IT is an unusual event when a Soviet leader comes to call, but Soviet strong men have visited in the past, each arriving with his own baggage (literally) and objectives. The first senior Soviet official to come to America was Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who came to discuss the wartime alliance with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. Molotov stayed at the White House while in Washington. (Can you imagine Mikhail Gorbachev sleeping over in the White House, waking up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk and wandering downstairs to the basement operations room looking for the refrigerator?)
When valets unpacked Molotov's bags, they were shocked to find that the foreign minister had brought along a large bulk of black bread, a roll of sausage, and a pistol. As a seasoned and committed old Bolshevik, Molotov apparently believed the Soviet propaganda about the starving masses and armed class conflict in America and came prepared. In the end, Molotov never needed his pistol and managed to work with Roosevelt to help arrange lend-lease assistance for the Soviet Union.
Nikita Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader to visit the United States, when he accepted President Dwight Eisenhower's invitation to tour the country in September 1959. Chairman Khrushchev initially sensed a calculated slight by the invitation to come to Camp David for intimate talks instead of the White House.
Khrushchev did not like the sound of ``Camp David'' (was it a labor camp?) and ordered the KGB to discover everything about the mysterious site. The Soviet security apparatus was purportedly unable to find out anything about this ultrasecret US government compound. Despite the intelligence failure, Khrushchev made it to the White House and afterward set off on a Soviet-style walkabout across the US. His boisterous and gruff manner both fascinated and frightened Americans. He is perhaps best remembered for his warning to the US that ``we will bury you.'' The comment came after a visit to an Iowa farm. Khrushchev was convinced that Soviet agricultural collectives would outproduce the West and ``bury'' the US with Russian-grown grain. Khrushchev's remark, however, conjured up images of America laid to radioactive waste by nuclear warheads atop rockets that the Soviets were churning out ``like sausages'' (the US actually had nuclear superiority).
Khrushchev again visited the US the following year to address the United Nations. His ship, the Baltika, docked in New York Sept. 19, 1960, and a few days later he was photographed bear-hugging Fidel Castro in front of the Cuban revolutionary's Harlem hotel. Cuba had joined the Soviet camp. Khrushchev's forceful message to the UN calling for emerging third-world nations to ``break their imperialist chains'' and stand with the USSR helped extend the cold-war competition between the superpowers into Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Leonid Brezhnev cut a very different figure during his one visit to the US in 1973. Rather than playing to the world audience, Brezhnev was content to sign a series of nonconsequential agreements with President Richard Nixon and chose not to try for propaganda points by upstaging Mr. Nixon. Brezhnev's delegation included Soviet Americanists such as Georgi Arbatov, who advised the Soviet leader about the correlation of forces on the US political scene.
There was a curious chemistry between Nixon and Brezhnev that allowed them to do business. In Nixon, Brezhnev saw a shrill anticommunist with whom he could strike a bargain without fear that his global adversary would lurch forward to embrace and kiss him in public, as Jimmy Carter did later in Geneva.
Mr. Gorbachev's message and manner are more sophisticated than any of his predecessors who ventured to visit America. He will most certainly attempt to use the opportunity to address the American people directly while subtly seeking to foil President Reagan's careful choreography. Despite Gorbachev's image of modernity and moderation, however, there are indications that he maintains a stubbornly Marxist perspective on the US. Gorbachev's occasional remarks about America's ``ruling circles,'' the ``military-industrial complex,'' and his surprising recommendation to create ``separate black states'' to ``solve'' America's racial problem suggest a world view that is not unlike his conventionally minded predecessors. After a long meeting with Gorbachev a few years ago, former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill could only shake his head in wonder after listening to the Soviet leader's perceptions of the US. ``All I can say is that his description of America bears little resemblance to the country I've lived and worked in my entire life,'' Mr. O'Neill said later.
We will certainly get to know him better on this trip, but will he learn about us? Perhaps Gorbachev's visit will help dispel lingering Soviet myths and misconceptions. But Soviet views about the US are longstanding and will be difficult to supplant. Beneath the new, sophisticated approach to the US lurks the traditional Marxist notions of the class struggle and the contradictions of capitalism. Gorbachev will not stuff his luggage with food or firearms, but he carries with him this intellectual baggage about the US shared by the Soviet leaders who came before him.
Kurt M. Campbell is lecturer and assistant director at the Center for Science and International Affairs, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University.