MOSCOW, SEPT. 22 -- Boris Yeltsin stood next to the monumental painting of "Eternal Russia" -- its landscape dominated by the saints and czars, philosophers and generals who built one of the world's great empires -- and sketched out his vision of the Russia of the future.

"We must work to rejuvenate Russia, to make it strong, so that it won't be pushed around or exploited by others," declared the newly elected president of the Soviet Union's largest and most populous republic. Land, he promised, would be given back to the peasants. A prosperous entrepreneurial class would be revived. A "truly independent Russian state" would be resurrected -- politically, culturally and economically.

The giant canvas beside Yeltsin was painted by a nationalist artist, Ilya Glazunov. "Eternal Russia" depicts the past seven decades of Communist rule as a tragic aberration that sidetracked Russia from its almost mystical, Christian destiny. The painting attracted huge crowds when it was displayed in an exhibition hall just outside the Kremlin this past summer.

After a long hibernation, Mother Russia is stirring. The great wave of national reawakening that swept through the Soviet Union's outlying republics over the past three years has finally reached the Slavic heartland. A new generation of Russian politicians -- some, like Yeltsin, with traditional Communist credentials underpinning their maverick orientation, but others with no party background at all -- is focusing on specifically Russian problems. As communist ideology disintegrates, millions of ordinary people are turning to Russian history and Russian culture for inspiration.

Russia's rebirth already has changed the nature of politics in the Soviet Union, shifting power away from the center to the republics. Earlier this month, the Russian legislature endorsed a plan to create the foundations for a market economy within 500 days, bringing pressure on the Supreme Soviet, or federal legislature, to follow suit. If implemented, the plan will transform the Soviet Union from what used to be a unitary state run by a centralized bureaucracy to a loose confederation of sovereign republics.

Stretching across 12 time zones from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Kamchatka on the Pacific, Russia is the political and economic colossus of the Soviet Union. Every second Soviet citizen is a Russian. Most of the country's natural resources -- including 90 percent of its oil and timber and 75 percent of its natural gas -- are located in Russia.

What happens here will therefore be of crucial importance to the future of the world's second superpower, dwarfing even the secessionist threat from the non-Russian republics in political significance.

After seizing power in 1917 and murdering Czar Nicholas II and his entire family, the Communists did all they could to eradicate the notion of a separate Russian identity. In the world's first socialist state, national interests were subordinated to class interests. "Russian" became synonymous with "Soviet."

The new struggle for Russia's soul was triggered by the collapse of communism. Reduced to its simplest form, it is a struggle reminiscent of the 19th century intellectual debate between "westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The westernizers believe that Russia's salvation lies in emulating the liberal, free-market democracies of Western countries. The Slavophiles insist that Russia must find its own unique historical road, rejecting both communism and Western-style capitalism.

For the moment, the westernizers dominate the debate on Russia's future. They occupy the key positions in the Russian legislature, state administration and intellectual elite. The so-called 500-Day Plan for economic reform -- with its proposals for the sale of state assets, the formation of joint-stock companies and the encouragement of free competition -- represents an unreserved acceptance of Western ideas.

"The Slavophile idea has failed," insisted Nina Belyayeva, who runs a consulting agency in Moscow for aspiring politicians. "All these years of Soviet power have proved that being separated from the world did not represent a solution to Russia's problems. The main political divide in Russia today is not whether we should accept Western ideas, but how quickly we can absorb them."

Unlike the westernizers, who form a relatively coherent political movement, today's Slavophiles are a heterogeneous bunch. They include those Communist Party hard-liners who see Russian nationalism as a means of hanging onto power, conservative writers disturbed by the decline in traditional values, sections of the Russian Orthodox Church and senior generals outraged by calls for cuts in the size of the army. The only feature these groups have in common is an ingrained dislike of Russia's headlong dash toward the West.

