Not long ago, Mikhail Gorbachev attended a private screening of "This Is No Way to Live," a gruesome new documentary film that portrays the Soviet Union in the stark colors of despair, as a country of soaring crime rates, humiliating shopping lines and debased leadership. After watching the film, which compares the Communist Party since 1917 to unrepentant murderers and rapists, the Soviet leader pronounced it "wonderful."

The film's director, Stanislav Govorukhin, was stunned. "For the life of me," he said, "I don't understand how Gorbachev could have liked it." But even now, as his popularity and authority at home plummet, Gorbachev's sustaining gift has been his almost cold-blooded ability to confront the reality of Soviet life and to endure the unending pressures of his position. This week's trip to Washington and beyond -- with its high ceremony and sense of post-Cold War celebration -- is almost a vacation compared to the scenes of disintegration and anxiety he has left behind.

In Gorbachev's absence, shoppers continue to sweep through the stores in a frenzy, as if the Soviet Union had just declared a nationwide liquidation sale. Workers are scrubbing blood off the concrete floor at the central train station in Yerevan where government troops clashed with Armenian nationalists. Maverick politician Boris Yeltsin has forged a comeback, winning the presidency of the huge Russian republic on the strength of a crude populism and Gorbachev-bashing.

And those are just this week's events.

The range of Gorbachev's crises at home is almost without horizon. Even during the longest days of discussions with President Bush, Gorbachev will undoubtedly take time out to call Moscow and talk at length with Alexander Yakovlev, his most trusted ally in the leadership. Yakovlev is the foreign affairs chief of the Communist Party leadership, a former ambassador to Canada and a student of American politics. The decision to leave him in Moscow speaks eloquently of Gorbachev's own anxieties.

To some of the most astute witnesses to Soviet history, the current period bears a striking resemblance to the overall sense of desperation and rupture in the darkest moments of the past. As more and more people lose faith in the government's ability to use the new-found liberties of the last several years as a means toward improving the economy, the texture of life grows more aggressive, more cynical.

"I remember well the atmosphere around the time of our revolutions and the Civil War, and this is much the same. We are living in a time of accelerating aggression," said Dmitri Likhachev, an 83-year-old member of the Soviet legislature and the country's most prominent scholar of Russian culture.

"You see and feel and hear the aggression every day. The political slogans, on both the right and the left, are angry, hostile. People in the stores and in the Metro are aggressive to one another. But we will go nowhere but downhill with a politics of hate and anger. How can civil war, or at least localized civil wars, be avoided when a society is so filled with aggression?"

That sense of societal exhaustion only deepened last week with the announcement of the government's latest plan to accelerate economic reform. The leadership might have expected an onslaught of criticism from what it considers the young, radical advocates of a quicker transfer to market mechanisms and from the inflation-stunned consumers themselves. But hardly anyone, it seems, even in Gorbachev's generation of reformers, thinks well of the newest version.

"I find it strange to hear Americans talk about the 'possibility' of an economic crash. The crash has already happened when, as now, there are deep shortages of 95 percent of all goods," said Otto Latsis, one of the country's leading economists and a writer for the government newspaper Izvestia.

Like others in Gorbachev's traveling party, Latsis blames the "uncertainty" and the "bumbling" of the latest plan for a gradual transfer to a market economy on the unsteady stewardship of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov.

"You can't expect many people in a society that hasn't seen market relations of any kind in 60 years to understand much about how a market economy works, but Ryzhkov just has no idea," Latsis said in an interview in Washington. "He's a technocrat. He can't do the job."

Georgi Arbatov, a member of the Communist Party's policy-making Central Committee and certainly no radical, agrees that Ryzhkov bears the bulk of the responsibility for the "drop by drop" approach the government endorsed last week.

"I object completely to how this economic reform has come out," Arbatov said. "The major thrust is on taking money from the people in the form of higher prices, but it does nothing to encourage production."

Even as recently as the last Washington summit, members of Gorbachev's traveling party have acted as advertisers for the current government line. But now it seems that the line is wavering, and the Soviet officials accompanying Gorbachev this week spend much of their time wondering when Ryzhkov might give way, as Latsis said, "to someone who knows something about setting up what Gorbachev actually wants -- a working economy."

Even as the Soviet people struggle from day to day through the ruins of their collapsed economy, the sense of a foreign threat has receded almost to nothing. To stand listening to the raucous political talk on Pushkin Square in Moscow or near St. Isaac's Cathedral in Leningrad is to realize just how little people are concerned with the decline in Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and in the process of German unification.

Nowhere is Gorbachev's increasingly tenuous hold on world events more evident than on the issue of Germany. Moscow has revised its position on unification innumerable times, redrawing the limits of its tolerance in sand. It has come to a point at which Gorbachev's only leverage on the pace and shape of unification may be the West's own sense of anxiety over his political future and the uncertainty about alternatives.

A senior U.S. official said that the White House has so far "shied away" from considering the possibilities of a profoundly unstable Soviet Union. But now, he said, administration officials are so concerned about Gorbachev's predicament that they are even willing to make an increasingly weak Soviet Union appear stronger somehow on the stage of world diplomacy.

While this reality of diplomacy may be painful in the halls of the International Department of the Central Committee and the Soviet Foreign Ministry, ordinary people couldn't care less. The business of politics in the Soviet Union has, more than ever, come down to the elementals of food and shelter. And when even the Communist Party press talks of a country in which tens of millions of people -- perhaps even the majority -- live in poverty, no one is talking at the kitchen tables of Russia about the vagaries of NATO and sea-launched cruise missiles.

"The truth is," film director Govorukhin said, "only idiots believe that life here is going to get better anytime soon."

Geneva, Nov. 19-21, 1985: President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Geneva for the first U.S.-Soviet summit since 1979. The two leaders discuss arms control, human rights and regional conflicts, but there are no breakthroughs. Officials sign six bilateral agreements pledging cooperation on cultural and scientific exchanges, improved air safety, consular exchanges, research and environmental protection. The summit ends with the announcement that Gorbachev has accepted Reagan's invitation to visit the United States for a summit in 1986.

Reykjavik, Oct. 11-12, 1986: A "preparatory summit" between Reagan and Gorbachev turns into an intense negotiating session over arms control, but falls apart in disagreement over the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative or "Star Wars" space-based defense system. The summit ends with no date set for Gorbachev's visit to the United States, one of the original purposes of the Reykjavik talks. The far-reaching talks at Reykjavik provoke sharp criticism from leaders in European capitals who were not consulted, but ultimately provide the catalyst for major progress on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START).

Washington, Dec. 8-10, 1987: Reagan and Gorbachev meet to sign the INF Treaty, which calls for the destruction of U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles. The leaders also discuss the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and strategic arms, but leave unresolved the "Star Wars" issue.

Moscow, May 29-June 2, 1988: Reagan makes his first trip to the Soviet Union for his fourth and final superpower summit. The United States and Soviet Union sign nine agreements, two of which pertain to arms control. Reagan makes several speeches in which he stresses the importance of human rights and criticizes the Soviet record.

Malta, Dec. 2-3, 1989: Gorbachev and President Bush meet for a shipboard summit off the Mediterranean island of Malta. No arms control agreements are signed, but the leaders agree to step up the pace of negotiations on reducing conventional forces and strategic nuclear arms. Note: In December 1988 Gorbachev addressed the United Nations in New York and met briefly with Reagan and then-Vice President Bush, but the meeting was not considered a full summit.

SOURCES: The Washington Post, Facts on File