MOSCOW -- Having changed history in ways that other world leaders can only dream about, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev left the Kremlin with a new mission: extending the philosophy of his reforms more widely in the world and protecting that heritage at home.
It is the occupation of an elder statesman -- a Willy Brandt, a Winston Churchill -- and a role that Gorbachev covets, for it redeems him from the defeat he suffered in trying to preserve the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev asked in his farewell address yesterday to be remembered for what he had accomplished, a political and social transformation so vast that it could not be conceived when he assumed the Kremlin leadership. He asked that he not be cast forever in the minds of his countrymen as the president who overreached himself and plunged the nation into an even deeper crisis.
"This society has acquired freedom," he said with pride. "It has been freed politically and spiritually. This is the most important achievement, but we have not appreciated it fully because we have not yet learned how to use freedom. Nevertheless, an effort of historic importance has been carried out."
Gorbachev fears that in the tough times ahead the country may turn toward the dictatorship he had resolutely refused to reimpose, and he made clear that he will remain active in public life so he may speak out on the major issues confronting Russia and the other former Soviet republics.
"To preserve the democratic achievements of the recent years seems to me to be vitally important," he said. "We have paid with all our history and tragic experience for these democratic achievements. We cannot reject them under any pretext. Otherwise, all our hopes for a better life will be buried."
Gorbachev's relations with Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin will determine in large part what role he plays in the future here, and Gorbachev at once criticized and supported Yeltsin. Although the Russian president had forced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, in the process, his resignation as president, Gorbachev declared that he wants to remain above the fray of day-to-day politics and does not intend to be an opposition leader.
"I do not want to justify the way that [Yeltsin and others] are conducting the policy at various times and when solving some problems," Gorbachev said in an interview with the Cable News Network. "I cannot share some of the principles that they apply, and I will speak about it."
Gorbachev believes that, when he speaks out in the future, he should have the "moral authority" of the man who launched perestroika but whose interest now is solely the good of the nation, according to senior aides. Some also said they can foresee Gorbachev, in time, becoming chairman of a new political party and running for office.
But the role Gorbachev sketched for himself as he left the Kremlin yesterday was that of a conciliator, perhaps as the country's political "conscience."
"After all the democrats and nationalists have fought each other to death, the country may need Gorbachev once again as the only person who could play the role of referee," the radical economist Nikolai P. Shmelev said, commenting on Gorbachev's prospects in retirement.
Yet Gorbachev's present interests appear much broader for, as he has said in recent interviews, he believes that "new thinking" -- the willingness with which he reassessed and then changed even the most strongly held Soviet policies -- can be used by other countries to restructure their societies.
"To my mind, there is a lot of work for us to do, and a need to apply what we called 'new political thinking' where stereotypes and myths and outmoded policies and narrow national interests continue to exist elsewhere," he said.