EAST BERLIN -- Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev is secretly considering whisking East Germany's ousted ruler out of the country before he can face charges ranging from treason to murder.

Gorbachev's good will is extraordinary because he personally disliked Erich Honecker, the communist who led East Germany for 18 years until he was toppled last October.

Honecker was communism's original "little drummer boy," beginning his political life at 10 as a drummer in a communist band.

The Nazis imprisoned Honecker for 10 years; he was freed by the Soviet Army when it captured Berlin in 1945. He rose quickly in Soviet-occupied East Germany. He clinched the leadership post in 1971 and held it until Oct. 17.

Since then, Honecker has fallen a long way. He is languishing at a Soviet Army convalescent home near Potsdam. He needs his Soviet protectors; his own people hate him. Their resentment has soared since the Berlin Wall fell last November.

Honecker, 78, is not well. He's had complicated surgery, including an operation for cancer.

The East German prosecutor general is handling the probe. Honecker was initially charged with treason; the charges were later dropped. Honecker's lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel, told us he was able to dispense with the charge because it was ludicrous. What Honecker did as a communist leader was "not criminal" because he believed in it, Vogel asserts.

Authorities investigating Honecker also are looking at corruption allegations, for which several of his former key associates have been jailed. He and 22 of his former fellow Politburo members and their families lived in a small, forested compound surrounded by a 1.5-mile concrete wall 15 miles northeast of the capital. They had maids, a swimming pool, a movie theater, a department store and a medical clinic.

Yet Honecker did not live the high life of some departed potentates who looted their countries' treasuries. By contrast, Vogel notes, Honecker is virtually broke, "never had a Swiss bank account" as some accounts charge, and does not own a weekend retreat or even a house.

The most serious charges he is likely to face are for murder of East Germans fleeing to West Germany.

While he was the No. 2 man, Honecker personally supervised construction of the Berlin Wall and other border fortifications. As leader, he continued the shoot-to-kill order against his own citizens trying to leave. He obviously had the power to rescind the order at any time.

Sources say as part of a pre-unification deal, East German authorities likely would secretly acquiesce to a Soviet airlift of Honecker out of the country. He would have to live out his days with the Soviets.

Honecker's surprise at Gorbachev's apparent secret gesture stems from the coldness between the two when Honecker was one of the last East Bloc leaders to oppose Gorbachev's perestroika economic reforms. But knowledgeable sources say this same unbending commitment to communism, including Nazi imprisonment, won Gorbachev's grudging respect, if not his personal affection.