MOSCOW, DEC. 18 -- After a typical morning of walkouts, rebuffs and despondent reports from the provinces, Mikhail Gorbachev wandered out into the foyer of the Congress of People's Deputies. It was time for a little spin control at the Kremlin.

Surrounded by half a dozen bodyguards, the Soviet president seemed small, a little worn-out from his new role as a crisis manager, the guardian of law and order. As the first reporter approached, Gorbachev straightened.

"Is it fair to say you are moving to the right?"

"Actually," Gorbachev replied, "I'm going around in circles."

As other reporters and legislators moved in, he grew more serious.

Once the cameras from "Vremya," the state-run television news program, started up, Gorbachev put irony aside.

But after such a typical morning, that initial moment of frustration seemed his most honest answer of the day.

Gorbachev had been taking a beating for hours.

The Moldavian delegates, furious with Moscow's inability to resolve their ethnic crisis, had stormed out of the hall and headed for Kishinev, the Moldavian capital.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin said "no way" would his republic take up Gorbachev's proposal for a referendum this winter on private property.

The Estonians said no to a new union treaty.

Even the leader of obedient Uzbekistan blamed the Kremlin for "poisoning" his Central Asian republic and said Moscow had to delegate more of its power.

And, in a cry of despair from the podium, a collective farm director from Mordovia, an autonomous region southeast of Moscow, said, "No wonder 60,000 people kill themselves every year in this country! Perestroika reforms have given us nothing. We are not headed for Stalinism or socialism but ruin."

Gorbachev leaned forward in his chair and glared. In the West, he's just about everyone's man of the postwar era, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, and yet his popularity at home is roughly where Lyndon Johnson's was in the worst years of the Vietnam War. Across town, a theater troupe was making him and his wife, Raisa, look like a couple of vain fools in a new play called "Moscow Gold."

The lunch break was fast approaching. The bad news was that 428 more deputies had requested the floor. A year ago, these congresses were a euphoric theater of history, with nearly every deputy breaking the countless taboos of seven decades. Now the atmosphere is aimless, depressed. Some deputies speak of "the last Congress," figuring that a parliament of 2,200 members is too unwieldy, a gigantic group therapy session that people no longer care to watch on TV.

That was why, during the lunch break, Gorbachev was talking for the cameras from "Vremya."

"Over these past six years," he said, "I feel I've lived several decades, several lives. I feel like the man in our legend of Nasredin who lived in Bukhara. He saddles up his jackass and goes down the road and everyone around him is saying, 'Look at that fool. Why is he tormenting himself and his beast in such terrible heat?' So he gets off and puts the jackass on his back and walks on that way."

Gorbachev said the people of the country have gotten fed up with the spectacle of jackasses and chatter and all the rest. He said he decided that he could no longer make yet another speech on the history, "the inferiority complexes and problems" of the country.

"They'd just say, 'Ach, there's Gorbachev on his hobby horse again. He loves to talk.' "

And so now Gorbachev has decided that he has had enough. Enough of the Baltic republics and their demands for independence. Enough of the cities' and republics' governments that have decided to overrule presidential decrees and federal laws. On Monday he spoke out for law and order and what amounts to "a more authoritarian approach to making democracy work," as one legislator called it.

"The problem is that our power has been torn to shreds," Gorbachev said. "The chain of command is broken, the electrical current is switched off and the economy is grinding to a halt. . . . We are already in a state of chaos. People think I don't see what's happening, but I do."

"That's right! That's why we need the iron fist!" one deputy in the circle cried out.

Gorbachev winced at the memory. Both his grandfathers were jailed during the Stalin years.

"No, not quite," he said. "Everyone knows I will not be a dictator. I could have been a dictator if I had kept all my power vested in the leadership of the Communist Party. Everyone knows that the old party leaders wielded power like no one else in the world. Not even {Chile's Gen. Augusto} Pinochet had such power!"

A few months ago, Gorbachev spoke of a special status for the Baltic states and their demands for independence. But the Baltic movement became almost a locomotive for nationalist movements throughout the country as the legislature of every republic passed a declaration of sovereignty or independence. Gorbachev now sees in all that the potential for "bloodshed" and the end of the union. So he has retreated. He demands that the republics stay together in a new federated union.

"For once in our history, let's try to do things without bloodshed, without dividing society into Reds and Whites, or black and blue. In our society, it's always been, 'If you don't like my idea, you are my enemy,' " Gorbachev told the swarm around him.

"Unfortunately, our society is not ready for the procedures of a law-based state. We don't have that level of political culture, those traditions. All that will come in the future, but the important thing in the meantime is not to smash each other's bones."

In the hall, the legislators were gathering for the afternoon session but the Lithuanians, Moldavians and the Armenians had all gone home. Some other deputies were beginning to wonder about plane reservations.