MOSCOW -- Yegor Ligachev heads for the exit of the October Hotel, his shoulders thrown back, his brown fedora tugged down low over his eyes. Doormen, cabbies, desk clerks, guests -- they all watch the squat Siberian with the jaunty step. They are slack-jawed, hypnotized, as if they had seen a ghost.

Until last July, when he retired from the Kremlin leadership, Ligachev was the antihero of Soviet politics: President Mikhail Gorbachev's shadowy, conservative rival, the "dark intriguer," the "Communist Party fundamentalist." According to Moscow legend, Ligachev tried to pull off a Kremlin "counter-revolt" 2 1/2 years ago that began with his endorsement of a Leningrad teacher's neo-Stalinist manifesto.

"What will they do without me now?" Ligachev says, erupting in laughter. "Whom have they got left to blame for all the disasters?"

In the terminology of Soviet politics, Ligachev has always been known as the conservative in the leadership, an adherent to "gradual" change, he says, a "believer in scientific socialism and the communist future." He used to deny the tag of conservative; but now, driven to despair by talk of a market economy and independent republics, he accepts it, and says he figures that Westerners, above all others, should sympathize.

"I think in the West they respect people with conservative views. There they have conservative parties and even conservative ruling parties, as in Britain. By the way, many of the so-called conservatives are the ones who are keeping our economy and state afloat. They are the ones working with their sleeves rolled up."

Ligachev's voice begins to rise with the sort of righteous anger he always showed when he acted as the champion of the Communist bureaucracy and faced off at the Kremlin against political maverick Boris Yeltsin, now president of the Russian republic. "And what is a conservative?" he says. "I don't know about you, but I think anyone can support the idea of conservatism. If a person is a serious person, it is hard for him just to reject the things he has grown accustomed to. Unless you are some kind of butterfly who doesn't care whether the system is capitalist or socialist, these are questions of importance and conscience.

"Tell me, are conservatives to blame for inter-ethnic strife and the fact that we now have a million refugees? Are conservatives to blame for an unbalanced consumer market? Are conservatives to blame for the crime rate and all the corruption? Are these the deeds of conservatives? Are conservatives to blame that the Soviet federation is falling apart? Are the conservatives to blame that the {Soviet} republics, one after another, are adopting sovereignty resolutions declaring their superiority to national law or that some republics want to secede? Is it the conservatives who are to blame?"

During his years of power, Ligachev rode around town in the back seat of a ZIL limousine. As the "number two man" in the Soviet Union, he traveled with a clutch of Central Committee aides. Now he steps out on the street and spots his new mode of transport: a white Volga, the same sort of runty sedan issued to regional newspaper editors and five-year planners. No aides circle round. There are just more dumbfounded stares to greet him. Finally, Ligachev's driver, appearing bored and lugubrious, opens the door for his charge.

Ligachev climbs in. His knees are crammed against the front seat. For a few minutes, the guard at the gate will not let the car through. It seems that for a moment he is not quite sure who Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev is. Or was.

The Last Communist?

At the 28th Communist Party Conference in July, Ligachev made a bid to win election as Gorbachev's deputy general secretary. It was his last chance to stay in the Kremlin hierarchy. Gorbachev never said a foul word about him, but endorsed instead an unthreatening party chief from the Ukraine, Vladimir Ivashko. Although the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses was filled with "Ligachev's army" -- hidebound provincial party apparatchiks who saw him as the only chance to avoid a "descent" into the morass of private property and multi-party democracy -- the battle was over. Ivashko won in a landslide.

When Ligachev stepped down and announced plans to write his memoirs, the Soviet press never made any of the old pretense about "retirement for reasons of health." This was, as the government newspaper Izvestia put it in a headline, "The Last Hurrah."

Ligachev is, at 69, spry, pugnacious, a bluff master of political theater. He has the hard-knuckle stage presence of James Cagney in old age. In the course of a two-hour interview, Ligachev chops the air, pounds the table, feigns despair, rolls his eyes. Whether he is revealing the inner workings of the Politburo, denying "all intrigues" or telling the story of the execution of his wife's father in the Stalinist purges, Ligachev promises to tell what he knows.

"We have no secrets," he says.

In 1987, Ligachev faced off against the West and the "bourgeois elements" at home, vowing: "The class and ideological enemy harbors the hope that reforms will weaken the influence of Marxist-Leninist ideology. That is, of course, a completely groundless daydream."

Now the groundless daydream has become Ligachev's living nightmare. The old ideology is a memory, the old system is collapsing. Stanislav Shatalin, the author of the new "500 Days" market-reform program and a member of the presidential council, says he is convinced that Gorbachev has become a social democrat.

Ligachev remains a true believer. Although he says he "still" has good relations with Gorbachev, Ligachev is prepared now to abandon the illusions of party unanimity and to attack the "crazy leaps" of radical reform and the Soviet leader's drift into something "other than socialism."

