MOSCOW, JULY 14 -- Vladimir Zhivin, the secretary of a Communist Party committee in a heavy engineering plant, agreed that the just-completed party congress was a personal triumph for Mikhail Gorbachev. Zhivin's predictions for the rest of 1990? Mass defections by rank-and-file party members, a deepening of the Soviet Union's economic crisis and widespread labor unrest, possibly in the fall.

The 28th Communist Party Congress, which ended Friday with the election of a new-look leadership, perfectly illustrated a paradox that has long bemused Westerners trying to make sense out of the continuing Soviet drama. Gorbachev, the John Wayne of the Kremlin, never loses a shootout with his enemies, even when they all come at him at once. But the bad guys -- the nation's persistent problems -- won't stay shot. They're on their feet in time for the next reel, like cardboard cutouts that won't lie flat. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, life gets steadily more desperate.

"Back where I come from, nobody cares about what has been happening here," said Nikolai Senkin, a railway worker and congress delegate from Saratov, a quintessential provincial town in central Russia. "Marxists, Democrats, Gorbachev, Ligachev -- it's all the same to {the people of Saratov}. What they care about is how much food is on their table, and the congress is not going to improve that."

There was a dreamy air of unreality inside the Kremlin's marble-and-glass Palace of Congresses during the past two weeks. The debates frequently bore little relation to the real problems faced by the Soviet Union: ethnic strife, the worthlessness of the ruble, the country's inability to feed itself. Delegates squabbled over points of order, proclaimed their undying commitment to socialism and looked around for scapegoats to bear responsibility for the Communist Party's loss of authority.

"The congress dealt with the fate of the party, not of the state," acknowledged Georgi Shaknazarov, a political adviser to Gorbachev. "Ordinary people are more worried by the lack of goods in the shops, the problem of law and order, national conflicts."

As the congress wound up, the Soviet leader's supporters sought to put a positive spin on what had taken place. "Gorbachev got most of what he wanted. In any case, he avoided the worst: a Communist Party opposed to reforms," said Andrei Grachev, a foreign-policy adviser and newly elected member of the party Central Committee. "The monster of conservatism has been slain," proclaimed Svyataslav Fyodorov, a Moscow eye surgeon and prominent liberal.

Gorbachev's aides conceded that the pre-congress campaign had been bungled, permitting the election of large numbers of conservative apparatchiks from the provinces. They argued, however, that the president had saved the day by telling the hard-liners to either put up or shut up. Cowed by the specter of an irreparable rift in the party, the majority fell into line behind the leader. Yegor Ligachev, the most prominent conservative on the outgoing Politburo, was a lonely holdout and suffered a humiliating defeat in his bid for the newly created post of deputy party chief.

The turning point at the congress probably was a remarkable speech by Gorbachev on Tuesday in which he insisted he would stick with his policies, whatever the party decided. An effective piece of political blackmail, the speech convinced many rank-and-file delegates that they needed Gorbachev at least as much as he needed them. Without the party, Gorbachev risked losing control of one of the main instruments of power in the Soviet Union. But without Gorbachev, the party risked becoming irrelevant.

But it remains to be seen what effect the party's 10 days of skirmishing will have on what happens next, as the delegates fan back out across the country, immersing themselves again in everyday life. The main problem facing Gorbachev today is precisely the same one he faced before the congress started: his apparent inability to stop the collapse of the Soviet economy.

With the party congress out of the way, Gorbachev will have more time to concentrate on the larger challenges facing the Soviet Union. His senior economic adviser, Stanislav Shatalin, said that a package of presidential decrees is being drawn up that will speed up the Soviet Union's transition to a market economy. The decrees are likely to mandate such changes as the creation of a limited stock market and the sale of state assets.

Gorbachev's success at the party congress has probably removed some bureaucratic obstacles to economic reform. As long as Ligachev, a staunch defender of the Soviet Union's centrally controlled, inefficient system of collective farming, was responsible for agriculture, there seemed to be little hope for the free development of family farms. "This will certainly improve the situation, but you shouldn't assume that reforms will now happen automatically. Many collective farm chairmen supported Ligachev's position," cautioned Shatalin.

In fact, the most serious resistance to economic reform has come not from the bureaucracy but from ordinary Soviet workers alarmed by the prospect of further cuts in their already low living standards. The government has repeatedly drawn back from price reform, the cornerstone of any transition to a market economy, for fear of a social upheaval. The latest plan to raise prices was shelved last month after it sparked a wave of panic buying from Moscow to Vladivostok.

"The workers want contradictory things. They are for economic reform, but they are against price rises. They generally support the idea of private property, but they are against cooperatives {private businesses}," said Zhivin, the secretary of a party organization at the Uralmash heavy machinery plant in Sverdlovsk.

Zhivin predicted that up to one-third of his members would quit the party over the next few months. That in turn will lead to lower party revenues, the closing of some party committees and the dismissal of many full-time party activists.

Reports of the party's imminent demise seem greatly exaggerated, however. The Communist Party may not be the monolith it once was, but it represents the only force that counts in vast areas of the Soviet Union. The congress delegates represented the Soviet ruling class: the bureaucrats, the factory managers, the army generals, the KGB chiefs, the politicians. These people will continue to exercise great influence, even if the party withers beneath them.

The trend toward a multi-party system is clear. But it is likely to be a much more protracted process in the Soviet Union than in Eastern Europe, where Communist parties were swept from power by popular uprisings last year. As Shaknazarov points out: "In Eastern Europe, Communist parties were identified with a regime imposed from the outside as a result of the Soviet victory in World War II. Here, the party is an indigenous force. It may have made mistakes, but it has a much longer tradition behind it."

If events were allowed to take their natural course, the Communists would probably be forced to gradually concede ground to the new opposition parties. The "democrats" already control the city councils of Moscow and Leningrad and are the most influential group in the Russian republic's new legislature, while the Communist Party apparatus is well entrenched in many provincial cities.

However, the party, like Gorbachev, must cope with the unpredictable wild card of Soviet politics: the steadily worsening economic situation. Soviet officials are now bracing for a wave of strikes or other protests by workers as living standards continue to decline. The crunch is likely to come in the fall, when the government makes a new attempt to push ahead with its planned transition to a market economy.

"If there was a big explosion right now, the workers would probably support the democrats, but who knows what will happen in six months or a year?" said Zhivin. "If the conservatives play their cards right, they may be able to exploit people's fears about the transition to a market economy."

The day Ligachev lost his bid to become deputy leader of the party, a conservative economist named Alexei Sergeev was lobbying a small group of delegates in the foyer of the congress. The market economy, he predicted, would result in unemployment, inflation, a catastrophic decline in living standards. That in turn would lead to a popular reaction against the liberals and a return to Marxism-Leninism.

The delegates from the armed forces, who included one in 10 of the nation's generals, also turned out to be deeply conservative. They could be observed clapping for the hard-liners and voting against the hated advocates of a market economy. When Gorbachev declared in his final speech that "the Cold War has ended," the hall erupted in applause. All but one of the military men sat in grim silence.

The conservatives have been chastened, but not yet defeated. Sergeev was elected to the party's new Central Committee. So too was a large slate of delegates from the newly founded Russian Communist Party. They seem to sense that Gorbachev has won an important political battle, but that he could still lose the war.