MOSCOW — When the familiar face of Mikhail S. Gorbachev disappeared from Soviet television screens and the front pages of the newspapers last summer, it set off wide concern and speculation, here and abroad.
Was the Kremlin chief ill? Was he, as the West German newspaper Bild reported, the victim of an attempted poisoning? Could he be in political difficulty? Or was he just away on his annual vacation, soaking up sunshine in the Crimea?
One of Gorbachev's chief supporters, Vitaly A. Korotich, the editor of Ogonyok magazine, expressed a commonly held view.
"The last man I want to be ill in this country is Gorbachev," Korotich told visitors in mid-September. "His personal role in perestroika (the campaign to transform Soviet society) is so great."
When Gorbachev returned to Moscow from what turned out to be a holiday, looking tanned and a little slimmer, he jokingly complained that foreign correspondents in particular were speculating too much about his health. "They try to bury me," he said.
The episode illustrated what a central role Gorbachev plays in perestroika and the related program of glasnost , or public openness.
With amazing energy and public relations skills, Gorbachev has captured the attention of the world as he negotiates arms control treaties with the United States and simultaneously struggles to revitalize the stagnating Soviet economy.
The spy-thriller writer, John Le Carre, for example, has called Gorbachev "the most interesting figure in international life today."
Marshall I. Goldman, a professor at Wellesley College and head of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, described Gorbachev as "probably the strongest, most effective political manipulator . . . since the Bolshevik Revolution."
Even the CIA, hardly known for its compliments to Kremlin leaders, termed him a "pragmatic visionary."
Gorbachev exudes self-confidence; but, then, a man with less self-assurance might not have attempted what many in the West regard as an impossible dream.
The 56-year-old Gorbachev, who came to political maturity after the worst days of Josef Stalin's terror and the trauma of World War II, says he had no choice except to try to remake the Soviet Union. Without a revolutionary transformation, he has declared, the Soviet Union would lose its status as a superpower and see its global influence decline.
Gorbachev, a third-generation Communist Party member, has with extraordinary candor blamed the current mess on the party leadership, including himself. But he doesn't want to reduce the party's commanding role--only to make the party and the system work better.
He is younger, better educated, far more articulate and better equipped to exploit television than his three immediate predecessors, all sick and elderly men who symbolized the paralysis of the Soviet economic and social system.
Western politicians invariably say that Gorbachev has an inborn air of authority. As former British Defense Secretary Denis Healey has said: "He was frank and flexible with a composure full of inner strength. He was fierce but courteous in arguments."
At times, however, his air of self-confidence turns into self-righteousness. "How could anyone think ill of the Soviet Union?" he asked quite seriously of Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
On another occasion, speaking of the Soviet leadership, Gorbachev asserted: "It is impossible for us to be irresponsible; we would not allow ourselves to be."
This is the same man, however, who kept secret for nearly three days the news of the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl last year and waited for 18 days to address his nation on the causes and consequences of that tragedy.
But Gorbachev also has a self-effacing streak, deploring the praise of sycophants and simplifying the rituals of high office. While he is driven to the Kremlin in an armored Zil limousine, for example, he proceeds through the city without a motorcade or screaming sirens.
Fyodor M. Burlatsky, another adviser who once was part of Nikita S. Khrushchev's entourage, said Gorbachev has greater self-control--an inner calm--that allows him to make better analyses than his more volatile predecessor.
The Gorbachev phenomenon is more remarkable considering his peasant origins in the village of Privol'noye, in the Stavropol area of the northern Caucasus.
Born on March 2, 1931, when Stalin's drastic collectivization of farming was near its climax, the young Gorbachev was the grandson of the chairman of the first collective farm in the village; his grandfather, in fact, was briefly jailed during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. His father was a machine operator before the war, later becoming an economist and local Communist Party official. The elder Gorbachev died in 1974.
Gorbachev was still in primary school when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941. German troops occupied Stavropol for five months the following year.