The Soviet lawmaker and her translator walked into the Labor Department on a mission in international understanding. A security guard stopped them. "Sign in," barked the woman in a blue uniform and gold badges.

Bikhodzhal Rakhimova, a member of the Supreme Soviet from Central Asia, and her translator signed the log. Noticing a column labeled "Agency," the translator asked: "Should she put Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R.?"

The guard stared back expressionless. "If she wants to," she said. Pointing to a column headed "Telephone number," the translator asked: "In Moscow?"

"Sure," came the response.

The guard perused the pair's Cyrillic-lettered passports with as much interest as if they were U.S. government IDs. She handed them yellow cards saying "GOVT VISITOR," and motioned them through a metal detector.

Once inside, the Soviet visitors looked at each other and at an American companion. All three laughed. The translator, as is his job, spoke for all of them: "Bureaucrats are the same everywhere."

Rakhimova, vice chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Women's Affairs and Family, Mother and Child Protection, had come to inspect an American version of a day-care center. The Labor Department houses a center that for 23 years has served children of its employees.

This was one of several places and people that Rakhimova and another Supreme Soviet member, Ludmila Harutunian of Armenia, asked to see while here with the Soviet delegation to the Washington summit.

"In the past, Soviets and Americans have exaggerated the role of official channels," Harutunian said. "Official meetings are only a shop window for us and for you. It is part of our new political thinking that we need relations at all levels. Person to person is very important."

The women spoke with authority and feeling this week at Soviet-sponsored briefings on their country. But in these unofficial travels, they switched personas. Like Americans on a shopping spree, they asked question after question of everyone they met, devouring information on a country they had until recently not been allowed to know. And they seized every possible opening to tell Americans of their world.

The topic returned often to children -- children orphaned by the Armenian earthquake, children in day care, children as the future. This was appropriate, for the voyage was one of discovery on both sides, an experience children know best.

Millicent Collins, who cares for eight 3-year-olds in a sunny room with tiny chairs and tables, Play-Doh and security blankets, was explaining her approach to Rakhimova: "The children learn how to explore, how to discover. We have squirrels that come up to our window to visit. We watch the birds and the weather out the window. We also have our own butterfly, and we just made apple muffins."

Rakhimova wanted to know if Collins had children. "Four, and three grandchildren," came the answer.

"That's what I thought," said the Soviet mother of two. "Only a person who has many children can devote her life so much to the care of children."

Collins held out her arms as if to embrace her eight charges. "Our future," she said.

"Da," said Rakhimova.

Later Rakhimova asked Mamie Brown, the center's office manager, whether the employees were satisfied with their pay. Brown answered no, citing her own $16,000 salary, adding that this makes it hard to lure or keep good teachers.

"We have much in common," Rakhimova said. "Teachers and assistants in day care and kindergarten are very poorly paid in the Soviet Union. Not long ago they threatened to go on strike."

"They probably needed to," Brown answered with feeling. The two women looked at each other knowingly. Later, as Rakhimova left, she gave Brown a box of Soviet chocolates. "To make our lives sweeter," she said.

Harutunian met with psychologist Jeffrey Jay, a specialist in post traumatic shock syndrome, to seek help for survivors of the 1989 Armenian earthquake. A third of the republic -- 1 million Armenians -- has been diagnosed with the disorder, said Harutunian, a professor of sociology and counselor of survivors.

She asked Jay to relate his experiences treating Vietnam veterans, Holocaust survivors and their children, emergency relief workers and others exposed to extreme trauma. Typically, he said, they suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia, aggression and withdrawal, conditions worsened by society's refusal to accept this as illness.

"Everything you have described, we have," Harutunian said. The symptoms, she said, come not just from the earthquake but from the bloody violence with neighboring republic Azerbaijan, from the devastated economy and from mass killings of Armenians more than 70 years ago in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, which scars children of survivors.

"Armenia could be a case study of an apocalypse," said Harutunian, wincing as she spoke. "We have a natural disaster and a social disaster and individuals struggling inside of all of this. How much can a person endure?"

"Sometimes one doesn't want to know the limits," Jay said.

"But life has done this to us," she said.