During the Geneva summit meetings, Mikhail Gorbachev depicted an American landscape -- from New York buildings desecrated by swastikas to streets teeming with millions of unemployed -- that was startling to his interlocutors who had just come from the United States.
The Kremlin leader's concepts of right-wing extremists controlling Washington politics, of an American economy on the brink of collapse, and of pieces of "Star Wars" weaponry threatening to fall from the sky invariably are reaffirmed by some of his advisers, including the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoliy Dobrynin, according to western and Soviet sources here.
In a manner reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev, Gorbachev has developed a reputation for combating his American interlocutors with scathing descriptions of a flawed and doomed American political system.
American politicians viewed Khrushchev's ranting criticisms of the United States during the 1959 kitchen debate with Richard M. Nixon and the 1961 Vienna summit with John F. Kennedy as largely a hollow matter of bluster and bullying.
Gorbachev, in contrast, seems more set in his views of American politics and society, according to various American diplomats and politicians who have met with him.
"We don't know whether he believes the propaganda or not," one U.S. official said, "but he seems to . . . . His views strike me as hidebound."
If Gorbachev, 54, has any curiosity about the United States, he manages to stifle it well. During five lengthy meetings with visitors from Washington in recent months, the otherwise seemingly curious Gorbachev reportedly has not raised a single question about the United States, which he has never visited.
"He seems to prefer to argue about it," one U.S. diplomat said. "He talks as if he is speaking with great authority about the U.S., and to a western ear it seems jarring because it is so far off the mark."
Ascertaining the extent of Gorbachev's knowledge about the United States is difficult, but Gorbachev's sources of information on American life appear broad, if highly selective.
As he prepared for the Geneva summit, the Soviet leader received a daily diet of excerpts from the Soviet and western press, including publications such as The Washington Post and Foreign Affairs, according to a Soviet source.
The articles were carefully selected by members of the Central Committee information and propaganda departments, Soviet sources said.
In addition, the sources say, he received briefing papers from the Soviets' generally well-informed U.S.A. and Canada Institute and other bodies.
Western sources assume that he also receives copies of the special version of the official Soviet news service Tass that carries a wide range of nonideological articles from the West and is distributed to only top Kremlin officials.
"I don't know whether he reads the material he is given," a Soviet official said, "but he gets it."
Gorbachev also views films on America from time to time, a Soviet source said.
Whatever the Communist Party general secretary's knowledge of the United States, western analysts here say that the image of it he has banged out in the presence of Americans fits strict Marxist-Leninist interpretations of a capitalist country: ruled by an elite group of oppressive, power-hungry leaders, and bordering on economic and social collapse.
When U.S. officials in Geneva raised the issue of human rights violations against Soviet citizens, including Jews, Gorbachev responded with descriptions of swastikas painted on buildings in New York and of the desecration of Jewish stores there, according to a U.S. official present.
The Soviet media have described similar scenes, and Kremlin spokesman Leonid Zamyatin referred to them in a briefing in Geneva three days before Gorbachev arrived.
The Soviet leader's interpretation of the American leadership as an elite cabal of rich, greedy anticommunists came through during the summit, too, said a U.S. official who attended.
Gorbachev talked in terms of "certain circles" controlling all the power, a U.S. diplomat said in an interview, and the characteristics of the circles were strictly defined: "They're rich, they grind the faces of the poor, they control the power centers for their own needs, and run things for their own interests."
Gorbachev projected the impression most forcefully during meetings here with Secretary of State George P. Shultz before the summit, but also in meetings with Americans in Geneva, according to observers who were present at the meetings, as well as in subsequent public speeches.
In an address Wednesday, the Soviet leader charged "extreme right-wing forces" -- including Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and the Washington-based Heritage Foundation -- with seeking to thwart the summit.
"We did not overlook the 'mandate' given to the U.S. president by the American extreme right-wing forces represented by their ideological headquarters, the Heritage Foundation," Gorbachev told delegates to the Supreme Soviet. "The president was instructed to carry on the arms race, not to give the Soviet Union any opportunity to convert resources to socioeconomic development programs and to seek eventually to crowd the U.S.S.R. out of international politics."
When Shultz met with Gorbachev in early November, the Soviet leader presented a picture of an America teetering near the brink of economic collapse, due to skyrocketing unemployment, deficits and budgetary fiascos, according to a U.S. official who sat in.
While Gorbachev offered such views, Dobrynin, who traveled from Washington for the Shultz meetings, sat "cheering him on" from the sidelines, said a source present. "That's right, that's right," Dobrynin was quoted as telling Gorbachev.
Dobrynin has served in Washington for 23 years.
Gorbachev's picture of America "seems to be the one presented on Soviet television," said a U.S. official present during several discussions between Americans and Gorbachev.
State-controlled Soviet television draws a rough-and-tumble picture of America as a country with rampant urban poverty, mass unemployment and severe racial strife.
Western observers say that Gorbachev presents an equally static conception of the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars, program that in the view of the Americans reflects little resemblance to what is known about SDI.
They say his sense of the dangers of a space defense -- which emerged fully during the summit -- reflects either incomplete or flawed information or deceptiveness on the Soviet leader's part.
Gorbachev, who has reiterated a belief that Star Wars is part of an offensive weapons system, said during the summit and in a subsequent speech that "SDI means bringing weapons to space . . . . They would fly over people's heads in waves, American and Soviet weapons. We would all watch this sky and expect something to fall from there."
U.S. officials consistently have described SDI as a defensive weapons system, probably involving the deployment of lasers and particle beams that would shoot down ballistic missiles before they release their warheads.
The risks of things falling from the sky, SDI experts say, are close to zero.