MOSCOW, SEPT. 15 -- Several days ago, Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin told legislators that Soviet paratroopers were headed toward Moscow. In the Russian parliament and on the street, the fear was the same: A military coup was underway.

"They are trying to prove to us that these are peaceful maneuvers connected with the preparations for the {Nov. 7 Revolution Day} parade," Yeltsin told the Russian legislators, according to a Soviet press report. "But there are strong doubts about this."

The military convoy frightened people so deeply in one Moscow neighborhood that the troops were sent back to their bases in Ryazan. Another regiment, which according to military officials was supposed to help with the potato harvest outside Moscow, also returned to its base.

An article appearing today in the Communist Party youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda questioned why the troops were dressed in combat gear, bulletproof vests and helmets.

The paper eventually accepted the explanations of paratroop commander Vladislav Achalov about parade rehearsals and potato harvests, but added: "Of course, military exercises are needed and they go on all the time. But our country has not always been living in such tense times." In order to prevent such rumors, the paper said, the army has an obligation to keep the legislature and the local population informed.

The Soviet Union, in almost 73 years of civil wars and purges and Kremlin intrigues, has not experienced a military coup.

But now, when the country is living through an unprecedented period of confusion, protest and hard times, the fears of a coup are real.

Since President Mikhail Gorbachev began his drive for economic and political reform, Moscow has been -- if a city can be said to have a personality -- a kind of manic-depressive, swinging between euphoric hopes of change and terrifying fears of reversal. In the past year, as the economy has plunged, the periods of euphoria have been rare, the rumors of catastrophe more common.

In February, Western diplomats around Moscow sent cables to their capitals expressing concern about Soviet troops massing on the outskirts of the city. No explanation was given for the exercises.

The Soviet press, especially liberal papers such as Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moscow News and Literaturnaya Gazeta, have gotten increasingly bold about running stories about the possibility of a military overthrow. And there is a certain logic to all the conspiracy theories: In the past few years, the senior military leadership has made little secret of its disaffection as Gorbachev's reforms have included massive troop cuts and the use of troops to keep order and put down ethnic unrest in the republics.

At various legislative sessions and Communist Party congresses, military leaders almost always voice their anger about the rising levels of crime and disorder, and many have expressed deep regrets about the Soviet Union's tacit encouragement of the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe last year. As Gorbachev shifts power away from the previously all-powerful party to the government, the newspapers say, he leaves himself vulnerable to a possible alliance of the disaffected leaderships of the army, the KGB security police and the party elite.

But while the Soviet press has become increasingly independent, newspapers often print articles for an ideological or political purpose: to send a warning. Sometimes the supporting evidence for an article is secondary to its political intentions.

A typical example appeared in this week's Moscow News. In an article headlined "Military Overthrow," the well-known liberal journalist Andrei Nuikin quoted a member of the radical military servicemen's group Shchit as saying that "the leadership of the armed forces already has a clear plan to take control of the situation in the country."

The scenario provided is nearly every Muscovite's worst nightmare: Armed forces will start their overthrow region by region, beginning in the Far East. The soldiers will seize television stations and newspapers, and will "neutralize" the ability of foreign journalists to get information out of the country. The coup would start far from Moscow, the Shchit member said, "because the farther away from Moscow, the calmer the social and political situation."

The Shchit supporter said the military would justify the coup not by campaigning directly against Gorbachev's reforms, but by claiming that ethnic tensions had gotten out of control, the economy was collapsing, socialism was endangered and that the situation required "emergency measures."

Nuikin wrote that he had no evidence that the military had plans for such a coup, but added that liberals should "have every grounds to consider means of responding."

The conspiracy theories tend to overlook some realities of military life. For example, Gorbachev brought Gen. Dmitri Yazov out of obscurity and made him head of the Soviet armed forces. Ever since, Yazov has gone to great lengths to show his loyalty to Gorbachev.

One of the military leaders often spoken of here as a potential pretender to power is Gen. Boris Gromov, who led the last Soviet forces out of Afghanistan last year. At a session with reporters last month in the Ukrainian city of Chernigov, Gromov did not even bother to wait for the inevitable question about a military overthrow.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "I'm no Bonaparte."

As he spoke, Gromov's hand was tucked into his jacket in the Napoleonic fashion. When a reporter pointed out the irony, Gromov smiled. "Absolutely right," he said. And he left his hand where it was.