Moscow — Ronald Reagan came, saw, but did not conquer Moscow. Many Muscovites seemed quietly satisfied, yet hardly thrilled, by the President's visit. Most seemed willing to forgive and forget the ``evil empire'' barbs, the prophecy that the Soviet Union would be consigned to the ash heap of history.
Ronald Reagan's mere presence here - if not his words - seemed to represent repentance. And if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself was willing to play host, who were Muscovites to hold grudges?
``We like Reagan very much,'' said one middle-aged matron.
``We think he's a lot like John Kennedy.''
What about those cartoons in the Soviet press, or the posters in the state stores, of Reagan as an aging cowboy astride a nuclear bomb in free fall?
``Who did that?'' the woman asked, as if shocked at the disrespect.
At every opportunity, Ronald Reagan preached the virtues of entrepreneurship, freedom of expression, and limited government. The magnetism of his message, however, seemed to be in direct proportion to the proximity of his listener.
``I must say, I was very impressed,'' said one of the invited guests at Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador. Most of those invited had earlier either been refused the right to emigrate or punished for political acts. They seemed moved by his calls for more human rights.
``He seemed very sincere,'' the young man said.
At some remove, however, the language barrier and the President's demeanor - he seemed at times tired and distracted - took their toll.
One middle-aged man said he had been following the summit, and watching the television coverage.
``What Reagan said was good,'' he allowed, but added, ``I don't think it will change our situation here.''
Indeed, the political situation seems to be preoccupying many people here.
``Yes, we have perestroika [restructuring] and glasnost [openness],'' says the middle-aged man.``But we also have a lot of the old leadership.''
And the ``old leadership,'' he said, was continuing to impede reform.
In fact, some Muscovites seem to think the Moscow summit of 1988 might prove to be the high-water mark for Mr. Gorbachev - and that some turbulent times are ahead. Many are looking beyond the summit to the June 28 party conference, at which Gorbachev will try to gather more support for his reform program.
``His changes are aimed at the privileges of the elite,'' says one college student. ``And they will resist those changes, of course. If they think there's a danger to any of their privileges, they will veto him - and perhaps remove him.''
But don't the people support what Gorbachev is trying to do?
Here the answer is more mixed.
``In principle, yes.''
But, he says, perestroika seems not to have made much difference to the living standards of most of the people. ``It seems like just another slogan, another motto.''
At Moscow's Central Department Store, a clerk was asked how perestroika had changed things in her department. ``Well, we have better models, more styles,'' she said with a shrug.
A male interloper, overhearing her, chimed in, ``Oh, yes. Of course. For the average woman.'' His grin and tone of voice suggested a healthy degree of skepticism about the fruits of perestroika.
Privately, many assessments of the state of economic change go well beyond skepticism.
``Many people think things will get worse,'' says the college student.
Then, he repeats one of the current witticisms making the rounds in Moscow.
``Socialism,'' he says with only the hint of a smile, ``is the most difficult, deplorable, and bitter way toward capitalism.''
Moreover, he says, the people have few ways in which to express their approval of perestroika - or, for that matter, their disapproval, either.
``There's a great gap between the people and the government,'' says the student. ``It's always been that way. That is part of the tragedy of Russia.''
Still, the mere fact that there is so much debate, much of it deeply felt, hints at the potential here, too.
Ronald Reagan himself may have felt that as he walked through Red Square with Mikhail Gorbachev.
``It's magnificent,'' he proclaimed.
He was even moved to withdraw his earlier characterization of the Soviet Union as an ``evil empire.''
``I was talking about another time, another era,'' he said.
So, for that matter, were many Muscovites during the summit.
They were not looking backward, but ahead - wondering what a new time, and the new era, would bring - and, more important, how long it would last.