WALTHAM, Mass. - How are you supposed to look if you have lost an empire? Certainly, what one does not expect from the man who gave up the Soviet external empire and soon after lost its internal empire as well is the buoyancy and energy still unmistakably projected by Mikhail Gorbachev. It is true that more than six years have elapsed since Mr. Gorbachev's job description was summarily struck from the books by his nemesis, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Gorbachev has had time to regroup, establishing his own foundation with branches abroad - where he is greatly, indeed infinitely, more appreciated than at home. But still.
Undoubtedly some of the spring in his step can be traced to the fact of Boris Yeltsin's precipitous decline. The two men are inextricably tied together in the story of the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. Down goes one, up comes the other. Among the most significant days in the Russian crisis today, Mr. Gorbachev counts Oct. 11, the day Mr. Yeltsin almost keeled over during a welcome ceremony in the airport in Tashkent, officially from bronchitis - though falling down is not generally considered a major symptom of this disease.
At this weekend's meeting of the Gorbachev Foundation of North America in Waltham, Mass., the last leader of the Soviet Union sat down to talk, reiterating the message he has been preaching to audiences throughout the United States in the course of a 20-day whirlwind tour: The new Russian government of Yegveny Primakov desperately needs American support, immediate infusion of funds from the International Monetary Fund and debt restructuring from the Paris and London clubs.
Now, these pleas are not exactly likely to be endorsed here, as Mr. Primakov has been striking a foreign policy course often at odds with the United States and suggesting that printing rubles is a way out of Russia's insolvency crisis. But what is more interesting is the probable reason for Mr. Gorbachev's eagerness. The Primakov government is for all intents and purposes a Gorbachev government, peopled by his own government officials from the late 1980s. Even more satisfyingly, it is a government forced down the throat of the extremely reluctant President Yeltsin. Might it some day include Mr. Gorbachev himself? Not if you trust his words. But he surely does have the air of a man eyeing a comeback.
"I think this is in fact the best government we can have in Russia," Mr. Gorbachev says. "The government is the last chance we have to stabilize the country. I know these people well."
He told me, "I have spoken up in Russia and I have urged everybody to support the government. This government can give support to the people rather than small groups" -for which one can read the oligarchs, who have been made fabulously wealthy under Mr. Yeltsin through the "privatization" of banks and energy resources. Mr. Gorbachev also cites public opinion polls that now make Mr. Primakov the most "trusted" man in Russia, a modest distinction perhaps in a country where cynicism about politicians is rampant and well-founded.
But how about the first-rate communist credentials of the new government? And how about the increasingly tense relationship with the United States? "The …