On the whole, Moscow watchers in this country are a lot like their comrades at the Audubon Society. They need a trained eye and a lot of patience to see anything new. Even then, they don't always get what they are looking for.
This has been a week when the watchers kept their binoculars handy. The third Soviet leader in 28 months died; the fourth, Mikhail Gorbachev, ascended, full of 54- year-old "youth and vigor."
But the true event of this Soviet season was the early and scattered sighting of The Wife. For the first time in modern memory, we have this rara avis: the wife of the Soviet leader. Her name is Raisa, and she was shown not once, not twice, but three times on a network news announcement of her husband's new job.
Of course, Raisa Gorbachev is not the first wife in Soviet-leader history. Stalin had one. Brezhnev had one. Andropov had one. So did Chernenko. If, however, you can remember the name of any one of these women, you may move six spaces ahead on the Trivial Pursuit board.
The wives of the top Soviets have been as camera shy as a coppery-tailed trogon. No one was sure that Andropov's wife was even alive until she was seen at his funeral. If the Mesdames Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko were put in a police lineup and the average Soviet citizen had to match the names and faces "or else," there would be a lot of "or else" around.
The stereotype of a Soviet leader is a man in a heavy overcoat, a fur hat and no visible neck because he donated it to the war effort. The stereotype of a Soviet woman is one who poses for the Socialist- Realism pinup calendar in basic black.
But Mikhail's wife, Raisa, was dubiously dubbed "Bo Derek of the Steppes" by the British press. She is said to be a 51-year- old professor at Moscow University, a mother of two and a grandmother of one. Her plumage was what won Western attention, especially during her December flight to Britain.
The Daily Mirror said of Raisa, "What a chic lady is Mrs. Gorbachev. And what a contrast to the previous glimpses of other senior Russian wives . . . who looked as though they should be building dams in Siberia." The media covered Raisa from her gold-lam,e sandals to her short and curly brown hair. The Daily Mail even labeled the Gorbachevs "The Gucci Couple." The implication was that as a duo they would charm d,etente back to life.
I confess to being amused by international public relations. There is nothing that the Western world finds quite so reassuring as when the socialist world behaves like us.
When a beauty contest is held in Canton, it's proof of a warming trend. When the Soviet Union shows off a first lady, it might as well be a heat wave.
It is not unusual for Ameans, like the Britons, to pick the Western portents out of the Soviet life style. Our nightly news features a Moscow aerobics class or a rock-music craze as proof of the popularity of things American. One book after another on the U.S.S.R. details the Soviet passion for goods. They document the ordeal of a citizen who wants to buy a tomato in Leningrad in March or a car in Minsk in 1985.
We do it reflexively, the same way the Soviets keep publishing pictures of street people sleeping on grates in New York City. It is the true, but incomplete, information that reinforces our sense of superiority. It's rather like finding out that Stalin liked jazz or the early reports that Andropov played tennis and listened to Glenn Miller.
The irony, I suppose, is that many Americans think the ultimate attraction of this democracy isn't free speech or elections. It's style; it's shopping. There is the quintessential scene in "Moscow on the Hudson" when a Russian on tour in America impulsively defects in the middle of Bloomingdale's. He is converted by shopping. At some deep level, many Americans believe that the Soviets can also be converted by the lure of goods.
There is a comforting subtext to all the stories on creeping Westernization. They presume that given the time and the choice, the citizens of the socialist world inevitably will become just like us: a people with a supermarket. This is probably as true and as false as the communist belief that if people keep sleeping on grates, class warfare is inevitable.
What, then, of the newest Soviet version (dare I say imitation?) of Western "life style," the political wife? Any patient, experienced Moscow-watcher worth a pair of binoculars knows that answer. The first Raisa has been spotted. It takes more than one to make a thaw.