AT midday yesterday, the gymnasium at School No. 291 in northwest Moscow was aswarm, not with children at play but with Russian voters wrestling with the complexities of balloting in the country's first multiparty election since before the Bolshevik revolution.
Voters shun the curtained booths for wooden tables where they could openly consult each other about how to fill out the five separate paper ballots. One asks for a ``yes'' or ``no'' vote on the new Russian constitution proposed by President Boris Yeltsin.
A two-page foldout requires voters to choose among 13 parties that will proportionally share half the seats in the 450-man State Duma, or lower house of the parliament. Three more ballots list individual candidates for the State Duma seat of each district, for the Federal Council, the parliament's upper house, and for a new Moscow city assembly.
Ivan Sergeiyenko, the local election official, is besieged with voters who are unable to choose a candidate. The names are unknown and their party affiliations not on the ballot, voters repeatedly complain. Patiently, Mr. Sergeiyenko points them to a wall that lists the information.
From the start, the Russian election has been confusing, not only mechanically but philosophically. This vote was born, after all, in early October in a spasm of violent confrontation in which the old parliament, dominated by Communists and Russian nationalists, was literally blasted by tanks out of existence.
Yesterday's vote was promulgated by President Yeltsin with the promise that it would bring a democracy based on the rule of law and end years of confrontation, crisis, and coups.
As the votes were being counted late last night, neither outcome could be truly assured.
Early indications from an exit poll conducted by CNN showed Yeltsin's constitution getting strong support, but the turnout was not certain to reach the 50 percent of Russia's 107 milllion registered voters needed to make the vote valid.
In the vote for the new parliament, exit polls showed that pro-reform and antireform parties were running neck and neck.
On the reform side, the pro-government Russia's Choice headed by Deputy Premier Yegor Gaidar was leading, followed by the bloc led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky.
But opponents of Yeltsin's market and democratic reforms were doing better than expected, CNN said, with the neo-fascist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communist Party leading the pack. According to various sources, Mr. Zhirinovsky was running very close behind Russia's Choice for the top spot in the parliament vote.
Without passage of the new proposed constitution, it would be difficult to talk of ``rule of law,'' as the country would once again be without a basic charter, a set of political rules. Or as opponents of the constitution contend, passage would mean institution of an autocratic system, akin to the State Duma of 1905-17 when Czar Nicholas II presided easily over a feeble parliament.
There also was not much assurance that the new parliament would be more inclined than the last to support the democratic and market economy reforms that the Yeltsin government has pursued in the last two years.
The pro-reform forces are sharply divided among at least four major parties or blocs that have spent most of their time attacking and competing with each other. Their more disciplined foes in the Communist Party and their collective farm-based allies in the Agrarian Party have shown steady support.
MEANWHILE the most explosive, rising political phenomenon has been Zhirinovsky, whose appeals to Russian nationalism and promises of a crime-free, orderly life have struck chords across the country. In a campaign dominated by television, Zhirinovsky has been the master of TV, using it well and frequently with a well-financed array of paid appearances.
``Unfortunately, there are no grounds to speak about political stability in the future,'' Russia's Choice leader Gaidar moaned in an interview published on Friday.
A more serious challenge to ``stability'' may come from the reform blocs, many of which are held together by little more than a desire for power. ``After the election we will see a totally new process,'' predicts Sergei Tsyplyaev, Yeltsin's representative in St. Petersburg. ``Some of the blocs were constructed very rapidly and I know they have strong conflicts within them.''
Mr. Tsyplyaev, who served in the last Soviet parliament, predicts Russia's Choice and Mr. Yavlinsky's reform group could start to fracture after the election. He recalls that many of the people who emerged as leaders of the hard-line National Salvation Front in the last parliament were originally elected in the 1990 vote as candidates of Democratic Russia, the umbrella reform bloc.