AT the close of the bruising two-week 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the talk of the town is ``who won, right or left?'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was quick to declare the Congress a victory for his reform policies, a refutation of the view that the party which has ruled here for more than seven decades is incapable of renovation.
``These apprehensions were not justified,'' a relaxed Gorbachev said late Friday night. ``Those who believed this would be the last Congress and the funeral of the Soviet Communist Party were wrong again. The Soviet Communist Party lives and will live.''
Liberal supporters of Mr. Gorbachev, such as Otto Latsis, the editor of the party journal Kommunist, joined in calling the Congress ``the defeat of the conservatives.'' Gorbachev, they declared in numerous commentaries and interviews over the weekend, rallied from the initial right-wing assault to shift the party center decisively to the left.
But these triumphant words were belied by the dramatic departure from the party of the leading lights of the radical left - the populist head of the Russian federation parliament, Boris Yeltsin; the mayor of Moscow, Gavriil Popov, and his Leningrad counterpart, Anatoly Sobchak.
Mr. Popov and Mr. Sobchak issued a joint statement decrying the ``complete inability of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] to offer the country a real program of transition to the new society.'' They accused the party of being out of step with the populace by refusing to reject ``class strife'' and failing to support the transition to a market economy, including the right to private property and the transfer of power to elected legislatures.
All three had indicated their desire to leave before the meeting. All could afford to do so because each has a power base outside the Communist Party. Less certain is the future of other members of the Democratic Platform, the left-wing faction of the party, some of whom also said they intend to break away.
Mr. Yeltsin's departure carries much greater significance than the withdrawal of a handful of top members of the party's Democratic Platform. It means that fully half of the population of the Soviet Union is now governed by a non-Communist.
For Gorbachev, who fought hard to hold the party's divergent political factions together at the Congress, Yeltsin's move is a short-term blow. But in the view of some reformers, Yeltsin's decision could help Gorbachev, because he will show the country that there is life after communism and that the government and party are separate entities.
Indeed some Gorbachev aides acknowledged the validity of some criticisms from the left.
Democratic Platform leaders felt there had been little change in fundamental party rules, particularly the principle of ``democratic centralism,'' which requires party members to follow the will of the majority.
``Inasmuch as these words have been discredited, it would have been better to get rid of them,'' said Gorbachev adviser Georgy Shakhnazarov. ``It would have been a sign that we categorically break away from our past - from disgraces, from repression, suppression of dissent.''
Gorbachev's claim of success is best justified by the changes within the party structure. With the election of the final leadership bodies at a Saturday meeting of the new party Central Committee, he has managed an almost total turnover at the top of the party. His most vigorous right-wing opponent, Yegor Ligachev, is left bereft of any party post. The new Politburo and Central Committee are far weaker and more pliable bodies, leaving many key policymaking functions in the hands of Gorbachev's Presidential Council.
The Central Committee has been reorganized, with the bulk of its 412 members entering as proportional representatives of the constituent parties of the 15 Soviet republics and the rest from various organizations such as trade unions or research institutes. The larger, 24-person Politburo includes the 15 republican party chiefs, Gorbachev and his deputy, and seven others with specific organizational duties.
The members of the Communist Party's Politburo were previously considered the most powerful people in the country, the makers of all decisions. But the most glaring fact about this Politburo is that it does not include the most important policymakers such as Alexander Yakovlev, Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, or Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov. All of them left the Politburo but remain in the Presidential Council and Cabinet.
Gorbachev has ``gotten rid of the old guard that has its own anti-Gorbachev position,'' comments Andrei Fadin, political editor of the independent weekly Commersant. ``The new people aren't leftists, but they are more manageable, potentially more ruled by him.''
Gorbachev, the analyst believes, ``has managed to weaken the top of the party but I don't see that he was strengthened or that the Presidency was strengthened.''
Many analysts see a growing vacuum of power, as the Communist Party loses strength, but there are no comparable national institutions which can even hope to replace it. The hopes of the democratic left to create a new party unifying various existing smaller opposition groups, which the departing Democratic Platform leaders say will take place in October, are considered far-fetched.
Many Democratic Platform members interviewed at the Congress felt there is much that can still be achieved from within the party ranks.
``Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] forced many of us to think,'' says Alexander Karpov, a delegate from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. ``But I know party members who are not delegates here who are counting on us to stay. Remember, the Congress does not reflect the makeup of the party as a whole - it is more left wing.''
And for many, membership in the party still provides personal security in their careers, for which the new multiparty system is not yet an alternative.