Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev is emerging as a man of much vitality and strong contradictions. That is the evaluation US analysts make of Gorbachev's character following Tuesday's five-hour speech to the 27th Soviet Communist Party Congress.
They describe Gorbachev as a man of ambitious goals but conservative means; a Soviet leader faithful to party dogma, yet willing to criticise his party's and his country's past failures; a man profoundly pessimistic about the peaceful intentions of the West, yet resigned to the need to cooperate for the purpose of ending the nuclear arms race.
``The question remains, what is the real man?,'' says Sovietologist Jerry Hough of Duke University and the Brookings Institution. ``Is he a smooth politician at work or a guy who's in over his head? There's still no way to be certain.''
In his first appearance as Soviet leader before a Soviet Communist Party Congress, Gorbachev scored the bureaucratic inertia and mismanagement of the Brezhnev era, and called for ``radical'' economic reforms.
Gorbachev also criticized President Reagan's response to his nuclear arms reduction proposal. The Soviet leader warned that without concrete agreements banning future nuclear testing and the elimination of intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe, he would be unwilling to set a date for a future summit meeting with President Reagan.
But White House spokesman Larry Speakes said yesterday, ``That kind of linkage simply won't work.''
Since taking the reigns of power one year ago, Gorbachev's youth, energy and optimism have captured the imagination of the Soviet people. Western leaders were surprised and reassured by his upbeat approach to East-West relations at last November's Geneva superpower summit.
Nevertheless, analysts note in Tuesday's speech a mood of considerably darker hues.
``There's not a single theme here we haven't heard from Soviet leaders in the past,'' says Soviet expert Thane Gustafson of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``But what I think is new is the sense of alarm and emergency.''
Dr. Gustafson and others say Gorbachev's more subdued tone may partly reflect concerns about a faltering Soviet economy.
But experts say it also reflects growing frustration over its dealings with the Reagan administration. Despite a series of self-described ``peace initiatives,'' including calls for a nuclear test ban and on-site inspections, the Soviet leader has been unable to weaken President Reagan's commitment to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.''
Sounding a Soviet version of President Reagan's first-term ``evil empire'' theme, the Soviet leader scored the ``authoritarian tendencies'' of the Reagan administration, repeatedly charging a lack of ``sober realism'' on the part of the US in its approach to arms reduction.
In an unusual meeting for reporters convened at the Soviet embassy yesterday, a Soviet spokesman reiterated criticism of the US response to a recent Gorbachev peace plan calling for the phased elimination (SEE CORRECTION BELOW)of nuclear weapons by the year 2000.
The spokesman said it was ``only a fair expectation'' that in return for the elimination of European-based Soviet medium range missiles, the US would agree to the dismantling of comparable French and British systems. He also noted the willingness of the Soviets to negotiate reductions in medium and long range ballistic missiles ``without a direct link to . . . outer space.'' Until recently, the Soviets have insisted on the elimination of SDI as a precondition to such reductions. (SEE CORRECTION BELOW)
What US officials find notable is that Gorbachev blamed failings not on the system but on individuals, and private analysts agree.
``One goal was to rally the Soviet people, explaining Soviet shortcomings as the mistakes of a dead Soviet leader [Brezhnev] and the evil intentions of a very much alive American president [Reagan],'' says Dimitri K. Simes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But experts add that the speech is considerably longer on hopes than solutions. ``He's been extraordinarily bold about setting goals,'' says Mr. Hough. ``What he has not done yet is say anything that really suggests how he's going to meet them.''
Responding to the problem of a stagnant Soviet economy, Gorbachev Tuesday issued calls for greater worker productivity, management improvements and modest market reforms. While steps in the right direction, most analysts say more radical surgery will be needed to achieve Gorbachev's stated goals of doubling Soviet income and ending chronic shortages of consumer and agricultural goods by the year 2000.
Hough says Gorbachev's ``overpromising'' combined with such modest reforms may be a sign of naivet'e and inexperience. Alternatively, he says, Gorbachev may understand that, to succeed, the pace of reform in the Soviet Union needs to be measured. ``What he's doing is committing himself to push forward. If his goals are not met, then he has a mandate to adopt more forceful measures. If he turns out to be a real reformer,'' says Hough, ``he may be doing it right.''