MOSCOW -- Millions of voters cast their ballots yesterday for or against preservation of the Soviet Union in the first referendum in the country's history, but the result seemed likely to fall short of the overwhelming support for a renewed union that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was seeking.
Interviews outside polling places and early results suggested that most voters said yes to "the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics."
But a big minority appeared to be voting no, and Mr. Gorbachev was in danger of sustaining embarrassing losses or close calls in the country's three biggest cities, Moscow, Leningrad and the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Russian voters meanwhile appeared to be giving a solid majority to a separate question on the creation of a directly elected Russian Federation presidency, for which the leading candidate will probably be Gorbachev rival Boris N. Yeltsin. Moscow voters likewise seemed on the way to approving direct mayoral elections.
"If some madman should arise to provoke a breakup of our union, it would be a disaster for this country, for Europeans, for the entire world," Mr. Gorbachev told reporters after voting with his wife, Raisa, near their home in Moscow's Lenin Hills district. He called Mr. Yeltsin's skeptical stance on the union referendum "destructive."
At issue in the vote, he said, is "the fate of our people and the fate of our whole civilization." Asked whether he would resign if voters rejected a renewed union, the Soviet president said that he was confident the referendum would pass.
Mr. Yeltsin, voting across the city, declared that "this is not a personal battle between Mikhail Gorbachev and myself. The issue is one of different systems."
He said that Mr. Gorbachev "wants to preserve the old system, the huge bureaucratic and power apparatus, the Communist Party," while he personally favors an "alliance of sovereign republics" not controlled by Moscow.
In six of the 15 republics, there was only small-scale voting in factories, army bases and heavily Russian areas, with political opponents exchanging accusations and, in some cases, blows. The six -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova -- together account for less than 10 percent of the Soviet population, but their boycott exploded Kremlin hopes of demonstrating the country's unity.
In the Moldovan capital of Kishinev, nationalists blocked six of seven polling stations and jeered and beat some would-be voters. In the Latvian capital of Riga, a reporter for the Baltfax news agency claimed he had voted five times in precincts organized by Moscow loyalists desperate for votes against secession.
Turnout was well over 60 percent in the two most populous republics, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine, and hit 90 percent in parts of conservative Central Asia. But far from all voters were motivated by enthusiasm about Mr. Gorbachev's promise of a new, improved union.
The popular mayors of Moscow and Leningrad had announced that they would cross out both yes and no on their ballots, in effect abstaining. Opponents of the referendum question pasted posters in subway stations portraying dictator Josef V. Stalin urging support of the union.
On the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, one caller sarcastically proposed moving the Soviet capital to whatever city shows the highest support for preserving the union -- certainly not Moscow.
A disc jockey said that Soviet state television, which kept up its pro-union campaign yesterday, should be prosecuted for violating the law banning "agitation" on the day of the vote.
Although the state media have campaigned for weeks in favor of the union referendum, some voters clearly saw yesterday's vote as a chance to protest the crumbling economy and Mr.Gorbachev's increasing reliance on hard-liners.
"Empty store shelves, our poor economic management, the situation with interethnic relations, instability -- of course many voters affected by such emotions are voting no," said Ivan S. Kuzminok, a precinct chairman in the Byelorussian capital of Minsk.
Resentment of what many saw as a loaded question also affected the outcome. Inclusion of "Soviet" and "socialist" drove off some voters, who saw the words as standing for the discredited Leninist system. Some found contradictory the notion of "preserving" a "renewed" union, saying that it is impossible to preserve something that does not yet exist.
Finally, there seemed widespread confusion over just what the impact of an overall yes or no vote would be. The Soviet law on referendums says that a majority vote in favor "has mandatory force on the whole territory of the U.S.S.R."
Hence, democratic politicians fear that Mr. Gorbachev could use the vote to justify political, economic or even military measures to block republican independence movements.