MOSCOW -- The possibility Mikhail Gorbachev might break with his Communist heritage collapsed when he opened the Soviet Union's Communist Party Congress with a performance that cast doubt on both his relevance and permanence.

In a report that took more than three hours to read, Gorbachev ignored pleas from reformers to put the party in its place by quitting as its general secretary and becoming full-time president of the Soviet Union. Instead, he confirmed the party's legitimacy in an appeasement of hard-line Communists who have the votes to turn him out.

That makes Gorbachev look as irrelevant to the popular will as the Communist Party, which can hold off multiparty politics only by force. His hard-line enemies may choose to keep Gorbachev, but the man adopted by the Bush administration is seen here as a ''one-man party'' with no base of support.

The 28th -- and maybe the last -- of the party gatherings that began in 1903 convened amid unprecedented personal freedom, falling living standards and fear of hard-line reaction. Domination of the Russian Republic's Communist Congress by anti-Gorbachev hard-liners last month generated public revulsion.

That left Communist reformers on the verge of bolting to form a social democratic party and calling for Gorbachev to join them. ''It's time for a courageous decision,'' Sergei Stankevich, the brilliant young deputy mayor of Moscow, told us two days before the congress opened. ''He should resign the party leadership to be president.''

But we found no such confidence in Gorbachev the next day when we questioned Muscovites and out-of-town visitors enjoying Sunday in Pushkin Square and Gorky Park. The overwhelming consensus was that nothing good would come from either the Congress or from Gorbachev. ''Gorbachev should free himself from the party, but I don't think he will,'' a 36-year-old engineer visiting from Kirghizia told us.

A tip-off came last weekend when Gorbachev stripped all honors from KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin -- a move unpopular with the people but a delight to hard-liners. Confirmation came Monday at 10 a.m. when Gorbachev convened the congress, billed as the first to break Stalinist conformity. But Gorbachev used a huge majority to extinguish debate. He was using apparatchiks who hate perestroika to gag reformers who want him to move faster.

Gorbachev's uninspiring performance was no surprise to reformers who have seen him frozen in equivocation. His opening words called on the Congress to ''revive the CPSU {Communist Party Soviet Union}, the revolutionary outgrowth of the working people.''

While Gorbachev assailed hard-line foes of perestroika, he immediately attacked unnamed elements ''forcing us to bourgeois capitalism.'' Typical of his balanced formulations: ''We're moving toward the market. We're not moving away from socialism.''

While asserting the party would no longer dominate the Soviet Union, he also declared it should be no ''discussion club.'' He then lurched into pure Marxist babble, calling on the party to help ''the working class who have been alienated from the means of production.''

That is an archaism in a Soviet Union on fire with newfound freedom of expression. In a pre-congress press conference, when asked whether he was ignoring Karl Marx, reform Communist Stankevich replied: ''Marx called for 'struggle' but I would prefer more accomplishment, less struggle.'' A Tass correspondent joined in the laughter.

While this congress celebrates Lenin with huge portraits inside and outside the congress hall in Red Square, the old Bolshevik's embalmed body resides in a land where high school teachers now openly deride the October revolution.

In Pushkin Square, a 43-year-old designer told us he had just learned the truth about Lenin and concluded he ''was one of the biggest criminals in history.'' This new Russian, seeking to reverse 72 years of communism, conflicts with the Communist faithful who want to preserve it. Mikhail Gorbachev rides between them, which explains both his unpopularity and his danger.