"DON'T YOU find our whole conversation a little unreal?," an old friend asked me over lunch in Moscow a month ago. We were at a table in the fashionable Aragvi restaurant, sipping cognac and trading stories about mutual acquaintances as if we were trying to catch up after taking summer vacations.

Yet I had been away from Russia since 1973 -- an immigrant to America. Now, after 14 years as a U.S. Sovietologist and columnist, I had stopped for a brief visit to Moscow as part of the entourage of journalists accompanying Secretary of State George Shultz and National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci.

The strongest impression from my visit was of a cloud of anxiety hanging over perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev's plans to restructure Soviet society. Only among liberal intellectuals is there any constituency for risky experimentation that might threaten the foundations of the Soviet system. The real beneficiaries are the group I call Soviet Yuppies -- those well-educated professionals now prospering under Gorbachev's cultivation. The average man-in-the-street is unenthusiastic.

"Glasnost is for the bosses," growled a young cab driver, and his comment seemed to speak for the masses of Soviets who see Gorbachev's reforms as an attack by the intelligentsia on ordinary working people.

The one serious difference between the Moscow I kept in my memory and the one I encountered in October was that people were prepared to offer opinions. On the surface the Soviet capital's drab appearance had not changed much. There were more new office buildings and hotels for foreigners, built mostly before the Moscow 1980 Olympics. The crowd was dressed a little better. The traffic was somewhat heavier. Street artists were drawing portraits of passers-by without visible interference from the police. And, despite the approaching 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, political slogans were not so omnipresent.

On the other hand, perestroika notwithstanding, food supplies in government stores were scarcer and the lines longer. In the hard-currency-only National Restaurant, perhaps the most prestigious in Moscow, there was no meat. I had very fond memories of Aragvi, one of the Soviet capital's most popular restaurants which specializes in cuisine from the southern Soviet republic of Georgia. But the appetizers were of such poor quality that I nibbled just enough to be polite.

Still, for someone like myself used to the apathy, cynicism and almost hopelessness of Moscovites during the '70s, it was striking to encounter people expressing their hopes and fears openly and with great emotion, taking positions for or against Gorbachev's reforms and, in some cases, being unafraid to sound highly skeptical of official policies.

TResponses to Gorbachev's efforts to transform Soviet Society vary greatly among three different groups of Moscovites: intellectuals, workers aand upwardly mobile professionals. Critical-minded intellectuals with dissident connections appeared to be most philosophically supportive of the General Secretary. I talked to several such people. None was a dissident in the strict sense of the word. All had comfortable, and in a couple of instances, even quite prestigious jobs. Nevertheless, everyone at a gathering I attended in a large, by Soviet standards, two-bedroom apartment had well-deserved reputations for integrity -- as well as a long record of getting into trouble with the authorities by stubbornly refusing to toe the party line. Some had suffered expulsion from the communist party and dismissal from their jobs.

Their ordeal is not completely over. Nobody reported any harrassment during the last few months, but some still found it impossible to regain positions from which they had been fired. Their memories are long and, to a visitor from American, their fears border on the paranoid. I was taken aback a little, for instance, when the host informed me that, from the moment I called his apartment, his phone began sounding funny, as if there was some outside interference. Idoubted that the KGB were so efficient -- particularly since I used a pay phone. And while the people around the dinner table were clearly glad to see me, there was a sense of unease, almost nervousness, that inviting me to their home would be viewed by the regime as a daring act of defiance.

Yet, despite their obvious suspicion that many nasty features of the system remain intact, they were more than willing to give Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt. Whatever they did not like about official behavior was attributed to bureaucratic resistance to the General Secretary.

For these nonconformist intellectuals Gorbachev's reforms are manna from heaven. Glasnost, after all, had been their battle cry for decades before the Soviet leader appropriated it as the slogan for his program. Movies, plays and books, censored by the government for years, are now being released with almost no exception. Political prisoners -- many of them personal friends of those around the table -- are returning home from jails, camps and mental institutions. And while one hears about new arrests on political grounds, those arrested are rarely familiar to the Soviet capital's intellectual circles: they are either nationalists in distant ethnic republics or religious believers affiliated with officially disapproved cults.

Moreover, the Moscow community of nonconformists feels that the Kremlin is interested in an unprecedented dialogue. Some of its members, accustomed to the status of pariahs, have suddenly gained access to Gorbachev's top aides, and even been helped in matters such as the release of a movie or reinstatement in a job lost during the Brezhnev era.

"True, changes announced by Gorbachev so far do not go far enough and are ambiguous and even contradictory," the host admitted. However, with the evident discomfort of someone not used to praising the Soviet leadership, he suggested that the General Secretary may introduce more sweeping changes as soon as it becomes politically feasible. "Maybe I am too optimistic {but} there are grounds to believe that he will turn this country into a decent place to live." the host said as he served homemade alcohol from Georgia.

Perhaps if he had to stand in long lines to buy vodka in government liquor stores his endorsement of Gorbachev would be more muted. I, at least, found no supporters of the General Secretary in an hour-and-a-half long vodka line that I joined, thinking it would be a good way to talk with ordinary Russians -- those preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues rather than artistic freedoms.

As part of an anti-alcohol drive launched by Yuri Andropov and eagerly continued by Gorbachev, both the number of liquor stores and the hours they are open were reduced approximately by half. Now buying vodka is an almost impossible exercise. From the perspective of the blue and white collar workers standing in quarter-mile long lines, Gorbachev was almost uniformly bad news.

