ON THE first day of the summit, Mikhail Gorbachev seemed like a different man. The ferociously attentive, in-charge type that the world has known since 1985 was, in the White House reception ceremony, strangely subdued, tentative even.

President Bush greeted him on the White House lawn with a detailed, gracious, almost effusive speech. He laid out his expectations, promised to go the extra mile -- no one can blame him if things go wrong. Gorbachev replied with a short homily on the irreversible change in U.S.-Soviet relations. "The fog of prejudice, mistrust and animosity is vanishing," he said.

He made a single, shrouded reference to one of the two thing that obsess him -- a united Germany and bread for his own people. He told of his recent meetings with Soviet war veterans, who, he said, value better relations with the United States but hope that the tragedies of the 20th century -- those horrible wars -- will forever remain a thing of the past.

It was in sharp contrast to his blast from Canada, when he warned Bush not to think Gorbachev could be pushed around on the subject of Germany just because he is enfeebled politically at home. Americans must not fish in muddy waters.

While thousands of journalists at the William C. Smith Center of George Washington University, equipped with all the latest telecommunications gadgetry, waited two hours for a briefing on the first session of the Bush -- Gorbachev talks, the Soviet president was having lunch at the Soviet Embassy and pouring his heart out to a roomful of riveted intellectuals.

Here Gorbachev was pleading. In a rambling speech that was short on specifics but delivered with his wonted animation and real feeling, he begged for time, for understanding.

What he was telling us is that in undertaking a market economy, which involves removing subsidies for bread and other basics, he is also fighting communist propaganda.

He didn't say it in so many words, but from this talented, beleaguered, rattled man was coming a muffled cry for help. What he seemed to be saying was that doing the right thing is no picnic in a country that is marinated in socialist indoctrination. For 70 years, his people have been hearing that capitalism exploits workers, rewards robber barons, sucks the blood of the honest peasant. Turning around the Russian mind is a vast undertaking. The Russians have many talents, but organization is not one of them. All week long, Gorbachev's heralds and outriders painted a picture of a society that seems on the edge of anarchy. People stand in long lines to buy bread, yet bread is fed to animals. Why? Because state subsidies make the price so low it isn't worth it to get it to the bread store.

Gorbachev in Moscow talks about Boris Yeltsin -- who is to him what Jesse Jackson was to Michael Dukakis -- as someone who pushes economic reform at the expense of socialism. Gorbachev says he wants reform with socialism.

No one knows exactly what he means.

At the lunch, Gorbachev said he had just had a conversation with someone (not the president -- possibly Secretary of State James Baker?) who told him that "it's difficult to be half-pregnant with introducing a market economy."

Precisely. Maybe Gorbachev means that he has to lead his people slowly into a system of which they heard nothing good until five years ago.

And he is saying he has no idea how to do it. He admitted he is at a loss about the economy, and about Lithuania, which moved too fast.

Similarly, about Germany, he seems much surer of what he doesn't want than of what he does want. Again, the conditioning of his people -- not just propaganda, but bitter, bloody, first-hand experience -- inhibits him from accepting Bush's proposal for a unified Germany in NATO. World War II is remembered in every village in Russia. There were 20 million dead. V-E Day is celebrated with full official panoply and total fervor.

Gorbachev is rational and can appreciate the good sense of anchoring Germany firmly in the West. It would beat having a neutral Germany, with its own ideas about the size of its military forces and even a nuclear capability. But how to explain to the millions of Soviet veterans that socialism's hour of triumph, victory in World War II, is about to be erased, and that a NATO-bound Germany will be a permanent reminder of their defeat in the Cold War?

And if Gorbachev accepts it -- Bush expects him to -- do his people say he had to because he is so weak in the West, just as he is at home?

His discomfort comes not from not knowing what to do. He is sure of that. It is in not knowing how to do it. He is the truly neediest case to come to town in recent memory. The others mostly just need money. He needs time, which can be much more expensive.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.