"My view is that the admission of such things as private property . . . well, that is an entirely new system and we should say this frankly to our people." Private property, Ligachev says, "would be a great tragedy for our people. . . . What should we say to the collective farmers? We'll chop up all the barns and stables?"

"Mikhail Sergeyevich {Gorbachev} always said: 'Yegor Kuzmich, don't worry. We are talking about private property only in the sphere of services -- and some small enterprises.' I answered him: 'As far as I know, from the history of societies, capitalism never limited itself to the small scale. From the small, the big will emerge. This is the nature of capital.' "

For years now, Ligachev has been well aware that as much as he is adored by the Communist Party's gray army of 16 million functionaries, he is loathed by urban intellectuals, the young, all the "new democrats" that have won elections from Brest to Sakhalin. But perhaps nothing proved to Ligachev how deeply the world has turned against the old system as this year's May Day rally when tens of thousands of people marched across Red Square waving Lithuanian flags and banners reading, "Down with the Communist Party."

Ligachev says he stood on the Lenin Mausoleum with the Kremlin leaders and was overcome with "contradictory, heavy feelings. Not just me, but Mikhail Sergeyevich, everyone, had this feeling. On the one hand, we gave the chance for any force to march on Red Square and express themselves. On the other hand, we witnessed such extremist outbursts, such blatant aggressiveness, that I felt that if these people would ever come to power and we in the party would organize such a demonstration, we would be sent directly from Red Square to Butyrka Prison.

"I watched for a long time. Mikhail Sergeyevich came up to me and said, 'Yegor, it's probably time to end it.' And I said, 'Yes, it's time to put an end to it.' And we left, with me walking beside him." Later on, Ligachev says, he told Gorbachev, "Mikhail Sergeyevich, once again we are seeing what a deplorable state the country is in."

The loss of the "socialist camp" in Eastern Europe last year seems to pain Ligachev. He says that the Kremlin leadership decided in late 1985 and 1986 that it would adopt a stance of "noninterference" in Eastern Europe. "We always thought we would not allow any military interference," he says. "We had the example of Afghanistan and we finally started taking lessons from history."

Instead, Ligachev says, he hoped in vain that leaders such as Erich Honecker in East Germany and Milos Jakes in Czechoslovakia would "wake up" and follow Moscow's lead on reform. But Ligachev says that the revolutions in Eastern Europe were also the result of foreign meddling.

"If you can remember last year, the current leaders of West Germany and bourgeois parties behaved in East Germany as if they were in their own country," he says, criticizing members of the Bonn government at rallies in Berlin. "Perhaps East Germany could have developed otherwise, toward a radical renewal of socialism. I believe many would have wanted that."

Ligachev says that, as ideology chief, he tried to preserve the core of the Leninist faith. He encouraged the showing of the anti-Stalinist film "Repentence" in 1986 and the publication of Vladimir Nabokov's novels, but he could not countenance any attacks on the founder of the Bolshevik state. Ligachev talks of long nights reading the novels and histories of Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- a "real master of the word" -- and finally coming to a conclusion:

"In my time, I suggested that everything that refers to Lenin -- Solzhenitsyn creates a false image of Lenin -- we shouldn't publish. After all, Lenin is ours. We adhere to this viewpoint, to Leninism, and we must defend him."

Why do people need a government to make their reading choices for them?

Ligachev waves the question away in disgust.

"We have sacred things, just as you do. . . . "

But why use censorship to enforce it?

"OK, pardon me, but we have a different psychology, a different worldview," he says. "I respect you and you should respect me. For me, Lenin is sacred."

Solzhenitsyn was published, in full, this year.

Ligachev's Stalin

Until recently, the Soviet public knew almost nothing of Ligachev's life. As with all Politburo members, his past was but a party resume and a shadow.

But then in June 1988 at the 19th Party Conference where Ligachev faced off against Yeltsin, Ligachev softened his tone and mentioned, as if in passing, that his family had suffered during the period of Stalin. It was a way of gaining sympathy and protecting himself against charges that his brand of conservatism was neo-Stalinism.

In 1937, at the height of the purges, the father of Ligachev's wife-to-be was arrested. He was a soldier, a participant in the October Revolution. Now he was charged with espionage. "Allegedly," Ligachev says, "he was an agent of Japanese, British, French and German intelligence. All at once!" After a trial that lasted 10 minutes, he was taken off and shot.

Last year, when a committee of the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature, was looking into charges that he had accepted bribes, Ligachev looked up his father-in-law's file in the KGB security police archives. Ligachev's self-image has always been one of the austere Siberian, the honest builder of communism. And when that is challenged -- as it was by investigator and legislator Telman Gdlyan last year -- Ligachev waxes righteous, offended. So much so that, in the interview, he compares his own trials with those of his late father-in-law.

