FOR THOSE who know they'll never meet Mikhail Gorbachev or go to the Soviet Union, there is now a book and an exhibit about the man and his country. Both tell us what the Soviets would like us to think about them.
The "cultural exhibition," called "The USSR: The Individual, Family, Society," opens Monday at the Departmental Auditorium. It's a picture of the Russia of another century.
This is no bear, forbidding, aggressive, making the world tremble in fear of its tooth and claw. This is Mother Russia, yearning for peace, concerned about her citizens, their homes, their health and, yes, their worship, boastful of her gifted children and her ancient folk arts.
At the red-carpeted entrance is a large display on red and white blocks, with a picture of Lenin waving his cap. Every 10 blocks or so the words glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) are inscribed. These are the touchstones of General Secretary Gorbachev's "new revolution."
Along the walls are television sets with rolling pictures of Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at previous summits. As part of the display of "two hundred years of USSR-US relations," there's a picture of Stalin with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, the one reminder of the bad old days, which our guest would like us to think are lost and gone forever. There are quotes from Gorbachev about "ridding the earth of nuclear weapons over the next 15 years."
Framed embroideries from the Armenian Republic of the Soviet Union have the names of the 9- and 10-year-old artists beside them. So do the brilliantly colored paintings which came from the Armenian Children's Art Museum.
Here's a glass cabinet with folk art from Khokhloma, brightly lacquered wood objects. One is a huge, fantastic swan. Next door are the products of Palekh, boxes made of pressed cardboard, decorated with scenes from Russian fairy tales.
And there are the models built by schoolchildren -- one a snowmobile made, said the young Soviet scientist in charge, by handicapped pupils.
There'a a model Soviet apartment, a rather cramped affair with severely functional furniture, covered in greyish tweed, and lots of kitchen cabinets.
When it really gets going, the exhibition will have videos of Soviet advances in medicine and performances by the Bolshoi ballet.
Most surprising is the large area devoted to religious life. The crosses, icons, wedding crowns and chalices were not in place at the press preview but the smiling, gracious guide, Tamara Fedvulova, a Moscow schoolteacher, said they were en route. Their significance and history will be explained by two Russian orthodox priests who are flying in from Moscow for the opening.
So much for "godless, atheistic" Soviet Russia. Forty religions flourish in Russia, Ms. Fedvulova said.
Right next door is the bookshop, with shelves of books being published in the Soviet Union. What censorship?
Further along there was an exhibit of Soviet fur coats, not likely to set American women to drooling. Besides said one official bleakly, "there are difficulties in U.S.-USSR trade relations."
If right-wingers suspect that the pleasant, shrewed exhibit is nothing but Communist disinformation, they will surely see a plot in Gorbachev's book, "Perestroika," which has just been published to coincide with his summit visit. It is a fascinating exposition of his driving idea of making life better for Soviet citizens and bringing peace to the world by ending the arms race.
No one could ask for a more devastating criticism of the "excesses and blunders" of past leaders, or of the inertia and resistance of modern-day Soviets who grew up in security, if not comfort.
What he insistently proposes sounds like the reform of another authoritarian institution, the Roman Catholic Church. It was undertaken by Pope John XXIII, who instructed the bishops at Vatican II to renew practices without abandoning fundamental doctrine. Gorbachev says that socialism is the way, the truth and the light for Soviet society. He merely wants it to function better.
He anticipates that anti-Soviets will dismiss his dream as propaganda. Those who rage against any arms-control agreements have seen Gorbachev's claim that he wants to quit making weapons so he can get on with improving household appliances as the ultimate con from the "evil empire."
The book is a bit abstract; there's a lot of socialist dialectic, but it's compelling all the same. Gorbachev comes through as a sophisticated, single-minded visionary.
American readers will be plagued by questions: How does openness work in a closed society? How much "democracy" goes in a police state? He never mentions the KGB.
The author will be with us soon and maybe will be able to answer some of them. And we should ask him another: Do his book and the exhibit faithfully reflect the way they see themselves.?
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.