MOSCOW -- A sense of foreboding dominated as 35 leaders of "Democratic Russia," a coalition reform group, gathered in the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet building on the eve of military police patrols for Soviet cities ordered by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yuri Afanasiev, a leading reformer, opened the meeting by describing Gorbachev's intentions. "The head of the government," he said, "is trying to establish a military dictatorship."

In the 3 1/2 hours of spirited debate that followed, agreement could not be found on details of what could or should be done in Russia, the largest, most populous Soviet republic. But not one word of disagreement was expressed about the belief that dictatorship is being attempted.

The mood here is depressingly different from the giddy expectation we found on our last visit to Moscow six months ago. The prospect then was a decentralized democracy and a market economy, with Gorbachev possibly joining his old rival, Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin, in a moderate-radical alliance.

No one was more optimistic last summer than Arkady Murashev, head of the caucus of reform Soviet parliament members formed by the late Andrei Sakharov. Presiding at last week's session of Democratic Russia, Murashev warned that such political meetings may soon come to an end. "Nobody knows how far these people will go to destroy democracy," Murashev told us after the meeting, which included officials of the Soviet Union, the Russian Republic and the "Democratic Russia" reform group -- anti-Communists one and all. They all believe their arrest is possible.

"These people" referred to by Murashev decidedly include President Gorbachev. Reformers describe him as spending the last several years straddling two blocks of floating ice -- one hard-line Communist, the other reformist -- as the turbulent stream of Soviet history rushed on. Now, unable to maintain that difficult posture, Gorbachev has jumped on the block of the hard-liners.

That Gorbachev is seen as the enemy was clear Jan. 20 when 350,000 persons demonstrated in Moscow against the military's use of force in Lithuania -- a remarkable protest obscured from attention in the West by the Persian Gulf crisis. Marchers chanted for Gorbachev's resignation or impeachment, their placards bracketing him with Saddam Hussein.

Despite this mass outpouring, however, the reformers -- mainly intellectuals -- worry about how much support they really have from what they call "the ordinary people." Renewed censorship has limited public access to military atrocities in Vilnius.

A video circulating in Moscow reform circles depicts the violent "events" in Lithuania: shock troops imported from Byelorussia using rifle butts to bash in heads of unarmed civilians; corpses in lurid color showing the effects of dumdum bullets on the human body. But all too few Ivans out on the street are able to see these gruesome sights.

At the Democratic Russia meeting, Ilya Konstantinov -- a Leningrad member of the Russian Supreme Soviet -- declared that the reformers "must defend the rights of ordinary people." The failure to do so, he said, plays into the hands of the hard-liners. Reformers concede that a nostalgia for old-line Communist order and cheaper, more plentiful food is widespread.

But what to do specifically? The prime movers of the new non-Communist parties and leading non-party reformers that assembled here debated loud and long. Some talked about massive strikes. Others echoed Yeltsin's call for the Russian Republic to form its own army. A few conceded there was no way to prevent a military takeover, adding that it could be two years -- or 10 -- before democracy can again be envisioned.

Presiding over the gloom was the huge portrait of Lenin that dominates the Supreme Soviet meeting room where the Russian anti-Leninists assembled. Revival of dictatorial rule, imposed by the man who stifled post-Czarist democracy, is being attempted 70 years later.

1991, Creators Syndicate Inc.