When Joseph Stalin received interview questions from United Press International's Moscow correspondent Eugene Lyons in 1932, it took him two years to answer.

Leonid Brezhnev, a more contemporary Soviet leader, was more prompt in answering questions but was hardly more photogenic on television.

In 1982, in one of his last major public appearances, the ailing Brezhnev calmly began reading the wrong speech for television cameras in Baku before an aide interrupted, handing him the correct text.

But now, the Soviet Union seems to have a television superstar at the top in Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet leader seems to know it.

As if to enshrine Gorbachev's new style officially, the new Communist Party program released yesterday -- the first major revision of that manifesto since 1961 -- calls for the party to use contemporary tools such as public opinion assessments and television for maintaining contact with the Soviet people.

Ever since Soviet television introduced a feisty, free-speaking Gorbachev into living rooms from Moscow to Vladivostok a few months ago, reactions to him here haven't been quite the same.

The terms many Muscovites have started to use in describing the new Soviet leader -- "spontaneous," "human" and "direct" -- reveal a feeling that he is much more accessible than any former Kremlin head. "He gives the impression," one Moscow writer said, "that he is down on the people's level."

The off-the-cuff conversational image is one Gorbachev has achieved above all through a running series of television appearances, fielding what to Soviet citizens are startling questions from western journalists in Moscow and Paris without flinching, mingling with locals in Leningrad's Victory Square, touring oil fields in Siberia.

Through his use of television, Gorbachev projects a more natural, folksy manner than any of his media-wary predecessors, who -- with the exception of Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev -- were anything but impromptu.

Western and Soviet observers in Moscow find Gorbachev's camera instincts surprising, considering he had little exposure before his well-publicized trip to London last December. Yet his knack for using props in the eye of rolling and clicking cameras is undeniable: He sipped tea in a working family's apartment in Moscow, donned a hard hat in Siberia, jumped into a Peugeot in France.

But for Soviets, Gorbachev's most effective prop is what they view as his homey style and wit.

That too, is projected more effectively through television than the stiff language of official publications. Through television, Gorbachev seems to offer common Soviets a personality they can identify with. More than any other shots of his arrival ceremonies in Sofia, Soviets noted how he came off the plane and kissed Bulgarian party leader Todor Zhivkov on both cheeks. More than the substance of his televised speeches to party leaders in Moscow and Leningrad last spring, they recall how he broke from the prepared text and spoke his mind.

Through the press conference in Paris two weeks ago after his summit meeting with French President Francois Mitterrand and an interview with French journalists, both beamed back on prime-time Soviet television, Gorbachev impressed Soviets with his openness. "I watched the way he reacted when sensitive questions were asked," said one Soviet political historian. "He seemed more instinctive and energetic than before."

The controversial decision to allow broadcasting of the two Paris media shows, complete with the startling mention by the questioners of the names of Soviet dissidents Anatoly Scharansky and Andrei Sakharov, revealed a new-found sensitivity among Soviet officials to the competition posed by foreign-originated broadcasts. Despite jamming, the BBC, Voice of America and German radio still enjoy popularity. "There is a feeling," one Soviet television executive said, "that if the information was going to make its way back into the country from Paris somehow, it may as well be through official sources."

The broadcasts during his Paris trip also subjected Gorbachev to some of the pitfalls of standing under a media spotlight. Where other Soviet leaders might have hid off camera behind official positions, he showed that the official position on human rights has hardly changed while standing in the full eye of an anxious Soviet public.

Before a Jewish population anxious for relaxed emigration restrictions he swatted away questions about emigration and said that Jews enjoy as good a standard of living in the Soviet Union as elsewhere.

Gorbachev's tough stance, coupled with the small number of Jews allowed to emigrate since he came to power, has made some members of Moscow's Jewish community lose faith in any promise that his regime would ease discrimination and severe emigration restrictions.

But western analysts say that the Soviet leader's assurances that Jews enjoy a good life in the Soviet Union were meant more as a reassurance to nonpracticing Soviet Jews who are not anxious to emigrate. Moscow's refuseniks regarded Gorbachev's comments that some of their lingering cases would be settled in the next five to 10 years as outright deception. Though broadcast on television, it was censored out of Pravda's report on the interview.

Gorbachev has also raised some expectations that will be difficult to meet in terms of his television appeal. In a discussion about summit coverage, a Soviet television producer admitted to one of his American counterparts that "Geneva poses certain problems for us."

"It's not a picture story," he added. "We can't focus reels of film on Nancy Reagan. That's not our style." Nonetheless, the Soviet broadcast media will staff the event heavily, he said.

Gorbachev was at first reluctant to use television as a publicity tool, one official said, until he received praise and requests for encores after the unprecedented broadcast in May of a speech he gave to party members in Leningrad.

Soviet television has updated its image in the last two years, according to western analysts. News broadcasts are still dominated by bland announcements of achievements, but lately they have featured more moving pictures and more footage from abroad.

While the Kremlin is continuing to direct its flow of information through state-controlled television, it is gradually increasing the number of television sets made available to Soviet citizens.