about Russia, which few Sovietologists on either left or right understood, was that communism was much more rotten and fragile than it seemed from the exterior. If there is a single unifying assumption behind U.S. policy toward Russia today, it is the notion that Russia is slowly becoming a "normal" Western country. Given Russia's history, and the direction of the present political debate, this assumption seems debatable. What has been created in Russia is not democracy and free markets in the Western sense, but an unholy hybrid of communism and capitalism, in which the old-boy Communist Party network still controls the lion's share of the nation's wealth.

One could argue that Russia is not becoming more like the West at all, but more like its old autocratic, pre-communist self.

Talbott, like most diplomats, remains a professional optimist. His argument is that no matter whether the chance is 10 percent or 90 percent that Russia will become a "normal" country, the U.S. government has no choice but to try to encourage the transformation. That isn't being soft on Russia, he argues; it's the advancement of American self-interest.

Perhaps the most interesting accusation against Talbott is not that he's too romantic, but that he's too rational. He has devoted his life to figuring Russia out, and understands the country as well as anyone in the American government. The question is whether understanding Russia in that cerebral sense provides a satisfactory answer to the recurring cursed questions about where Russia is headed.

In the words of Fyodor Tyutchev, Talbott's favorite Russian poet:

With the mind alone Russia cannot be understood,

No ordinary yardstick spans her greatness:

She stands alone, unique --

In Russia one can only believe.

In a celebrated essay titled "The Hedgehog and the Fox," the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin once divided thinkers into two categories. He defined the fox as someone who "knows many things," and who resists the idea of a single organizing principle in life. The hedgehog, by contrast, knows "one big thing."

Ronald Reagan is a hedgehog. He knew very little about Russia, but he was correct about one huge thing: Communism was doomed. Strobe Talbott is surely a fox. He knows a lot of things about Russia, infinitely more things than Reagan ever did. But does he know the "one big thing"? Michael Dobbs, The Post's Moscow bureau chief from 1988 to 1993, is now a Washington-based diplomatic correspondent for the paper. CAPTION: When he came here, he was a good-hearted, innocent American boy,' says Slava Luchkov, a friend of Talbott's since the '70s. It is difficult for such a decent person to believe that this country is as bad as all that.' CAPTION: In his columns for Time, Talbott described Gorbachev as the energetic reformer who was changing the world for the better. With hindsight, it is now clear that Gorbachev's historical mission was not to succeed, but to fail. CAPTION: Talbott understands that reform in Russia is a decades-long project. At a meeting a few weeks ago with Russian students, he described U.S. policy toward Russia as one of buying time until your generation takes over.' CAPTION: Strobe Talbott, in Moscow in the mid-'70s, flanked by Sergei Milyutin and fellow Rhodes scholar David Satter. CAPTION: With wife-to-be Brooke Shearer, above, at Oxford; top, at Nikita Khrushchev's grave in the early '70s; right, in his State Department office. CAPTION: Talbott, right, briefs President Clinton in the early hours of Boris Yeltsin's 1993 confrontation with parliament. Opposite page top, Russian parliamentarians surrender on October 4, 1993; bottom, Yeltsin and Clinton at Hyde Park in October 1995. CAPTION: Jogging in his Northwest D.C. neighborhood with Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff CAPTION: Russians criticize the Clinton administration for failing to speak out strongly enough against Yeltsin's shelling of parliament. 'Yeltsin's decision to dissolve parliament led directly to the Chechen war,' says Sergei Rogov.