If political developments in Russia were to follow a normal course, the westernizers would almost certainly emerge victorious. But the struggle between the two sides is taking place against the background of an unraveling Soviet empire and a rapidly deteriorating economy, so its outcome is as unpredictable as Russia's future.

In persuading the Russian legislature to adopt their program, the westernizers also are assuming political responsibility for steering the country through the difficult months ahead. If the attempt to build a liberal, free-market economy fails -- as it could do if the social costs of the transition are too high for ordinary Russians to accept -- then there may be pressure to return to a much more authoritarian regime.

Several hundred thousand Russian refugees already have fled ethnic violence -- often aimed at them -- in the southern Transcaucasian republics and Central Asia. The army, with its Russian-dominated officer corps, is returning home from Eastern Europe to an uncertain future. Many Russians living in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fear that they could become the victims of a successful Baltic drive for independence. All this could create a fertile breeding ground for aggrieved Russian nationalism that the Slavophiles almost certainly will try to exploit.

Grigory Yavlinsky, 38, the original author of the 500-Day Plan, is typical of Russia's new generation of Western-oriented politicians. He served his political apprenticeship as an aide to Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, but he broke with his mentor last year because of disagreements over Ryzhkov's insistence that Moscow preserve the principal levers of central planning.

Yavlinsky then began working on his own program for a much more rapid transition to a free-market economy. Last July, he showed his plan to Yeltsin, who was attracted by the idea that Russia's huge budget deficit could be eliminated by selling inefficient state-run factories and collective farms to the public. Yavlinsky was rewarded with the post of deputy prime minister of Russia and put in charge of economic reform.

"In conditions of economic crisis," Yavlinsky said in an interview this week, "there's no point worrying about words like socialism. Our job was to start creating a real economy."

Yavlinsky spent much of his summer vacation holed up with other economists on a former czarist estate at Arkhangelskoye, outside Moscow. The group was headed by Stanislav Shatalin, one of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's top economic advisers. In the view of many analysts here, the Yavlinsky-Shatalin plan that emerged from the summer sessions represents a manifesto for the dismantling of communism.

"If this document is approved by the Supreme Soviet, it will represent the storming of the Winter Palace in reverse," said Mikhail Berger, a commentator for the government newspaper Izvestia, referring to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November 1917.

There are, however, enormous political and cultural obstacles still to be overcome before the 500-Day Plan can be put into effect -- obstacles created by the history and culture of Russia, a nation of serfs until 125 years ago. The federal bureaucracy headed by Ryzhkov is putting up a tremendous fight in the Supreme Soviet to water down the project. And even if a modified version of the plan is eventually adopted by the Supreme Soviet, its authors are bracing themselves for considerable popular resistance.

"It's easier to change the way a {government} minister thinks than the way ordinary people think," said Yevgeni Yasin, another former Ryzhkov aide who now views the 500-Day Plan as the only way of avoiding economic chaos. "We don't have any real tradition of a free market here in Russia. Even before the revolution, it was not very developed."

At the popular level, despite general support for Yeltsin and his team of Russian ministers, there is considerable skepticism that Russia is ready for capitalism. When asked if they would be ready to buy the shops and farms that the radical economists want to put up for sale, many ordinary Russians shrug their shoulders and laugh. "It will all end up in the hands of the black marketeers," is a typical comment.

"There are many people here who think that buying something and selling it for a profit is speculation, that private enterprise is evil and that the only honest way of earning a living is to work with a machine tool. We must go halfway to meet people, to convince them that the transition to a market will be difficult, but that no one will starve," remarked Yasin.

The westernizers insist that there is nothing in the Slavic character to prevent free enterprise from taking root in Russia. After all, they point out, the Russian emigre community in the United States includes many successful capitalists and small business owners. If the external conditions are favorable, they say, ordinary Russians will respond to economic incentive.

