DESPITE the confusion and passion, setbacks and even the odd rebuke from the floor, Mikhail Gorbachev is keeping the Soviet Congress going in the direction he wants. While most of his Politburo colleagues sit quietly in a special enclosure on one side of the Congress floor, Mr. Gorbachev is in the thick of the battle. The tenser the Congress debates get, the calmer he looks.
During especially serious speeches he sits motionless, his fingertips pressed together. During the sillier interventions he catches up with his reading. But he is constantly alert, trying to reach out to all parts of the political spectrum, to avoid irrevocable splits and to broker compromises.
As he and his allies keep repeating, at this stage of reform what they need most of all is the consolidation of political forces. What they have to do in the next few days is to cobble a working parliament.
The one thing they have to avoid is an irreconcilable, paralyzing split among the 2,250 deputies.
A good example of Gorbachev's parliamentary style could be seen Saturday. Many radical and independent delegates, including Boris Yeltsin, were defeated in the elections for the Supreme Soviet, the 542-member standing parliament.
This sparked an electrifying attack on the new Supreme Soviet by Yuri Afanasyev, a historian who has been in the forefront of the movement to de-Stalin-ize the country. Conservatives denounced Mr. Afanasyev. Others rejoiced at the radicals' defeat.
But Gorbachev moved immediately to keep his lines open to the radicals.
Afanasyev attacked the ``aggressively obedient majority'' of deputies who were shouting down or ignoring radical proposals. The qualifications and professionalism of the new standing parliament, he claimed, gave it the appearance of the ``Stalin-Brezhnev''-style Supreme Soviet.
The next speaker, his political ally Gavriil Popov, announced the creation of an independent radical parliamentary group.
The two speeches caused an uproar. Some deputies gave Afanasyev a standing ovation. Others shouted their indignation. Gorbachev called for calm - ``comrades, this is a serious issue.''
Afanasyev and Mr. Popov had learned of the Supreme Soviet results before many other deputies. But when the official votes were announced shortly afterwards, many deputies applauded the defeat of Popov and another very vocal radical reformer, Sergei Stankevich.
(Other casualties included Mr. Yeltsin and two regional Communist Party leaders who had worked together with Gorbachev in his home base of Stavropol - Veniamin Afonin from Kuibyshev and Vladimir Kalashnikov from Volgograd.)
At four that afternoon, as deputies and journalists were wilting after hours of debate and wrangling, Gorbachev called a one-hour break. The deputies headed for the lobby or the buffet on the top floor of the glass-and-marble, palm-lined Palace of Congresses.
Moments later Gorbachev strode into the lobby, fresh and cheerful, and headed for Popov - the conservatives' least favorite radical. Gorbachev put an arm around Popov and drew him aside.
His security men stopped anyone getting too close. But Gorbachev, heard over the shoulders of two bodyguards, seemed both to console Popov and remind him that the new Supreme Soviet commissions would be made up of members of both the Soviet and the full Congress. The new commissions will probably oversee the budget, defense, and other key areas.
Gorbachev seemed to be blaming himself for the radicals' outburst. ``I'm sorry now that I didn't come to you,'' he said. The radicals ``had gotten carried away,'' he said. Politically, they were still ``in their youth.''
Later that afternoon Popov spoke again, toning down the harsher notes in his first speech.
Other top party leaders showed less subtlety toward the radicals.
During the same intermission, conservative deputies clustered around Lev Zaikov - Moscow party chief, Politburo member, and not the most enthusiastic reformer in the leadership.
They wanted a firmer line on demonstrations. They were angry about Tatyana Zaslavskaya, one of the country's leading sociologists, and academician Andrei Sakharov. Ms. Zaslavskaya and Mr. Sakharov had complained about police heavy-handedness in breaking up a demonstration on the first night of the Congress. Their complaints had not gone down well with more conservative deputies.
``Comrade Sakharov went out [to a demonstration] at 12:30 at night and talked to a girl,'' Mr. Zaikov said. ``I don't know what sort of girl,'' he added..
The most savage comments about the radicals could be heard coming from a group of eight generals who gathered in a quiet corner of the lobby during one of the breaks.
``Soon we'll have to call in the airborne,'' quipped one of the generals. The airborne had been used to suppress a demonstration in Tbilisi, in the Georgian Republic, on April 9. At least 20 people had been killed, and the new Congress has formed a commission to investigate the affair. Then one of the officers complained about Popov and his ``rantings.''
One of the generals was quoting - presumably in jest - the words spoken by a Bolshevik sailor in January 1918: ``The guards are tired.''
The sailor said the words as he and his comrades dispersed the Constitutional Assembly, the country's last multi-party parliament.