MOSCOW, NOV. 18 -- Mikhail Gorbachev's sudden decision Saturday to strengthen his executive power and put the leaders of the 15 Soviet republics at the center of all decision making in the country may turn out to be a critical moment in the painful development of civil democracy here.

Many of his radical-reformist critics said they were pleasantly surprised by Gorbachev's show of resolve. But this latest move, which effectively finesses unpopular premier Nikolai Ryzhkov out of a job,has none of the triumphant feel of Gorbachev's political victories of the past. Even his closest advisers concede that, above all else, Gorbachev found himself cornered, forced to improvise to mollify a legislature that had suddenly shifted from nearly slavish loyalty to frustration and outrage.

In the current state of political and economic chaos, Gorbachev is no longer so much an initiator of reform as a manager of collapse. To the surprise of most Soviets and the despair of all, it turns out that the price to pay for seven decades of empire and totalitarian rule is incalculable and unending.

Gorbachev's assumption of responsibility for executive power may clarify the chain of command; it no longer allows for the vague distinction between the government, led by a prime minister, and Gorbachev. "Ultimately, it is crucial that the president is initiating policy and not . . . a conservative prime minister like Ryzhkov," who favors only cautious economic reforms, said Sergei Stankevich, a legislator and deputy mayor of Moscow.

But with stores empty, with major cities moving onto a wartime rationing system, people have lost the taste for politics. They no longer feel a sense of optimism or excitement when they watch the legislature on television. After a period of promise, this is a country grown cynical and scared of the future. No political maneuvering, no matter how significant it seems in the Kremlin, is any longer associated with the revival of hope.

If the remarks of Soviet citizens this evening along Kalinin Avenue, a shopping boulevard, indicate public opinion, Gorbachev will begin to regain public support only when the economy starts improving. "Every so often Gorbachev plays a political game, and we're supposed to be excited about it," said one woman in her fifties who said she had spent the entire day in search of dinner for her children. "Believe me, no one is excited anymore."

Gorbachev's performance as president has been confounding in recent months. This summer he appeared to make a decisive shift when he forged an alliance with Russia's radical-reformist president, Boris Yeltsin. The two men sponsored the drafting of a 500-day program to stabilize the economy and establish the foundations for a market economy.

But Gorbachev's relationship with Yeltsin has foundered, and the 500-day plan was so watered down by Gorbachev's need to find consensus with conservatives that its authors, Stanislav Shatalin and Grigori Yavlinski, have now pronounced it unworkable, a failure.

"It's been months and months since the public felt that Gorbachev was really leading the country," said Yuri Chernichenko, a legislator and leader of the new Peasants' Party. "There is a sense of drift, and this country cannot afford to drift."

At the start of the legislature's emergency session Friday, Gorbachev's opening speech was vague and seemingly without response to the shouts of despair from the public and the lawmakers themselves, leading some to say they were not only angry with Gorbachev but felt sorry for him. He seemed ineffectual, out of touch.

One enraged legislator, Genrikh Igitian of Soviet Armenia, rose and said, "Mikhail Sergeyevich, after listening to your speech, it seems to me that you have been abroad for a long period of time and have suddenly returned to see what is happening in the country." Although less subtle and intellectual than Gorbachev, Yeltsin was impressive, concrete. He argued that it was Moscow's reluctance to relinquish power to the republics that was prolonging the country's destabilization.

The next morning, facing the greatest political pressure of his career, Gorbachev responded. And he heard something he had not heard in quite some time -- applause.

So what has happened? In a sense, Gorbachev's reforms have led to a new political landscape that is unfamiliar and threatening to his original sense of what the future would bring.

In the first years of his perestroika reform movement, Gorbachev had the preternatural confidence of a magician who seemed the master of every trick. With an uncanny sense of timing, he fired one old-guard Communist Party leader after another. By the time it was clear that the future was with pluralism, Gorbachev stopped calling the idea of a multi-party democracy "rubbish," abandoned the one-party system and shifted his own power from the Communist Party to a newly empowered government.

Now his confidence is unconvincing, and his moves seem desperate, edgy, perilously reactive, like those of a juggler with too many knives in the air. Every time he has gone to the legislature and asked for greater authority -- first for emergency powers, and now for complete executive responsibility -- he has gotten what he wanted. But he seems to have gained little more than a breathing spell, the most temporary sort of relief.

Were the Soviet Union still an integrated union governed by the unquestioned authority of Moscow, Gorbachev's clarified presidential powers would have more meaning. But in the past year, political power has changed radically.

Beginning, perhaps, with Lithuania's declaration of independence last March, Moscow's empire, assembled by the czars and remodeled by the Bolsheviks, began to crumble. Despite a personal visit to Lithuania, where Gorbachev used every political tactic he knows, from gentle persuasion to hard-line threats, the Lithuanians resisted.

In the following months, the rest of the Soviet republics' legislatures followed, either declaring independence or passing more moderate resolutions of regional sovereignty. Not only huge republics like Russia and the Ukraine but also tiny entities like the Tatars of Russia and the Gagauz of Moldavia began to see themselves, and not Moscow, as legitimate centers of authority, asserting an independence unknown here in centuries.

In that political context, Gorbachev has become, in a profound sense, a conservative. In speech after speech he has said that splitting up the union will lead to bloodshed. Through a new union treaty, he means to conserve the present boundaries of the country by forming a federation of sovereign states.

But with the three Baltic republics and Georgia having declared their refusal to sign and Yeltsin insisting on more authority for the republics than Gorbachev seems prepared to give, the political breathing spell Gorbachev bought this weekend is not likely to last long. And the real crises, the absence of food and dwindling of hope, continue with no end in sight.