MOSCOW -- "The past is never dead," William Faulkner said. "It's not even past."

Mikhail Gorbachev has always seemed to understand that and has steadily opened the gruesome chapters of Soviet history for a painful national reading. But until an extraordinary speech this month, he has described his own past only reluctantly. And when the time came to speak frankly, the revolutionary used the moment to underscore the limits of his rebellion.

"Look at my two grandfathers," Gorbachev told a gathering of intellectuals. "One was denounced for not fulfilling the sowing plan in 1933, a year when half the family died of hunger. They took him away to Irkutsk to a timber-producing camp, and the rest of the family was broken, half destroyed in that year.

"And the other grandfather -- he was an organizer of collective farms, later a local administrator. This was quite a figure for those times. He was from a peasant family, a peasant of average means. He was in prison for 14 months. They interrogated him, demanded that he admit what he'd never done. Thank God, he survived. But when he returned home, people considered his house a plague house, a house of an 'enemy of the people.' Relatives and dear ones were not able to visit him, otherwise 'they' would have come after them too."

Gorbachev's history is more terrifying than any previous account has revealed. Until now, he has kept it well hidden -- only a few of his closest friends remember even the most glancing references to such a history. The man long ago learned the Communist Party art of practical discretion.

In fact, Gorbachev's family history forms a paradigm of the Stalinist era: One grandfather was punished for failing to fulfill the absurd and brutal demands of collectivization; the other, a leader of the collectivization, suffered for no reason other than to be a victim in the Great Leader's scheme of organized terror.

Throughout his speech, Gorbachev made plain that he is the leader of a particular generation, a particular type in Soviet society: a man of late middle age, born into a system that betrayed his family, but one who is convinced nonetheless that socialism is still "my banner." The tragedy of the Stalin era and the farce of the Brezhnev era represent for Gorbachev not the outcome of an ideology but rather its perversion.

"I've been told more than once that it is time to stop swearing allegiance to socialism," Gorbachev said. "Why should I? Socialism is my deep conviction, and I will promote it as long as I can talk and work." Recent surveys of Soviet society show that only a small minority -- 15 or 20 percent -- still share Gorbachev's faith in the efficacy of socialism. But attempts to turn away from the "socialist choice" are inconceivable to Gorbachev -- a "counter-revolution on the sly." He sees in the Baltic independence movements a threat to his notion of the Soviet Union as "one people"; he sees the calls for private property as a threat to the psychology of a people that have spent years learning to despise it. Such principles are, he says, "last stands" comparable to the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad.

Gorbachev is well aware that as a Communist Party politician he played a leading part in the charade for decades. He mocks bitterly the Stalinist idea of a man as a "cog" in the gigantic state machine. He is not much deluded about the state of Soviet democracy before he came to power in 1985: "As first secretary of the {Stavropol} region, where I worked for nine years, I could decide everything, without thinking or answering to the law or the constitution. I decided, and that was that!"

Gorbachev says he understands that many people can think of socialism in the old, totalitarian framework. They believe that everything that came along as the result of the Bolshevik revolution must be criticized and dismissed. He demands that they put aside their suffering for a moment, and imagine, with him, a system that "joins a socialist approach with individual interests," a "humane, democratic socialism."

Gorbachev makes these points not only to add what he sees as a "balanced" sense of the past to the current debate, but also to prevent what he sees as the old Stalinist mistake of pushing people too fast, too far, toward the state's idea of "the good life," toward yet another utopian model. He cannot abide his more radical opponents -- Boris Yeltsin and a host of younger politicians among them -- who demand Western-style private property; he is convinced that the farmers and workers simply will not accept such a change.

"Should we again take up the ax!" he said. "And again push the people into these democratic forms? First, this does not respect the people. Second, no one can pretend to be the messiah."

Gorbachev's own positions have changed so quickly over the years that it is folly to call any one statement final. But if personal history and its expression are any guide, we might do well to listen carefully to get a sense of how much he is prepared to drift from the first principle of the generations before him:

"Am I supposed to turn my back on my grandfather, who was committed to the {socialist} idea? . . . And I cannot go against my father, who defended Kursk {in World War II}, forded the Dnieper knee-deep in blood and was wounded in Czechslovakia. When cleansing myself of Stalinism and all other filth, should I renounce my grandfather and father and all they did?"

David Remnick is a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.