Despite the 1937 execution, the entire Ligachev family joined the Communist Party. And when Stalin died in 1953: "I wept, the entire family cried. You know why? It's an important question. In Stalin's time, the name of Stalin was linked to everything that everyone had suffered. It was indivisible."

But when asked if Stalin was a villain on the level of Adolf Hitler, Ligachev shifts tone. He is very much a man of his generation -- 10 years older than Gorbachev -- and credits Stalin for the survival of the country in World War II despite the execution of thousands of generals and officers.

"No matter what we found out later, the fact is a fact: The war ended in a victory, our victory."

In Dubious Battle

On March 13, 1988, while Gorbachev was getting ready to leave for Yugoslavia, the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya published an article headlined, "I Cannot Foresake Principles." The author, chemistry instructor Nina Andreyeva, staked out a neo-Stalinist reaction to the Gorbachev reforms.

In the West, few would have paid much attention to such a screed. It would have been dismissed as the words of a crank. But in Moscow, where the policy of glasnost, or openness, was still in its fragile infancy, journalists and writers feared the beginning of the end.

Some sources, including literary historian Yuri Karyakin, said that after returning from Yugoslavia, Gorbachev saw the article as Ligachev's "counterrevolution" against radical reforms. According to Yeltsin, Gorbachev believed Ligachev sponsored the article and stopped speaking to him for weeks. Gorbachev called a series of Politburo meetings on the issue and, according to some sources, may have even demanded a vote of confidence. Most of the key liberal papers kept silent about the incident until finally, in early April, Gorbachev's most trusted ally in the leadership, Alexander Yakovlev, wrote a blistering reply to Andreyeva.

Until now, Ligachev has never been questioned publicly about the affair. And when the question does come, he nods, as if preparing to get it over with.

"OK, I'm ready to answer everything. The first thing is, as for the publication of this material, Ligachev had nothing to do with it.

"Afterwards, there was a meeting in the Politburo where there were attempts made by some people -- I will not name them -- to associate Ligachev to Nina Andreyeva. But Ligachev learned about Nina Andreyeva's article like all readers -- from reading Sovietskaya Rossiya.

"Two days {after a Politburo meeting}, I met Gorbachev. He said, 'Come in, Yegor.' We had good relations, then and now. I was close to him, and now we are not so far apart. He said, 'Yegor, now it is absolutely clear to me that you had nothing to do with the publication of Nina Andreyeva's article.' "

But when it comes to the article itself, Ligachev expresses "mixed" views. Her support of Stalinism "demands denunciation," he says. But he sees the article as "a specific reaction to the denunciation of everything and to {efforts to} blacken everything" in Soviet history. "People are longing for something positive, something shining, and yet our own cultural figures have published more lies and anti-Soviet things than our Western enemies ever did in the last 70 years combined."

A year after the Andreyeva affair, with Gorbachev in Britain, troops from the army and Interior Ministry broke up a peaceful demonstration in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi using poisonous gas and sharpened shovels and billy clubs. Nineteen people died.

According to investigations carried out by both the Georgian legislature and the Supreme Soviet, Ligachev, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and ex-KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov bore responsibility for the disaster. Here again, Ligachev says he is a scapegoat, a target for radicals who dream dreams of plots and conspiracies.

"Ach, it is for them to answer why they chose Ligachev," he says, banging on the table. "I was thinking about it -- maybe because I adhered to clear points of view.

"Probably I was falling behind in some sense, I don't deny it, but my views were strict and clear and people knew my character. Of course, they were not wrong: If they really wanted to change something, then they had to replace Ligachev."

A New Generation

Ligachev feels the sting of his political defeat. Nowhere is that clearer than in the resentment he shows toward the new generation of political leaders who have won multi-candidate elections and are now in their first months of power: Yeltsin, Leningrad Mayor Anatoli Sobchak, Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov and his young deputy, Sergei Stankevich.

Mention these men and Ligachev clenches his meaty fists and begins hitting the table once more.

"Those people talked a lot about the incompetence of the former leaders in the higher, middle and lower echelons. But I think these people are the most incompetent leaders Soviet power has ever had. I was shocked how Stankevich could become deputy chairman of the Moscow city council having absolutely no experience, either in everyday life or in the leadership or in economics. And we have dozens like Stankevich now."

Ligachev seems to enjoy the luxury of being in opposition -- the ability to pillory the new officeholders. He blames Popov, Stankevich and Yeltsin for the collective farm system's inability to bring in the year's harvest. "It's a disgrace that Moscow cannot get in its potatoes," he says. "When I was the party secretary in Tomsk we brought in our potatoes in a week. We always had potatoes and vegetables, even greens all year. . . .

"Without boasting, were the old party and state system still in power, the entire harvest would be in the stock houses already. Some would say that is a return to the old command-administrative system, but meanwhile the harvest is rotting in the fields."