MOSCOW, NOV. 15 -- Alarmed by the prospect of growing economic and ethnic turmoil over the coming months, Soviet politicians and commentators are openly debating the possibility of a "strong-arm regime," with or without Mikhail Gorbachev.

As industrial production drops and shortages spread from one sector of the economy to another, the public mood seems more brittle and frustrated than at any time since Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. There is widespread talk about a paralysis of political power, with both the central authorities and the new organs of local government seemingly unable to halt the disintegration of both the economy and the multinational state.

The optimistic scenario is that the separatist wave eventually will subside as the republics realize that they have nothing to gain by going it alone. Somehow, ordinary Soviets will succeed in muddling through the coming winter, relying on family connections and their own private plots to make up for the shortage of food in the stores. Gorbachev will be forced to make a deal with his principal political rival, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

The pessimistic scenario is that things have to get much worse before they get better. Gorbachev's latest economic plan, a compromise between those of radicals and conservatives, has little chance of working. Economic stabilization is likely to be accompanied by even higher inflation, drastic cuts in living standards and a catastrophic fall in production.

"Disappointed by the fruitlessness of democracy, the people are rapidly becoming fertile ground for a 'strong hand,' " veteran columnist Stanislav Kondrashov wrote recently in Izvestia, the government newspaper. "The ancient Romans used to talk about bread and circuses {as a formula for running a country}. But when bread rations are cut, people are ready to sacrifice the parliamentary circuses."

The impotence of the politicians was underlined again Wednesday as the legislature of Russia, the Soviet Union's largest republic, overruled a federal government decree freeing the prices of nonessential goods. Members of the federal Supreme Soviet, meanwhile, forced an emergency debate Friday on the state of the nation after arguing that it was pointless to discuss any new laws until the existing laws are respected.

Today, a group of leading intellectuals published an open letter to Gorbachev, urging him to take decisive measures to end the crisis or resign. They said he could use the powers granted to him in September by the Supreme Soviet either to hasten the transition to democracy or to build a dictatorship.

"Dictatorship will lead you and the whole country to destruction," warned the intellectuals, who included pollster Tatyana Zaslavskaya, filmmaker Elem Klimov, economist Pavel Bunich and historian Yuri Afanasyev, in the letter, published in the weekly Moscow News.

The acrimonious atmosphere has also spread to the 4 million-member armed forces, which, together with the KGB security police, is the ultimate guarantor of public order in the country. At a meeting Tuesday with 1,100 military officers elected to serve in the federal and local legislatures, Gorbachev was jeered and heckled when he talked about the need for military reform.

"I am one of the many people who loved you without limit from 1985 to 1988. You were my idol," said an army captain stationed in Estonia, Goderdze Akhaladze. "But from 1989, I felt myself gradually drifting away from you. People like me are increasing in number every day. People who praised perestroika {restructuring} initially are becoming allergic to it."

Some commentators have even drawn a parallel between the sense of political drift today and the ineffectual parliamentary democracy that followed the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in February 1917. In a lengthy article for Izvestia, philosopher Nikolai Mikhailov reminded readers that the vacuum of political power laid the foundation for the violent seizure of power by the Bolsheviks on Nov. 7, 1917.

"The similarities are striking: the same, almost boundless glasnost {openness}; the same intoxication with democracy and soapbox oratory; the same hasty emergence of all kinds of parties and movements; the same chaos of economic mismanagement. Intellectual ferment within the army -- which, until recently, was monolithic, invincible, legendary -- not as widespread as then, but still significant. Increasingly frequent strikes in the cities and grumbling from the countryside . . . .

"Heated debates among the intelligentsia about extricating the country from the crisis. Blazing hotbeds of nationalism in the outlying regions of the former empire. Rising crime. Flourishing populism with its hatred of all kinds of privileges and demands for immediate redistribution and cancellation of benefits . . . . It is time to say bluntly and honestly: We are heading for a disaster."

Freed from the old political taboos, Russians tend to be alarmist and emotional when discussing their country's problems. Russian intellectuals have been talking for months as if the end were just around the corner. But even discounting the most apocalyptic predictions, a dispassionate analysis of the political and economic crisis facing Gorbachev makes for gloomy reading.

Crisis number one is the disintegration of the Soviet economy. According to the latest official figures, inflation is running at 40 percent a year on the free market. In state stores, where prices are fixed artificially, the crisis takes the form of scarcity and long lines. The Leningrad city council voted today to begin food rationing Dec. 1. The chairman of a Supreme Soviet budget committee predicted Wednesday that industrial production could fall by as much as 40 to 50 percent next year, because many factories are no longer able to acquire essential supplies.

Crisis number two is the disintegration of the Soviet Union as a unitary state with a single economic market. Each region is attempting to protect the interests of its citizens as best it can, through a mixture of rationing and trade barriers. Some republics have appointed their own customs services. Others are refusing to allow outsiders access to local stores. It is difficult to see how the aspirations of many republics for sovereignty can be squared with Gorbachev's determination to preserve a unified federal structure.

In these conditions, the long-suffering patience of the Russian people could snap. According to a poll published Wednesday in Moscow News, 62 percent fear a famine "in the next few months," while 33 percent say there is danger of a right-wing coup. While discounting rumors of a military coup, army leaders have made clear that they would be prepared to "save the country" in the event of massive disorders.

A subsidiary question is what would happen to Gorbachev in the event of a military crackdown. Some Soviet and foreign analysts believe that the man best placed to implement such a crackdown effectively is the president himself, since his orders would almost certainly be obeyed. Others argue that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has staked his historical reputation on finding a negotiated solution to the Soviet Union's problems: to change course so drastically would be politically and psychologically impossible.

Contingency plans for a military takeover almost certainly have been drawn up. Maneuvers by at least six regiments of airborne troops in the Moscow region in September were widely viewed as a dress rehearsal for the worst-case scenario. Similar maneuvers took place back in February, at a time when the radical opposition was attempting to bring pressure on the government through huge street demonstrations.

"These exercises must have taken place with Gorbachev's knowledge and approval," said Valery Ryumin, a former paratrooper who now serves as mayor of Ryazan, a provincial city 100 miles south of Moscow that was used as a launching pad for the operation. "But it is reasonable to assume that he gave in to pressure from his entourage. The maneuvers were designed as a warning to the opposition, but they were also a warning to Gorbachev."

The mood of intense frustration in the armed forces was reflected in Gorbachev's meeting with military deputies on Tuesday. "It was like a dialogue of the deaf and the dumb," said Victor Alsnis, a conservative officer from Latvia, claiming that the president had lost the confidence of the army.

A transcript published in the armed forces newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda this morning shows that Gorbachev was bombarded with complaints during the four-hour meeting. One officer after another got up to voice outrage at nationalist excesses, high desertion rates, draft evasion, poor living conditions for officers and their families, the "persecution" of Communists, the dismantling of monuments to Soviet state founder Lenin, and "one-sided" concessions to the West.

"A democracy that does not defend its citizens from humiliation and force, such a democracy we don't need," declared an army captain from the southwestern republic of Moldavia, where Russians and ethnic Romanians clashed recently.

Friday's debate in the Supreme Soviet is expected to be equally stormy. The flavor of Wednesday's session was captured by a deputy who said that the time had come to choose, once and for all, between socialism and capitalism: "The people in the factories don't care much which path we choose, as long as they know how they are meant to act. Right now, all we have is chaos . . . . Let the president make up his mind."