Although Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Paris today marks his maiden voyage to the West as Soviet leader, a number of Muscovites thought he staged an even more dramatic debut before his home audience last night on Soviet television.
Seated in a gilt chair, in a Kremlin salon glistening with gold trim, the Communist Party leader answered questions from three French journalists, discussing subjects as personal as his own style and as controversial -- and unprecedented for the Soviet television audience -- as the Kremlin's record on human rights.
The hour-long interview was broadcast simultaneously here and in France and was shown almost in its entirety on Soviet television, an event that once again showed how Gorbachev is willing to break the once rigid rules of Kremlin protocol.
While French viewers may have viewed the Soviet leader in the three-piece suit with dispassionate curiosity, here in Moscow the Gorbachev performance heightened a national awareness that Moscow, accustomed to dour or dowdy leaders, at last had spawned an attractive international performer.
When Gorbachev went to London last December his potential as a western-style politician was barely understood here. Soviet television showed the headlines and scenes from the visit, but there was no sense of the personality that fascinated British journalists.
At home, Gorbachev's trips to Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk, Siberia and Kazakhstan had established him as an energetic leader among the Soviet people who saw him in the streets or on television.
But yesterday's interview, amid the grandeur of a Kremlin salon, was different. It showed the leader sitting and talking informally, rather than standing and making speeches. It showed him discussing Soviet problems with foreigners in a relaxed setting, displaying cool self-confidence and even wit. It was the first time the Soviet public could see the new leader, or any leader in recent history, up close for any sustained length of time.
To the surprise of some and the puzzlement of others, Gorbachev answered a question on human rights that inquired about exiled Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, Jewish activist Anatoly Scharansky and the decrease in Jewish emigration. That his answers evaded the point hardly registered here: What took people aback was that the leader, in this unusual setting, would consider the question so openly.
Later it was noted by some Soviet viewers that in his answer he did not even touch on the exile of Sakharov to Gorki, ordered without a trial. Sakharov is the best known of the Soviet Union's human rights activists, perhaps one reason he was never formally tried.
Instead, Gorbachev focused on Scharansky a far less well known figure. Concerning the drop in Jewish emigration, Gorbachev fell back on the well-worn and debatable Soviet explanation that most of the Jews who wanted to leave have left. Of those delayed, he said, they were mostly people who had worked in jobs involving state secrets.
On televison, he said these people had only to wait five to 10 years for their cases to clear.
That was the only part deleted from the printed account of the interview that ran in the press today. The presumption was that Soviet authorities did not want such an explicit timetable to come back to haunt them.
Some Soviets noted that on this and other subjects, Gorbachev showed a different face to foreign audiences than he does to domestic ones.
At home, the tone is sterner; the message is to work hard, and stay sober. Said one Soviet housewife, "He talks to them in a way he would never talk to us."
Another Soviet citizen, caught off guard by the opulence of the Kremlin setting and the sonorous tones of the French television journalist who introduced the interview, thought he was about to see a variety show broadcast from Versailles.
"We had had a program of Mireille Mathieu a French singer on before. I thought when I saw that room and the Frenchman doing an introduction that someone else was going to sing," he said.