In the close proximity of several police officers positioned near the store to control the crowd, people spoke forcefully and angrily. "So how do you find Moscow these days?" a middle-aged fitter asked upon learning of my background. My rather evasive answer did not satisfy him. "It should look disgusting to you after America. It is disgusting. Why don't you admit it?" he demanded loudly. Not a single person in the line disagreed. Instead they began complaining about the humiliation on top of the inconvenience of standing in long lines, rain or shine, about the price of vodka going up, about the lack of fresh produce in the local grocery store, about being forced to work harder while being paid less because of recently established quality controls.

I inquired about all of the new freedoms so dear to the hearts of my intellecutal friends. But people in the queue were unimpressed. "There is all this criticism in the papers," said one, "but try to question your own boss, and you are going to be dismissed just as surely as in the past." That is exactly what happened to this young taxi driver after he complained at a trade union meeting about a supervisor who would not allocate a well-running cab without being paid a bribe. He was accused of slander, ostracized, offered only taxis in complete disrepair, and eventually forced to look for another job. His conclusion: "I have myself to blame for taking Gorbachev too literally. Next time I will know better."

Asked about positive effects of the new leadership, one person volunteered that there was now "more truth" in their lives. Another mentioned food fairs on the eve of national holidays that were ordered by recently ousted Moscow party boss Boris Yeltsin. One worker mentioned new privately run restaurants and cooperative food stores offering a better choice for a higher price. He felt, however, that only the well off benefited from these innovations -- and the people in the line definitely did not feel well-off. If anything, they were afraid that rumored price increases would further reduce their living standards. It would take more than promises, more than the brave rhetoric of change, for Gorbachev to persuade such simple Russians that they are in a position to gain from his reforms.

In contrast, the third group I encountered in Moscow had already benefited from perestroika and accepted Gorbachev as their standard bearer. This group consisted of the Soviet version of yuppies -- men and women, but mostly men, in their early and mid forties, some of whom I knew from our university days. Gorbachev's reformist crusade serves them well. Several were promoted. Others began traveling abroad. A few were even appointed to important posts in key party and state agencies. Unlike the workers, they were generally receiving higher incomes as a result of Gorbachev's effort to cultivate highly qualified professionals.

A university classmate of mine recently moved into a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in a prestigious building with an elaborate security system. He and his wife had just bought a second car and talked casually about the separate vacations they took in the West. Their clothing would shine on New York's Fifth Avenue. Their candlelit late supper table was filled with sturgeon and salmon caviar, smoked fish, cold cuts and fresh vegetables. The bar boasted a variety of vodkas, scotch, and an expensive brand of Armenian cognac. The furniture was made in Finland. The light from the imported lamps was elegantly dimmed. And the spirit of proud prosperity was in the air.

The conversation was about job vacancies. "If nothing else, Gorbachev deserves to have a monument built in his honor just for getting rid of all those old sons of bitches, of all that stinking human garbage accumulated during the Brezhnev rule," the host said.

The man had just received a highly promising assignment on instructions from the Central Committee Secretariat, but his support for the General Secretary went beyond opportunism. There was a genuine sense of pride that the Soviet Union finally had a world class leader. My upper class host and his friends were disgusted by the corruption and ineptitude of the late Brezhnev era, by the walking zombies who populated the Kremlin's halls before Gorbachev offered younger, better educated and more dynamic officials a chance to participate in running the Soviet Union. And they shared the nonconformist intellectuals disdain for the intrusive regulations which mushroomed during the late seventies and early eighties.

Communism's best and brightest who identify with Gorbachev feel that the Soviet system can only benefit from encouraging popular initiative, artistic experimentation with forms and shapes. The new official tolerance suits the hedonistic life style of the Soviet establishment's new generation and Gorbachev's appeal for "democratization" gets a warm response from them. But that warm response is premised on the assumption that the process of change will not go out of control -- that the Soviet elite's monopoly on power will remain unshaken, and that Gorbachev, unlike Nikita S. Khrushchev, will appreciate that capricious disregard of the privileged may be dangerous to his political health.

"We don't need all these nobodies exploiting perestroika to their advantage," a successful academic administrator said. He expressed irritation with people who "never learned how to behave responsibly but were now demanding prime seats at the dinner table." Gorbachev's yuppies know that it was precisely their unfailing willingness to play by the rules that allowed them to rise high enough in the system to lead the reform effort. They would not want someone with access to KGB archives checking what moral price they paid for their career advancement. Nor would they want anyone to remind the public that many of today's perestroika champions have long records of cheerleading for precisely those "negative phenomena" in Soviet life that are being denounced by the Kremlin at the moment.

I was in Moscow before the Yeltsin affair was revealed, but interestingly the former Moscow party leader was already quite unpopular, not just among party traditionalists but among communist yuppies as well. Privately they accused him of "playing in democracy", being "insenstive" to people -- read to bureaucrats -- and worst of all, allegedly threatening to close down the hard currency Beriozka stores of which my hosts and their friends are loyal customers. With this group, at least, the Yeltsin ouster would play well. It would reassure the new elite that Gorbachev is a non-nonsense chief executive not about to tolerate populist fantasies.

The supper lasted until the early morning hours. I was bombarded with questions about my income in America, what kind of cars my wife and I drove, how many square meters we had in our house, and who did I know personally among top officials and legislators in Washington.

Later that same day, I had my farewell lunch at Aragvi with my old and closest friend -- a friend who had once had a promising political career but opted to sacrifice it altogether rather than submit to orders to stop seeing me after I applied for emigration. Today he is a free-lance translator completely uninterested in rejoining the establishment. This man was the first in Moscow to inquire whether I was happy in America, whether I had real friends and enjoyed my work. He was also the first to say that perestroika is a step forward, not so much because the system could be turned around, but rather because people were now given an option to be themselves -- as long as they were not driven by ambition, of course. For him the right choice was self-evident.

Dimitri Simes, a syndicated columnist, is a senior associate and director of the U.S.-Soviet Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.