She was warm and lively, curious and intelligent at the National Gallery of Art.

She was rude and condescending, calculating and pedantic on a White House tour with Nancy Reagan.

She was deliberate and resolute, reserved and controlled at Pamela Harriman's.

In fact, the Raisa Maximovna Gorbachev whom Washingtonians saw this week was a mixture of all those qualities and then some, a vivacious ideologue thrust into the citadel of capitalism in full view of her critics back home.

People who met her here -- and others who study Soviet society -- offer conflicting images of a woman who is still unaccustomed to the role she is playing -- and the role her people expect her to play. But a look at those contrasts makes it apparent that the answers are not so clear-cut.

In her brief fling in Washington she showed that she is still learning the ropes. She is a paradox in a country where women are continually told they are important -- they make up 52 percent of the work force -- but are not visible in influential positions. There is also the question of whether Raisa Gorbachev was prepared for the intense scrutiny of the American media, which can read enormous meaning into the smallest gesture.

She has no role model, unlike wives of American political leaders. In the Soviet Union there is not even a title for Raisa Gorbachev. In the United States, "first lady" has no constitutional roots but nonetheless implies leadership and high visibility and inspires respect and some affection.

"In the Soviet Union we were tripping over it, that we didn't know what to call Raisa Maximovna. Do you say, 'Mrs. Secretary General'?" asked author Suzanne Massie, a fellow at Harvard University's Russian Research Center, recalling a visit to Moscow that she made last winter.

In Washington, the lack of a defined role other than being Mikhail Gorbachev's wife was apparent by her "staff," which consisted of a deputy chief of protocol and a private secretary, both of whom were men. Her lone Soviet woman companion was Liana Dubinin, wife of Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin.

Raisa Gorbachev's high visibility and apparent influence on her husband have fueled criticism of her in the Soviet Union, where wives of prominent men are not expected to play significant public roles.

She wowed the West in her visits to France, Britain and Italy with her sense of fashion and her animated ways. Washingtonians could hardly wait to see for themselves. They got their money's worth with a performance that seems destined to be remembered for more reasons than peaceful coexistence.

When a reporter asked whether she could live in a place like the White House, she made it clear to Nancy Reagan that museum living isn't for humans.

"This is an official residence, an official house," she said through an interpreter. "I would say, humanly speaking, that a human being would like to live in a regular house. This is a museum of American history."

There was no mention of that remark on Soviet television, which showed the start of the tour and explained to viewers that Raisa Gorbachev and her hostess were talking about common problems. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party chief has no official residence, so some observers thought that Raisa Gorbachev's remark may have been sour grapes. Others saw it as an effort not to seem too impressed by democracy's perks.

For the second time in less than a month, Raisa Gorbachev's manners raised eyebrows, including those of Massie, the Harvard fellow who thought the "museum" remark "ungraceful if not premeditated" and "more a question of style and experience . . . an illustration of her own problems of finding a style."

Two weeks earlier, Raisa Gorbachev's manners were also under question when she failed to respond to Nancy Reagan's invitation to tea and a tour of the Executive Mansion. Although the Soviet leader's wife had initiated the invitation through diplomatic channels, it was only after the first lady pressed for a reply that Gorbachev finally responded, asking that the tour be changed from afternoon to morning since she and her husband were scheduled to meet with U.S. publishers.

But when the publishers meeting took place Wednesday afternoon at the Soviet Embassy, Raisa Gorbachev was nowhere to be seen.

Although there were suggestions that Gorbachev's seeming slight reflected different standards of behavior in her country, some Soviet watchers disagreed, saying the idea is denegrating that social graces in the Soviet Union went to war in 1917 and never came back. "You don't need aristocratic or baronial role models to know how to behave," said one observer. "You don't go into a peasant's home and say, 'My God, why don't you clean this place up?' "

Like her husband, Gorbachev played things close to the vest. She showed no sign of surprise or dismay when asked through an interpreter whether she and Nancy Reagan got along and left her hostess to grope her way through yet another denial of a tiff.

"I've answered that five times," snapped Reagan.

"Everything is all right. And Mrs. Reagan gave the answer. She is the hostess and that was her word," agreed Gorbachev with the same cool aplomb she had used in Reykjavik, Iceland -- which had been billed as a leaders-only summit -- to questions about Nancy Reagan's absence. "Maybe she has something else to do," she said that time. "Or maybe she is not well."

Calculated in her spontaneity, she played the media the way her husband played the crowd at Connecticut and L streets. She pulled away from Nancy Reagan when arriving for her White House tour in order to talk to reporters. "Meeting you, for me, is meeting Americans," she told them a few minutes later.

"She had an agenda and went to work on getting it accomplished," said Robert Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who met both Gorbachevs on two occasions last week. "The Russian delegation from top to bottom had goals. You could almost see them being checked off one by one as they achieved them."

Getting much of the credit was former Soviet ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin, who after more than 20 years in Washington was well aware of Americans' fascination with celebrities.

"Dobrynin understood this country, articulated it well to the Gorbachevs' public relations machine. It's exactly what President and Mrs. Reagan would attempt to do in Russia," Strauss said.

Raisa Gorbachev captivated those who met her with her forthright manner. "I'm a university professor and a philosopher by profession," she told her hosts at the National Gallery of Art, lest anyone think her an airhead.

In receiving lines where she stood in high heels ("You can tell how many receiving lines someone's been in by the shoes they wear," said a protocol veteran), her eye contact won her raves. A gallant Edmund S. Muskie, former secretary of state, told her she was pretty and, according to Muskie's wife Jane, "she glowed."

Meeting with a small group invited in by Pamela Harriman, widow of W. Averell Harriman, America's wartime ambassador to the Soviet Union, Raisa Gorbachev set about in a businesslike way to put across her themes.

"She was intelligent, capable, quite lively and controlled, combining that with a certain deliberateness about what she wanted to convey," said Hannah Gray, president of the University of Chicago.

Lecturing her small audience might be putting it "a little strongly," Gray said, "but we gave her the opportunity to tell us the things she wanted to say." One of those things was making clear who is in charge -- her husband -- and that she is an active supporter of that.