SAN FRANCISCO, JUNE 5 -- Peter the Great traveled west three centuries ago to learn the art of shipbuilding to remake the Russian navy. Mikhail Gorbachev toured the conference halls and high-tech shopfloors of American business this week trying to perfect the art of winning acceptance and investment from the captains of capitalism.
The Soviet leader, the most committed Westernizer in the history of the Bolshevik state, told all who would listen in Washington, Minnesota and California that it was time to end Moscow's historical isolation and make it a member of "an integrated world civilization." To fund that membership, Gorbachev tried to advertise the business sense of getting in on the Soviet Union's ground floor, even when the economic floor is sagging toward collapse.
"Those who stay on the sidelines, who don't want to take a risk, who want to wait and see -- they will remain spectators for years to come," Gorbachev warned repeatedly. "We will make sure of that." Those who want a piece of "our great market," he added, ought to be quick, or risk losing out to the Japanese.
There was something almost Reaganesque, something uncannily idealized and dreamy about Gorbachev's pitch to the capitalist world. He asked his audiences for a willing suspension of disbelief. Despite the unforgiving evidence of contemporary Soviet life -- the worthless ruble currency, the aggressive inefficiency of the economy, the utter lack of what he himself calls "a business culture" -- Gorbachev tried to sell the Soviet Union as a market "without limits." Here was a self-proclaimed communist whose pitch harkened back to 18th- and 19th-century descriptions of unexploited frontiers.
"I think Gorbachev got to us," said John Sculley, head of Apple Computers Inc. "We'll all be thinking about business with the Soviet Union in a way we wouldn't have if he hadn't come." The quintessential California endorsement of the Soviet sales pitch came from Bill Transbart, a young man in granny grasses who sold T-shirts reading, "Gorbachev: Radical Dude."
The well-fed faces and tailored suits in Gorbachev's audiences were like something out of the old Bolshevik propaganda posters decrying the "greedy money-grubbers" of the capitalist west -- Chrysler's Lee Iacocca, free-market economist Milton Friedman, the CEOs of 3M, IBM, MTS, IDS, IBP and AT&T.
But Gorbachev turned the old enmities into modern seduction. He spoke an idealized businessman's language. The notion of of socialism never drew more than a perfunctory whisper. Instead of Lenin, he invoked the names of Alexander Herzen and Andrei Sakharov, Russian intellectuals who looked west. The idea was to entice, to seduce and damn the ideological consequences.
Never mind that trying to start a business in Moscow these days is a study in frustration -- "like trying to irrigate a desert with a garden hose," as a Moscow-based banker from western Europe put it. In Minnesota and in California, business leaders left the Gorbachev pep rallies with a glow, as if suddenly ready to hawk their personal computers and honey-roasted peanuts to the product-starved people of the Soviet Union. They believed, or at least they believed a little more than they had not long ago.
"I'd be a lot quicker to invest after hearing Gorbachev's speech than I was before it," said Neil Harlans, former chairman and chief executive officer of the McKesson Corp. "Their distribution system for drugs, for instance, is very slow and as soon as we could get the okay to set up a system over there, we'd be ready to go. What an opportunity that would be!"
In his speeches, Gorbachev recited the catechism of his latest economic program -- the new laws on property and enterprises, the price hikes and cloudy compensation plans -- as if they were already a success. He promised "coal, timber and hydro resources" in the Soviet Far East. He promised that foreign companies would soon find that all restrictions and bureaucratic snags had disappeared.
"We are creating the conditions for Western and American business to feel it is working in a normal, commercial environment," Gorbachev said, setting aside for a moment the fact that almost no one in his country really understands what a market economy is and that many are scared of the idea.
No one at these meetings, least of all Gorbachev, harbored any illusion that there is a quick and easy dollar to be made by investing in the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev strategy was clear: to combine idealism with the profit incentive, to paint the rusted hulk of his economy in a sheen of entrepreneurial romance and opportunity. His message to the capitalists he met was: Take a gamble on history and on me; it just might make you rich.
Gorbachev's belief in himself, despite the cynicism and poverty at home, is still among his greatest resources. At least abroad, Gorbachev can still sell himself, win extraordinary measures of confidence. A television station here asked viewers whether California should now trust the Soviet Union and share with it the technology of Silicon Valley. Nearly 75 percent voted yes. Bechtel, the huge engineering and construction company, is getting ready to build a "technopolis" much like Silicon Valley several miles outside Moscow.
Gorbachev's closest adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, once said that "the television image is everything," and Gorbachev is his own best commercial. In the United States, the Gorbachev road show is a frenzy of adulation. Across the nation, the Soviet president was one part rock star, another part corporate executive. On the streets, people screamed his name as if in the throes of an ancient tribal ecstasy. At Stanford University, one student posted a handbill advertising scalped tickets at $175 each for Gorbachev's speech: "Awesome seats!" it read.
Gorbachev's priorities were plain. Whenever his schedule got tight, he was willing to trim everything but his meetings with the business elite. Members of the left-wing community in the Bay Area said they wished that Gorbachev had been able to find the time to meet more workers, unions, blacks and Hispanics. But they conceded that Gorbachev used his time wisely.
"It makes sense that he spent his time with business leaders," said Kendra Alexander, leader of the Northern California division of the Communist Party of the United States. "It's time for the Soviet Union to enter the world economic order."
All week, the media compared Gorbachev's tour to the last such whirlwind trip by a Soviet leader: Nikita Khrushchev's visit in 1959. But the comparison reaches too far across recent history. Khrushchev could be charming while touring the Garst family farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa, but his trip was marked by flashes of the Cold War spirit. "We have no doubt the Soviet Union will be able to stand on its own in this economic competition and will, in time, overtake you," he said.
In contrast, Gorbachev made a mantra of pronouncing the end of the Cold War. "And let's not dwell on who won," he said.
Like Khrushchev in 1959, Gorbachev said he had not come to the United States to beg -- "passing the hat would be humiliating." But unlike his predecessor, a failed reformer, Gorbachev avoided all comparisons of his own system with the systems of the West. The Soviet delegation even made sure to give away hundreds of copies of a new Soviet publication: Commersant, the closest thing Moscow has to Barron's or the Wall Street Journal.
In his attempt to rebuild his fallen economy, Gorbachev's advisers like to compare him to Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal helped to save the American capitalist system from the Great Depression. But in his vision of an "integrated civilization," Gorbachev often sounded like Woodrow Wilson and the old believers in "one world." The hard part was convincing the West that the Soviet Union has something to offer the economic whole.
Across the country, Gorbachev's hosts were eager to instruct him in the ways of the West, in computer graphics and cellular telephones. Other hosts were eager to have him learn more about the United States.
At least a few people who came out to see the Gorbachev entourage ride by in their Zil limousines wondered aloud whether the Soviet leader could learn much about the West in just a few days.
"I suppose Gorby's image will be enhanced, but I'm not sure what a man can really learn in such formal, highly structured settings," said Raymond Matulionis, one of hundreds of people who lined up in the blustery rain of Minneapolis to catch a glimpse of the Soviet leader. "Even the spontaneity feels a little planned. It's the curse of being a politician, especially a famous one."
But Gorbachev came more as a pitchman than a student. He needs the West, and he made sure that the feeling was mutual. "We need you!" exclaimed former secretary of state George P. Shultz after Gorbachev's performance at Stanford. Now the Westernizer of the Kremlin comes home and faces a harder sell: to convince the people of the Soviet Union that better times, and help, are on the way.