For the westernizers, the struggle for Russia's soul was symbolized by a squalid courtroom drama that took place in Moscow this past summer. It unfolded in Room 57 of the Moscow city court. The accused, a registered alcoholic named Konstantin Smirnov-Otashvili, was charged with inciting national hatred by breaking up a pro-perestroika meeting at the Moscow writers' union using a gang of black-shirted thugs to rough up several writers and shout antisemitic slogans.

The trial quickly became a platform for the nationalists and democrats to propagate their views. As the police struggled to keep order in the courtroom, Otashvili's supporters denounced what they described as a "Judeo-Communist plot" to destroy Russia. The liberal writers charged that the Popular Orthodox Movement, an extreme nationalist group with which Otashvili was associated, wanted to destroy democracy, using methods perfected by the Nazis in the 1930s.

"Russia can go one of two ways: either toward fascism or toward a free, democratic country," said Yuri Chernichenko, the Soviet Union's best-known commentator on agricultural affairs and one of three "social prosecutors" of Otashvili. "The biggest danger for Russia is to allow itself to be cut off from the outside world."

Chernichenko and other westernizers concede that groups like the Popular Orthodox Movement -- a branch of the better-known nationalist organization Pamyat -- have very little public support. But they fear that they could be used by unscrupulous elements within the Communist Party and KGB security police to spark racial disturbances and riots, which could lead to demands for a strong-arm regime.

A more respectable face of the neo-Slavophile movement is displayed by conservative journals such as Literaturnaya Rossiya and Nash Sovremennik. A recurring theme of their coverage has been the claim that Russia has suffered more than any other Soviet republic from Communist rule -- politically, economically, spiritually and demographically. Both journals have campaigned strongly against the introduction of a market economy in Russia.

"We must find our own Russian model," said Ernst Safonov, the editor of Literaturnaya Rossiya, reflecting the opinion of many conservative Russian writers.

Since his election as president of the Russian parliament last May, Yeltsin has sought to reconcile the contradictory strands in Russian history. On the key political and economic questions, he has sided with the westernizers. But he has also praised neo-Slavophile writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn for their contributions to Russian culture.

Yeltsin's supporters admit that his success or failure will depend on his ability to improve living standards within a reasonable period of time. It is already possible to detect a certain weariness with democracy among ordinary Russians. If the 500-Day Plan fails to stabilize the economy, there could be a violent backlash.

"Nobody knows when our legendary Russian patience will finally be exhausted," said Berger, the Izvestia commentator. "Frankly, I am surprised that people have been as patient as they have. We've run out of soap and run out of bread, but still there's no civil war. It may be that people can do without soap and bread, but will find some other shortage completely intolerable."

Nor is it possible to predict with any certainty the reaction of the Russian-dominated officer corps to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There is no tradition of military interference in politics in Russia. But over the past few weeks, senior generals have been making increasingly bellicose noises, warning the politicians not to touch the military-industrial complex or further cut defense spending.

During a two-week tour across Russia by this reporter, politicians, bureaucrats and ordinary Russians alike kept returning to the question of what would happen if perestroika, or political and economic restructuring, fails.

"Any attempt to reverse perestroika would certainly be resisted by many people," said Vadim Firsov, a government environmental inspector, in a casual aside on a bumpy Siberian road to Lake Baikal. "The army is divided, like every other institution, and a coup attempt would not be supported by junior officers. But you don't need many officers, just a few in the right places. I shudder to think what the result would be. There are stocks of strategic nuclear weapons all over the country."

"Nobody trusts the Communist Party anymore," said a pilot for the Soviet state airline, Aeroflot. "We still trust Yeltsin. But he has only got one or two years to prove that he can change things for the better. If Yeltsin lets us down, God knows what will happen."

"It's impossible to exclude an attempt to use the army to reimpose the command-administrative system," said Yavlinsky, the originator of the 500-Day Plan. "I will do everything possible to see that this does not happen, but if it does, I think it will be a tragic interlude, not the final liquidation of everything we have worked for. In the long run, there is no alternative to a market economy."