It is striking that both President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev used quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson in their remarks at the signing of the arms treaty. However recent their individual acquaintance with Emerson may have been, it is noteworthy that there is a long history of Russian knowledge of the American philosopher. In fact, the first substantial discussion of any American writer in Russian appeared as an anonymous article in the journal Biblioteka dlia chteniia (Library for reading) in 1847, one that called Emerson "a forerunner of better times," a man whose thought could help bring about a great change in the laws, customs and endeavors of America.

"The gradual education of the United States is practically the most remarkable event of our time," the article went on. "It shows in a living form to the eyes of the European nations the law of the development of civilization which they thus far have sought out with difficulty in the shadowy traditions of their own history."

"It would be desirable that Emerson's philosophy, as a protest in favor of the individual, be disseminated in Europe."

There was, after that article, a certain current of Russian interest in Emerson, with a dozen translations of his works and 15 biographical and critical articles appearing before 1917, while his name appears among the very first Americans to be included in the extensive notes and diaries of Leo Tolstoy. Even the harshly reactionary K. P. Pobedonostsev, the civil official in charge of church affairs during the reign of Alexander III and the first decade of that of Nicholas II, spoke to the American diplomat Andrew White of his appreciation of Emerson.

Thus, Emerson is no new name in the Russian view of America, but perhaps some of his remarks on the right of each man to reach his own conclusions may sound a dissenting note in a Soviet Union that, despite perestroika, is not likely to become markedly less centralized.

ROBERT V. ALLEN Bethesda