AT the same time that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is increasingly relying on KGB, Red Army, and Communist Party conservatives to retain his grip on power, there is an unmistakable countercurrent of political activity that embraces every viewpoint from communist to monarchist, from social democratic to fascist. In the resulting chaos, the process of democratization associated with the ``old Gorbachev'' has spawned a fragile system of political pluralism that, with all its problems, is certain to o utlast him and shape the future of the country. Events have moved with bewildering speed. It was only a little over a year ago that Gorbachev abolished the Communist Party's monopoly of power and established a presidency. Then, in relatively free elections, the communists were discredited, and reform-minded mayors took the reins of power in many key cities, including Moscow and Leningrad. Republican parliaments, notably the Russian Parliament, led by Boris Yeltsin, suddenly blossomed into institutional bases of power for delegates with little practic al experience but much enthusiasm for challenging communist perks and positions.
Alarmed by the collapse of the economy and the possible breakup of the Union, however, Gorbachev veered to the right six months ago, replacing his original team of reformers with colorless communist bureaucrats.
Under Gorbachev's benign cover, the communists staged a comeback. Despite their election defeat, they kept their wealth, their infrastructure, and their entrenched positions in the still bloated bureaucracy. But because political power is now fragmented, they have had to share it with other groups.
On the right are the ``black colonels.'' They are constantly blasting government policy and bellowing for a return to ``law and order.'' (The liberal pollster Tatyana Zaslavskaya, after addressing the Congress of Peoples Deputies not too long ago, heard a colonel sitting behind her whisper to another officer: ``How many of them do you think we'll have to kill?'') Top generals openly criticize Gorbachev's decisions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, especially his policy toward the Iraq war. Extremis t groups such as Pamyat uncork their anti-Semitic venom, unchecked by the government.
On the left are the democrats and reformers, united in little except their desire for genuine change. In city councils and republican parliaments, they sometimes seem like Russian intellectuals at the turn of the century, playing with political and economic ideas. Yet they exhibit a striking sense of courage, given the recent past.
The night before the recent Moscow demonstrations we met with a number of leading Yeltsin supporters, whose mood ranged from quiet confidence in the discipline of the demonstrators to alarm about the possibility of a repetition of Tiananmen Square, ``If Gorbachev uses force tomorrow,'' warned Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, a liberal biographer of Stalin, ``his popularity rating will be down to zero.''
The more than 100,000 people who took to the streets demonstrated against Gorbachev in violation of an explicit Kremlin ban, with 50,000 troops deployed to stop them. They drew strength from the knowledge that their elected representatives in the Moscow City Council and the Russian Parliament had voted to declare the ban legally invalid.
The Soviet press, once the lapdog of the Communist Party, is now remarkably bold and diverse. Newspapers represent many political views. Gorbachev's new hard-line television chief has removed controversial programs such as Vzglyad (``Viewpoint'') from the central network, but ingenious producers find ways of airing the programs in Leningrad, the Baltics, or the Caucasus, where they are welcomed by stations supported by independently elected governments.
The Soviet Union has never been known for political tolerance. Such realists as writer Zinovy Yuriev believe that ``democracy is as far from us as inter-stellar travel.'' He may be right. But Gorbachev has shattered the old system beyond repair. Political and journalistic pluralism have replaced Stalinism and ``stagnation.'' There may be retreats and disappointments, but the top-to-bottom monolith of unquestioned authority cannot be revived.