MOSCOW, DEC. 23 -- In a bitter wind this morning, a young historian named Vladimir Lukin stood on a flatbed truck outside city hall and told a crowd of 1,000 people, "Friends, these are decisive times. We have not seen such an explosive moment since the revolutions of 1917."

Frozen numb, the crowd nodded mechanically and shouted some half-hearted slogans. Here and there were a few hand-painted signs: "Down With the Communist Party!" "Shevardnadze is with us! Gorbachev is not!" But after a while, people started to turn away in boredom and frustration and headed down Tverskaya Street, some stopping off to stand in hour-long lines for meat.

These are the hardest days for the democracy movement since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985. Not only have such key reformists in the Kremlin as Alexander Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze left the leadership, the popular movement itself appears listless, disorganized and, in the raw political sense, powerless.

Ales Adamovich, a writer and deputy from Byelorussia, stood among the crowd at the demonstration today, his face drawn with fatigue. From his first-row seat at the Congress of People's Deputies last week he watched what he called "the reactionary surge," a show of strength by the KGB, the army and the Communist Party apparatus. The sight of KGB secret police chief Vladimir Kryuchkov on Saturday railing, as if from a darker era, against foreign enemies and suggesting that bloodshed might be required to restore order in the country left Adamovich stunned.

"Kryuchkov's speech typifies an attitude that goes back decades: 'Things will come and go, but we will always be here.' The left has the support of the people, but the left can't do much when the levers of power are in the hands of the reactionaries."

Such is the critical difference between 1917 and 1990. In 1917, the eight-month, provisional government under Alexander Kerensky held power so loosely that a second revolution, the victory of the Bolsheviks, was pathetically easy. Despite the myths of Soviet historians, the casualties at the assault on the Winter Palace amounted to five dead -- mostly from stray bullets. The legendary battleship Aurora fired one shot, a blank.

By comparison, the democratic movement now faces the specter of a huge army and secret service, a Communist Party that is said to be the biggest landowner in the world. Those institutions have vulnerabilities, pockets of dissidents and reformists, but their senior leaderships, their bureaucracies in Moscow and the provinces, are battling for their own survival.

Last spring the forces for democracy won an extraordinary series of victories in regional and municipal elections, a wave embodied in the elections of economist Gavril Popov as mayor in Moscow and lawyer Anatoli Sobchak in Leningrad. Both men quit the Communist Party and promised that they would try to create islands of free enterprise and expression in their cities.

For the Communists, the elections were a devastating revelation: in nearly every case, when people had a choice between traditional Communists and an outsider, they voted for the outsider.

Popov and Sobchak had the power of their ideas and their popular support. But with time it became clear that layers of Communist Party bureaucrats would do their best to stifle and resist the democrats once they were in office. This summer, both Moscow and Leningrad were hit with sudden shortages of cigarettes and bread, and both mayors charged that the crises were the result of a collapsing economy and outright sabotage. The Communist Party also fought to deny city governments essential properties, such as television stations and municipal buildings.

As the economy grew worse, the mayors' popularity began to decline. "It seems the democrats took power too soon. People like Popov and Sobchak have nothing but their own intellects. Political power has to be backed up with something economic," said Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a prominent sociologist and member of the reform movement in the congress.

Zaslavskaya said she was convinced that the party bureaucracy was sabotaging the democratic efforts to such a degree that "I am pretty sure that if the democrats were ousted, the shops would suddenly be full of food that we have never seen in our lives."

Power in this country has always been quick to dismiss the popular will. "What revolution?" one of Nicholas II's ministers, Alexander Schliapnikov, said in 1916. "Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will peter out."

That appears to be the strategy of the Bolshevik conservatives who are now so obviously pushing Gorbachev to a more hard-line position.

"This is a battle for power in which there are no rules and no limits," said Anatoli Ananev, editor of the journal October. "The conservatives are willing to exploit the country's empty shelves and somehow blame it on reform and say, 'Look what all this has brought us.' The collective farm and factory directors may be legally, technically, responsible to people like Sobchak and Popov, but they ignore them. They simply respond to their old comrades, the local Communist Party bosses with whom they share the interest of basic survival."

"We democrats have discovered to our great pain that the powers that be were prepared to bend, but they would not break when it came to their own interests: the preservation of their own economic and political power," said Algimantis Cekoulis, a member of the Lithuanian legislature.

Popov has just published a long article, "What Is to Be Done?" -- the title of manifestoes by Nikolai Cherneshevsky in 1840 and Vladimir Lenin in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution. But somehow his painful discovery of the imbalance of power makes his essay on the need for privatization ring hollow.

Popov, who ran for mayor because he decided that the reformists might have more success in a local level than in the national congress, has expressed utter frustration with his situation in Moscow, even telling political associates that he may soon resign and hand over his office to his young deputy, Sergei Stankevich.

"I said when I started this job that I'd give myself around a year," Popov said in an interview.

Such groups as Democratic Russia, the Inter-Regional Group, the Moscow Voters' Club, the various new political parties, from the Social Democrats to the Democratic Party of Russia, are struggling with the question now of how to answer the current conservative assertion of power. They agree that mass rallies and alternative newspapers are no longer adequate.

Gorbachev still seems to be the key to the political struggle. Although many of the non-Communist democrats view Gorbachev with emotions ranging from skepticism to contempt, they know that he still has the ability to steer the country's political course. Stankevich and Sobchak, for example, say the country is in such a state of crisis that the only temporary course is for Gorbachev to win and use increased executive powers.

"The alternative to Gorbachev is someone who would use those powers far less wisely, with far less sense of justice," Sobchak said.

But politics here no longer stops with Gorbachev. By a wide margin, Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin is the most popular politician in the country and has made the Russian legislature into a kind of radical alternative to the Supreme Soviet, supporting a devolution of power to the republics and allowing citizens to own private property.

Although the two men have clear political differences -- especially over the balance of power between Moscow and the republics -- most of the democratic forces now say, especially after Shevardnadze's resignation, that only a "center-left" alliance between Gorbachev and Yeltsin is an adequate response to the rise of the conservative forces.

"I'm no longer interested if they don't like each other all that much. I couldn't care less," said Daniel Granin, a deputy from Leningrad. "Without Yeltsin and Gorbachev standing together, the democratic forces are in deep, deep trouble."