MOSCOW -- All week in the Soviet capital, my mind has turned back 16 years. In the spring of 1974, just a few months before Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency because of Watergate, I made my first reporting trip to Eastern Europe, visiting Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. The question an American journalist -- especially one from The Washington Post -- was asked incessantly was, "Why are you hounding this man Nixon, who has done so much for world peace?"
Today, an American reporter in Moscow is constantly challenged by Soviet citizens who ask why Washington officialdom and U.S. public opinion put Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev "on such a pedestal," as one man put it.
The Soviets living under Gorbachev see his faults and shortcomings in a way most Americans from President Bush on down have chosen to ignore. To them, his fabled charm has worn thin. Even his diplomatic successes shrink in comparison to his domestic failures.
The other afternoon, while Gorbachev was delivering his opening address to the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, I took an interpreter and wandered up and down Arbat Street, with its shops and vendors, interviewing people. One of them was a woman of about 40 named Galina. Like most others, she declined to give her last name. She was visiting from her home in the Caucasus. Galina is a physician who supervises a laboratory where biopsies are performed on patients suspected of having cancer. She is a Communist Party member.
But when I asked her what her expectations were of the Party Congress, she shrugged. "I would just like the situation to stabilize. There has been so much turmoil," she said, referring to the infighting between Gorbachev and his critics and also to the breakaway movements in the republics, which make up the Soviet Union.
"I feel we have reached a dead end," she said. "The relationship between the party leadership and the people has no place to go. People no longer believe the leadership."
"Do you include Gorbachev in that statement?" I asked.
"Of course," she said. "He is not separate from the leadership."
That last sentence explains the difference between the internal and the external perceptions of Gorbachev. In America and elsewhere in the West, Gorbachev is seen as this unique, historic figure -- a man utterly unlike any of his predecessors in the party chairmanship: gracious, accommodating, reasonable, rational, eager for peace and seemingly ready to incorporate large elements of democracy and capitalism into his country.
At home, Gorbachev's emergence is not seen as miraculous at all, but rather as the predictable adaptation by an entrenched bureaucracy that faced a rising public demand for change. He does not stand alone in the public eye but is linked -- as Nixon was linked to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Magruder and Dean -- to a regime whose failures are all too evident to those who live here.
"The party is responsible for where we are," said Vitaly Korotich, the witty editor of Ogonyok, the weekly magazine that is the voice of reform. "Stagnation was not created by Mickey Mouse."
Economic failure dominates daily life. Shortages are endemic. Vyascheslav Nikonov, a political scientist on the staff of the central committee, recited public-opinion poll figures demonstrating that "most people say they lived better five years ago than they live today."
The five years coincide with the period of Gorbachev's rule. He has been in power long enough that he cannot escape being blamed for what has gone wrong -- and much has, in the eyes of Soviet citizens. Young radicals, like Sergei Odarich, a 23-year-old organizer I met in Kiev, speak of Gorbachev as if he were a criminal.
Older people view him more tolerantly -- but without awe. "At the moment, he is needed," said theater director Les Taniuk, 52, "but he does not give us the same thrill he does you."
My favorite comment came from 85-year-old Oksana Meshko, a Helsinki Watch human-rights activist who was arrested early in her life by Stalin and again, at age 75, by Brezhnev. Asked about Gorbachev, she said: "Despite the enthusiasm everyone felt for his words, there have been no visible results of his decisions. This great statesmanship leaves many of us cool to him. But we see no one to replace him -- at the moment."
The loss of public confidence puts Gorbachev between a rock and a hard place in the current Party Congress. If he can hold on as party secretary, it would give him control of a giant bureaucracy -- but one that is increasingly discredited in the eyes of the public. But if he chooses, or is forced, to abandon his party post and attempts to govern solely as an unelected president, his only support would be public opinion -- which is no longer reliably in his corner.
That is why Arkady N. Murashev, executive secretary of the inter-regional group, the caucus of reform-minded democrats in the Supreme Soviet, calls Gorbachev "a king without a kingdom."