MOSCOW -- In one version of it, Boris Yeltsin comes across as the Kremlin pool shark, wiping out the wife of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the director of the KGB and the second-ranking member of the Communist Party -- all with a few verbal shots.
In other versions of it, Yeltsin, who was chief of the Moscow city Communist Party, takes on Eduard Shevardnadze as well, lashing out at the foreign minister for not getting the troops out of Afghanistan fast enough.
The "it" is a speech that Yeltsin made on Oct. 21, 1987, causing such an uproar before the audience of Soviet Central Committee members that the close ally of Gorbachev was ousted on Nov. 11 as party boss and ostracized from the Kremlin leadership.
The speech was given in a closed session and has yet to be published by the Central Committee, whose stenographers recorded the only official text of it. But now several versions of Yeltsin's remarks are circulating among Soviets, western diplomats and journalists in Moscow and Leningrad, including three obtained by The Washington Post.
Soviet officials familiar with Yeltsin's speech have denied that any of the texts floating around is authentic. The version most widely read here, typewritten on two letter-sized pages, was published by the Paris newspaper Le Monde and promptly dismissed by Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov as "nothing but a fabrication." Another senior Soviet official who heard the speech said, "Only one official copy of the remarks exists, and that is a party document, made in a closed meeting and not intended for publication."
Gerasimov said in a press briefing that the General Department of the Central Committee compared Le Monde's version with the official text, "and they saw nothing in common with what was published in Le Monde and what was said at the plenary session."
Gerasimov also said Le Monde's version had been distributed to other correspondents here, but declined to identify who had distributed the texts. "Nevertheless," he continued, "the correspondents abstained from sending that material to their capitals, or their capitals refused to publish it."
Defending the party's earlier decision not to publish the speech, Gerasimov said, "Each party has its own rules, has its own party secrecy. If we break the rule to set a precedent, we could put a psychological pressure to bear on subsequent party sessions when the speakers would be afraid of the publication of their confidential opinions."
The versions that are circulating have nevertheless attracted widespread interest among Soviets, whose curiosity about the texts has been piqued by the fact that even in times of glasnost, or openness, Soviet authorities refuse to publish Yeltsin's official remarks.
The flurry of texts also has renewed interest in the plight of Yeltsin. Appointed as the deputy head of the Soviet construction ministry after his dismissal, Yeltsin was shown in the Soviet media at an artists' gathering last month but has otherwise dropped from public view.
Still a nonvoting member of the Soviet Politburo, Yeltsin could be ousted from the body at a plenary meeting of the Central Committee, the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, expected shortly.
Indeed, opponents of Yeltsin may have circulated various copies as part of a campaign to seek his removal from the Politburo, according to one theory held by western diplomats here. "The versions of the speech which have appeared portray Yeltsin as a loose cannon and someone who probably shouldn't be in the Politburo," one diplomat said. "It could very easily be used against him."
Another theory is that the various texts were pieced together by private Soviet citizens, using as sources references to the speech or second-hand reports of it in the official Soviet media or leaks by various Soviet officials who originally heard it. According to this view, their primary motive is in promoting glasnost.
Some Soviets said the various texts may have been forged by people who were drawn to Yeltsin because of his role as a populist and because he spoke so candidly, often representing views that were controversial in the party but of great interest among the Soviet people.
In several of the versions being circulated, for example, Yeltsin calls for an end to the Afghanistan war, fast becoming a popular issue in the Soviet Union. But the subject never was cited in earlier word-of-mouth reports about the speech before public attention was riveted by the war.
"The phenomenon of so many false variations of the speech and so much interest in it is almost as interesting as the speech itself," said Lev Timofeyev, editor of the unofficial journal Referendum. Timofeyev said he has obtained one version of the speech and that he plans to publish it. "It shows that the common people continue to identify Yeltsin as a kind of missionary who represented their interests to the Soviet authorities," he said.
Indeed, in at least three versions of the speech, the strongest image evoked is of Yeltsin espousing populist causes in his familiar no-nonsense style.
"Yes, comrades," Yeltsin says in these three accounts, "it is hard for me to explain to the factory worker why, in the 70th year of his political power, he is obliged to queue for sausages in which there is more starch than meat, while on our tables there is sturgeon, caviar and all sorts of delicacies."
According to the texts, Yeltsin, who delivered his remarks on the eve of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union, refers to letters from Soviets expressing their hopes for reform and then asks, "Have you seen the anniversary food expenses? How can I look them in the eyes?"
Another element common to various versions of the speech -- and to earlier rumors about it -- are the critical references to Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of the Soviet leader, to Yegor Ligachev, the Politburo's chief ideologist and second-ranking member of the party, and to Viktor Chebrikov, director of the KGB.
According to the documents, Yeltsin says at one point: "Don't shout at me, Comrade Ligachev. I don't need any lessons. No, I'm not a brat."
"On this point, comrades," he is quoted as saying, in a reference to Gorbachev's wife, "I must ask the Politburo to spare me the petty guidance of Raisa Maximovna and her almost daily telephone calls and admonitions." Yeltsin is quoted as telling the KGB director: "No, Comrade Chebrikov, I'm sorry but those are the facts."
Timofeyev said he considered the version of the Yeltsin speech that he obtained to be an interesting piece of "folklore." "As in folklore," he said, "whatever Yeltsin said has been taken over by someone else and perhaps embellished, like a kind of song. It doesn't matter so much whether Yeltsin said these things. What matters is that Soviets want someone to have said them."