MIKHAIL GORBACHEV and his Soviet Union find themselves in an unusual position: They are the objects of worldwide humanitarian concern and of a flow of aid to that country unprecedented since World War II. The Soviets are getting a glimpse of the deeper benefits from being more responsible players on the global scene. Beyond trade agreements and progress in arms lies the world's readiness to help shoulder the load when hardship strikes, as it did last week when an earthquake devastated cities in Soviet Armenia.
The grim statistics - as many as 60,000 dead, at least half a million without homes as winter sets in - are enough to bring out the humanitarian in even the most hardened critics of the Soviet Union.
One of the biggest challenges those numbers bring is the need to resist cynicism, disillusionment, and political manipulation, which appear to be surfacing among some inhabitants of the stricken region.
Ethnic tensions in the region erupted into violence prior to the quake, and Moscow was unwilling to accept Armenia's call for a transfer of territory, inhabited largely by Armenians, from neighboring Soviet Azerbaijan to Armenia. This has led some residents to suspect that Moscow is intentionally slowing aid as a stick to get militants back in line. That reasoning does a gross injustice to those who are supplying the assistance and conducting rescue efforts. It also does disservice to the 85 Soviet relief workers who have died in plane crashes trying to bring supplies to the region.
Beyond the immediate search-and-rescue efforts looms the larger task of reconstruction.
Recovering from the accident at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in 1986 cost the Soviets an estimated $12.8 billion. Recovering from the Armenian quake will easily eclipse that figure. This demands of shortage-weary Soviets, already criticizing Gorbachev's economic reforms for not showing tangible gains, an extra measure of patience.
It also demands of Soviet officials a level of ethical behavior equal to the billions of rubles that will be funneled into Armenia.
Dipping into the till, which seems too often to be a job requirement among some Soviet officials, would only fuel suspicion and mistrust among an already disaffected Armenian population.
The heartwarming global response to the Armenian tragedy should serve the historically insecure Soviet Union notice that the world is worthy of more trust than Moscow has traditionally been willing to give it.
The Soviet Union's humble willingness to accept the aid that is offered may hint at that growing trust.