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View from the West. Writers switch-hit on national exhibits. How good are Soviets and Americans at explaining themselves? Two journalists - an American and a Soviet - went to exhibits on their own countries and each other's. They drew different conclusions.

WHILE in Moscow last summer, I felt moved to go to an exhibit on life in America put on by the United States Information Agency. I wanted to see how America had chosen to present itself to ``the Enemy.'' Also, I had been in the country three months already as a guest reporter at a Soviet newspaper, and no doubt wanted to be as au courant as the next comrade. After all, anybody who was anybody had already been there. Luckily, my American press pass allowed me and two Russian friends, my guinea pigs, to bypass the hours-long queue.

``Information USA,'' as the exhibit on technology in America was called, was predictably slick. Russian-speaking American guides manned (and womaned) exhibit booths on topics ranging from computer music to universal price codes to medicine.

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But I didn't hear much discussion of such matters. Many of the Russians seemed excited to have real live Americans to talk to. They steered the discussions to more burning matters - such as how much electrical engineers make in America, or why we have homeless people.

TV sets blared from every direction - some showing clips of ``Cosby,'' ``Wheel of Fortune,'' and other programs. Some showed rock videos; another, ads for tourism in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The crush of the crowds made it generally impossible to engage in any deep discussion, although one of my friends, a reporter, did manage to get a lively debate going on glasnost with an American guide, also a journalist.

An objective portrayal of life in America the exhibition was not. But then, it wasn't supposed to be. The USIA is in the propaganda business.

So how did this display succeed as a propaganda exercise?

Not too badly, I thought.

America came across as snazzy and sleek, just what the Soviet Union isn't. Some of the USIA folks were too aggressively rah-rah America for my taste.

But in general the guides - of various ages and professions, from all around the country, hired just for the exhibition - seemed realistic and reasonable in their explanations of America. And I marveled that the USIA was able to find so many Americans fluent in Russian who were willing and able to work for the exhibit for at least part of its 1-year tour.

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My Soviet companions weren't so impressed.

For those Soviets who make it a point to be up on things Western, the exhibit didn't offer much new information, they said. My friends, one of whom could go home and pop a disc of David Byrne into his CD player, fell into this category.

For those Russians, who know little about America, the things they were seeing weren't necessarily going to tug at their heartstrings or dent their ideological armor.

The Americans should also have inundated the Russians with giveaways, my friends advised. The glossy exhibit magazine and little pin we all got at the entrance weren't enough: Give them pens, pencils, paper, samples of American products. In short, overwhelm them with America's abundance.

Switch scenes. Washington, D.C., in December.

The exhibit is called ``USSR: Individual, Family, Society.'' It's a Saturday afternoon, and there's no line. Why? Because the exhibition was, uh, rather dull. My guinea pig for this one was my husband, who has never been to the Soviet Union.

Start with the opening section, called ``The 70th Anniversary of the Great October Revolution following the Leninist policy of peace.'' You get the texts of the first laws adopted by the Soviet government 70 years ago, big glossies of Lenin, and films about the revolution.

Move on to static displays about Soviet housing, education, space program, art by Armenian children. One poster simply listed goods that can be offered for exports to the US, such as vodka and certain minerals, and goods Soviets would like to export to the US, such as cars and helicopters.

In short, the Soviets simply don't understand marketing. And they didn't seem to understand that to get Americans away from their Christmas shopping to find out about the Soviet Union, they had better put on a pretty spectacular display - the kind that gets the best sort of advertising: word of mouth.

One might argue that the Soviets, with their economy in a shambles, don't have much to be proud of right now. But that's not true. Take chess, for instance. The Soviet Chamber of Commerce, which organized the exhibition, could have put together a display on the Karpov-Kasparov duel, with bios on each, and then had a real live Soviet chess expert challenge all comers to a match.

The only display that piqued our curiosity was the fashion show, which featured mod Muscovites, decked out in Paris-style ``high fashion,'' tripping gaily across the stage to a disco version of ``The Nutcracker Suite.'' Certainly not anything close to what the average Natasha is wearing these days, but colorful nonetheless (even Christmasy, ironically).

Then there was the sign on the wall announcing that ``Real per capita income will have grown by 60-80 percent by the turn of the century.'' Starting when? I wondered. No guide was to be seen.

I wandered around a bit until I saw a clutch of men in Soviet-looking suits chatting in a corner. They were indeed guides, and one stepped out to attend to this obviously puzzled American. Igor, a merchant marine by profession, was happy to chat (though he wasn't sure of the answer to my question).

I was glad the guides were working so unaggressively, but I also had a familiar feeling - as if I were in a Soviet store with no sales clerk in sight.

As much as I would love Americans to take a greater interest in the Soviet Union, I was relieved that attendance was so poor. For in the end, the exhibition was classic Soviet propaganda at its heavy-handed, cynical best.

Never mind the piles of pamphlets called ``A country without unemployment'' on the joys of (required) labor as a Soviet citizen. What outraged me was the section on citizens' rights, in which articles from the Soviet Constitution were posted on the wall with supporting evidence nearby.

``Citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of conscience, that is the right to profess or not to profess any religion and to conduct religious worship or atheistic propaganda,'' proclaims Article 52 next to a case of icons and other religious materials, and an array of photos of happy worshipers at Soviet churches, synagogues, and mosques.

The display was a cruel slap at all the religious activists still laboring in Soviet camps.

These two exhibitions, both still on tour, are part of the official US-Soviet agreement on cultural exchanges, designed to foster understanding. But in the end, they pointed up how far we have to go in that pursuit.

Linda Feldmann worked for three months last summer at Moscow News as part of a US-Soviet exchange.

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