MOSCOW -- The news was sensational: Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin was linked to Moscow's feared Chechen mafia, members of a small southern Russian ethnic group who control much of the capital's black marketeering, extortion and contract murder.
"You'll agree: To have on call a 9,000-man armed guard who in their time free from guard duty engage in robbery, murder and so forth -- that's the height of immorality," the source told the Communist Party weekly tabloid Glasnost, speaking of Mr. Yeltsin. "Not everyone will stoop to that."
The source? Purportedly a senior official of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs -- who did not want to be named.
His evidence? Well, the anonymous official explained, the number of Chechens living in Moscow supposedly doubled while Mr. Yeltsin was the capital's Communist Party chief. And Mr. Yeltsin, he averred, is said to have some men of Chechen nationality on his security staff.
For the third year running, the Communist Party has launched a no-holds-barred campaign to smear and undercut the most popular politician in the Soviet Union.
In 1989, the party appointed a commission to investigate accusations -- rather ironic in retrospect -- that Mr. Yeltsin had called publicly for a multiparty system. That campaign backfired on a grand scale, helping boost Mr. Yeltsin to win 89 percent of the vote against his party-backed rival for a seat in the Soviet parliament.
In 1990, after Mr. Yeltsin easily won a seat in the Russian republic's parliament, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev put his prestige on the line by publicly urging deputies not to elect Mr. Yeltsin their leader.
FTC Watch out, the Soviet president said: Mr. Yeltsin had not pronounced the word "socialism" in his campaign speech and clearly was seeking the breakup of the Soviet Union. Anonymous anti-Yeltsin leaflets turned up, printed on fine paper imported from Finland and bearing the unmistakable style of the KGB and Communist Party Central Committee.
But Mr. Gorbachev's blow ricocheted against his own popularity. Mr. Yeltsin took the top post in the 150-million-strong Russian Federation, giant among Soviet republics.
In 1991, the struggle between Mr. Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party, and Mr. Yeltsin, who quit the party last July, has taken on still greater importance and clarity.
The Soviet president has begun to retreat from democratic reform. The Russian president has shed the image of demagogue and clown that dogged him and emerged as by far the most important leader of reformist forces in the Soviet Union.
The outcome of their contest could decide the fate not only of Russia, but of the Baltic states and the rest of the nuclear-armed Soviet empire.
The anti-Yeltsin campaign has taken on a new urgency since Mr. Yeltsin last month lent his moral and political authority to the defense of Baltic independence. He took a hazardous step by separating, in effect, the Soviet empire from the Russian nation.
For decades, even under the rule of the Georgian Josef Stalin, Soviet imperialism has drawn political force from Russian nationalism. In Leonid Brezhnev's stock phrase, Russia was the "elder brother" of the other nations in the Soviet family. Russians were always second-in-command in every republic's Communist Party, keeping an eye on the locals for Moscow.
Mr. Yeltsin, by standing Russia alongside Lithuania, is trying to deprive the Kremlin of its Slavophile cloak. He is sending to Russians the message that they, too, are victims of Mr. Gorbachev's beloved "socialism."
But in doing so, he has drawn far more fire than the gutter journalism of Glasnost.
Mr. Gorbachev rarely lets a speech pass without an attack on Mr. Yeltsin, for breaking up the state or seeking to "change the country's social system" or simply having "political ambitions."
The Soviet president often avoids mentioning Mr. Yeltsin by name, using code-phrases instead. But in a major article for the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya this month, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, former chief of the general staff and Mr. Gorbachev's top military adviser, named Mr. Yeltsin and virtually accused him of treachery.
"The Union: To Be or Not to Be," the article was entitled. It laid out a charge that Mr. Yeltsin and his fellow elected democrats have been plotting to break up the mighty, united Soviet State. "Trampling on the constitution of the U.S.S.R. is standard practice for B. N. Yeltsin," Mr. Akhromeyev wrote. "He acts as if it doesn't exist at all."
Mr. Akhromeyev's concluding appeal to the country's Communist leadership was extraordinary: "Life has put before you a question harshly and inexorably: Will the Soviet Union be whole, or will it be dismembered into dozens of states that are dependent on the West, and its people subjected to the most profound suffering and humiliation?"
What historical precedent did Mr. Akhromeyev find? "In its time, in 1941-1945, when life put the same question before us, we answered it, and answered worthily," he declared. "How will you answer it today?"
Mr. Akhromeyev's appeal amounted to a virtual declaration of war on Mr. Yeltsin and his fellow democrats, who implicitly were compared to the Nazi Germans. Such rhetoric has begun to make the direst predictions of a year or two ago, about the possibility of a military coup or civil war, take on an ominous reality.
The Communist press is running a steady drumbeat of Yeltsin condemnations. Despite polls showing that Mr. Yeltsin remains far more popular than Mr. Gorbachev or any other rival, the angry telegrams and letters in Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya give the impression that the Russian president is despised by the "working class and the progressive part of the intelligentsia," as traditional Soviet phraseology puts it.
"The workers of the Tallinn Ship Repair Factory are humiliated and deeply offended by the personal stance of B. N. Yeltsin on the Baltic question. . . ." "Yeltsin: Russia is not a toy, and Russians are not figures on a chessboard. Abandon your ambitions and your post. -- Readers from Leningrad." "The actions of B. N. Yeltsin and certain 'democrats' are illegal and provoke alarm. -- Scholars from Moscow."
Mr. Gorbachev also appears to have engaged the KGB to discredit those around Mr. Yeltsin.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Gennady I. Filshin resigned last week after the KGB linked him to a questionable business deal. Artyom M. Tarasov, a Russian businessman and member of parliament, has been pilloried in the Communist press and had some of his enterprises closed because one of his employees turned out to have a criminal record.
Now Communists in the Russian parliament are calling for a vote of no confidence in Mr. Yeltsin at an emergency Congress of People's Deputies. He would almost certainly win such a vote, but it would undoubtedly be preceded by a noisy campaign mounted by the Communists against him -- possibly using the uproar likely to accompany food price hikes expected soon.
Valery Pogorely, who writes about the Russian parliament for the radical Moscow newspaper Kuranty, said the anti-Yeltsin campaign is likely to reach its height after the March 17 referendum on whether to preserve the Soviet Union.
Mr. Pogorely said it is obvious that the referendum will endorse preservation of a "renewed union." Such a result will be used by Mr. Gorbachev "to neutralize the leadership organs of a too-important, too-independent republic," he wrote.