We should encourage Mikhail Gorbachev's flirtation with modernity. It doesn't threaten us. It threatens him -- and all the most repressive, autocratic features of the Soviet system. Yet from his dalliance with mass-communications image making to his interest in bringing his country into the high-tech computer age, Gorbachev's moves toward the late 20th century seem to have terrified the very people they should have pleased.

These misplaced fears are a recurrent theme with us. Almost three decades ago, when that unprepossessing couple, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita S. Khrushchev, heaved onto the world stage, you would have thought the West was up against the most savvy, seductive twosome since Hepburn and Tracy. And Khrushchev's subsequent endeavors -- his travels and wisecracks and proverb spouting -- gave Americans something approaching a collective nervous breakdown, so insecure were we. The Soviets' lofting of the first space satellite seemed to finish the job. There was endless hand wringing about our sinking "prestige" relative to that of the Soviet Union and about the alleged lethargy and witlessness of our leader (Ike) compared with theirs and the awful implications of this for the battle to win hearts and minds. You would hardly have guessed that we were dealing with an admittedly shrewd but intensely provincial and limited rival, a man who achieved what he did during his regime by ruthlessness, not by some gift for winning over converts or inspiring affection.

Probably the good press notices Khrushchev and the others got owed a great deal to their stylistic break with Soviet tradition, not just to the fact that they were not Joseph Stalin or that they eventually sought Stalin's posthumous disgrace. But that novelty has long since worn off. Gorbachev would get no points today for appearing in TV set pieces or citing earthy Russian- peasant sayings, as Khrushchev did. The modern media game he wants to play requires vastly more than that, and he can't provide it except at a prohibitively high political cost.

The people who have complained, mostly on the American right, about all the coverage Gorbachev and his wife have been getting don't understand this, although once the press questioning of the Soviet boss started to turn rougher they changed their tune somewhat. The point is that the press was bound to turn. I don't care how many master craftsmen image makers the Russians employ, the public-relations war is an ultimate loser for them.

Once you have invited the behemoth of modern mass communications into your tent, you have to answer to it; you have to feed it; ou have to deal. If it loves you, it will love you for only three weeks before it makes amends for its incautious emotion in a savage assault. It will demand to get something at least roughly approximating logic and truth from you. The day of indisposition by an 11-month head cold, for example, will have passed forever.

Nor will the question of whether you even have a wife, let alone what she looks like, be left to intelligence-agency speculation. If you have a wife who frequents Yves Saint Laurent showrooms, given the uniqueness of such a thing in Politburo circles, the revelation could be good for maybe up to a year's worth of marveling good will -- a public relations 10. But after that Yves will cost you plenty, much more than the price of a gown: Your wife's taste for luxury will become evidence of insensitivity, privilege and corruption, not of a laudable up-to-the-minute life-style. And if you are reckless enough to try to change the haute couture subject by saying you wish the dialogue would get back to serious issues, you are only reminding the media that it's been a full hour and a half since they last asked you a question about Andrei Sakharov.

I don't say all this will be relentless or that it will be immediately evident. Gorbachev will have better and worse moments in the public- relations war in the weeks to come. But ultimately, to the extent that he participates, he must lose because he's got no answers, or at best terrible ones, to so many of the questions that will be asked. Yet he can't back out of the contest either, without paying a price. It is true that one of the Soviets' principal weapons in getting their way has been a willingness to disregard the world opinion that we in the West are forever thinking they want to assuage. But what Gorbachev wants to achieve in terms of establishing personal authority and credibility as a new-age Soviet leader requires that he stay in the game.

In a variety of other settings around the world we have seen how the supposed blessings of imported progress -- "modernization," as it's called -- can in fact undermine established political order and threaten social structures. Never mind how eagerly they may be sought, from ambitious, ill-fitting technological projects (of which Egypt's Aswan Dam is the prototype) to ambitious, ill-fitting political and cultural advances (see the fate of Americanized Iran), what we conceive of as progress has exacted a great price. The Soviets face this in a major way precisely as they seek to step into the communications and information revolution now in progress elsewhere in the world.

The expectations, outlook and physical paraphernalia of that revolution -- instantaneous exchanges of information, videotaped global conversation, cameras and computers and methods of transmission that explode news and knowledge outward and make them almost impossible to restrict -- are the nemesis of the Soviet system. How can a city -- Moscow -- for years forbidden a telephone directory on the ground that it would provide too much information to those who shouldn't have it, face the implications of this whole human and mechanical information-transmitting apparatus and the computer-literate society required to operate it? We make a terrible mistake when we suppose, as we did before that first satellite went up, that the Russians are scientifically "backward." It is the social and political consequences of "going modern" that they can't handle -- at least not without great stress on their system. I say, give them all the IBM PC's they can uncrate and put Sam Donaldson on their case. The fun will only be beginning.

c1985, Newsweek, Inc.

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