Mikhail Gorbachev has not dropped the "charm offensive" that first dazzled the world. But now, with the Western media filled with images of Soviet weakness, the Kremlin leader has launched a new offensive to push aside the news of decline and remind his American hosts of Soviet strength and prestige.

At a meeting with congressional leaders yesterday, as with movie stars and intellectuals on Thursday, Gorbachev struggled to impress upon his audiences that there can be no revolution without a period of pain and uncertainty.

"Please don't be frightened because that can frighten us, too, if you get frightened," Gorbachev told the congressional delegation.

"No one can really scare us or scare you. We should fear ourselves."

But talk of Soviet weakness, he insisted several times, "is not serious."

When Gorbachev first came to Washington in 1987, "openness" and "Gorbymania" were the words of that euphoric moment. Now so much news from Moscow and the Soviet provinces is dark, unstable, threatening -- all of it reflected in the Western media. The current cover of Newsweek shows the Soviet leader taking shelter under a crumbling stone symbol of the state. "A Weakened Gorbachev Arrives in U.S." was the six-column headline in Thursday's Boston Globe. The Wall Street Journal editorial page wondered at length if this would be Gorbachev's last U.S. summit.

Although in recent months Gorbachev often appeared to cultivate the image of a besieged leader in order to win support from the West, he now seems irritated by any hint of condescension to "a great power."

"Now the American press is saying that Gorbachev, compared with earlier Soviet leaders, has come to Washington very weak and he will not get anything," Gorbachev said to the congressional leaders yesterday morning. "But I'm not going to ask for anything, to beg for anything when, for example, I raise important matters such as trade.

"Does the United States want a Soviet Union that is weak, torn apart by complex problems and turmoil, or do you want a dynamic Soviet state open to the outside world?"

With the map and governments of Europe changing, Gorbachev warned against any party trying to "squeeze out" the Soviet Union and appealed for each side to reassure the other and abandon the diplomatic and military jousting matches of the Cold War. "In this very complex world which is now all in motion, I can say that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States can provide leadership alone," he said.

The American perception of a Soviet military threat has dropped dramatically in the five years that Gorbachev has been in office. According to a poll conducted by the bipartisan Americans Talk Security Policy group, 76 percent of Americans polled in 1985 thought the Soviet Union was still a serious threat; in 1990, the figure is 33 percent. Gorbachev now seems engaged in an elaborate act of spin control to convince the West not to mistake a reduced threat for reduced strength.

Even while White House and State Department analysts begin to study the geometry of Soviet instability, Gorbachev is trying to convince a skeptical and worried West that the centuries-old history of Russian endurance will carry his country through this crisis.

Even in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev said, "you make just one step and they say, 'Well, this is the end of the Communist Party.' You make another step and they say, 'This is the end of the Soviet Union, this is the end of socialism.' "

Gorbachev even joked about the way he has steered his country into tumultuous, uncharted waters: "Our ship has lost anchor and therefore we're all a little sick."

When Nikita Khrushchev made a whirlwind tour of the United States in 1959, he, too, was out to project a strong and humanized Soviet Union. The meeting took place after the launch of the Soviets' revolutionary Sputnik satellite and Khrushchev, as if to gloat over Moscow's early lead in the space race, handed Dwight Eisenhower a souvenir flag from the flight.

"But what Eisenhower knew from the U-2 flights was that the missile gap was an illusion and that Khrushchev was bargaining from a position of weakness," said Walter LaFeber, author of "America, Russia and the Cold War."

"The situation with Gorbachev and Bush is plainer. The Bush administration is doing its best not to push their advantage too hard."

In 1947, veteran diplomat George Kennan, writing in the journal Foreign Affairs under the pen name "X," said the goal of U.S. policy ought to be the "mellowing or the breakup of the Soviet Union." Now Kennan, as a kind of Sovietologist emeritus, spends much of his time warning against taking advantage of that very process of disintegration. And he shares that concern with the Bush administration.

A senior administration official said the White House recently has come to believe that "extreme instability" and the "breakup of central authority," much like that of the revolutionary period, is possible in the Soviet Union.

"You have a system that's disintegrating now and what {Gorbachev} is trying to do is disintegrate it in favor of a new system, and he's been a lot better at the disintegration than he has been at the new system," the official said, adding that the thought of thousands of thermonuclear missiles in a country flirting with instability is "not particularly reassuring."

In his meeting with the congressional leaders, Gorbachev was at pains to show that his problems were profound but not without solution. At times, in Moscow, he has shown an emotional, angry side on issues such as the Lithuanian secession crisis that threaten the borders of the Soviet Union. Here, he has portrayed the confrontation with Lithuania as one of problem-solving and calm diplomacy.

Describing his recent meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, Gorbachev said yesterday that he had told her, "Let us find our way out of this situation by saving face." He said he asked Prunskiene to suspend the March 11 declaration of independence but that the Lithuanians could always reactivate it if negotiations with Moscow did not work out.

But as for Western demands and appeals on behalf of the Baltic republics, Gorbachev tried once more to be firm, although without any of the old Cold War bluster.

"I would like to ask you to treat our sovereignty respectfully," he told the legislators. "When we hear that there is a debate in Congress about our affairs, about our legislation, about what we should do, well, this is resented in our society. And you have to know that, because if we begin teaching you what to do in your Congress, then we're in for trouble . . . . This is a matter of dignity, a matter of prestige."