MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin tried to kick a balky Congress of People's Deputies into action yesterday before time runs out on their plan to remake the government.
"Now the main thing is to act rapidly," Mr. Gorbachev told the 2,000 deputies who had gathered in the Kremlin to try to decide the future shape of the Soviet Union.
But, coming under fire from conservatives who object that he is trying to launch "another coup," the Soviet president backed down from his proposal Monday to sweep away the old government in favor of a triumvirate of councils that would be selected by the republics.
He told the deputies yesterday that he would prefer to keep the Soviet parliament in business -- in a nod to representative government -- but would still set up a state council made up of the republics' presidents and himself to actually run things.
Mr. Yeltsin, the Russian president, vowed that there would be no return of "Russian imperialism" and that under the new structure equal republics, Russia would not be more equal than the others.
He said Russia would always look after the interests of Russians, however, even if they happened to live in some other republic. That kind of comment has made the leaders of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which have sizable Russian populations, uneasy since Mr. Yeltsin emerged as the most powerful figure in the Soviet Union following the collapse of the August coup.
But the emphasis yesterday was on reassurance coupled with pressure.
Mr. Gorbachev and his allies tried to win over deputies to their plan fora state council with avowals that the proposal isn't so radical. The congress' session ends today, however, and they want action by then.
Ivan S. Silayev, the Russian prime minister and head of the powerful new committee trying to work out an economic plan for the nation, assured the congress yesterday that he was not going to try a "shock therapy" course of instant capitalism like the one in Poland.
He said that something needed to be done quickly, however, and that it couldn't be done the old way.
"The unitary system has died," he said. "Attempts to resuscitate the corpse won't succeed." Mr. Silayev said he favored a voluntary economic union that could include even republics that secede -- such as the Baltics -- and might even expand to include separate nations. He suggested Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria as countries that might be interested in joining such an economic community.
"The West is looking over our shoulder," Mr. Gorbachev said, "to see if we're able to unify and cooperate. If we are able to coordinate, unite within the new forms, find new structures, new people, the West will support us."
Gesturing emphatically, he said, "The central issue before us is clarification of our state structure. If we cannot solve that, we cannot solve any other. This is something I'm profoundly convinced of."
Mr. Gorbachev needs a two-thirds majority of the deputies to change the Soviet Constitution if he decides to follow the letter of the law.
That large a majority could prove difficult to achieve in the conservative-dominated congress, but another argument began to emerge yesterday: that the constitution was already dead and that the requirements for changing it were therefore moot.
Sergei Alexeev, chairman of the Constitution Compliance Committee, was quoted by the Tass news agency as saying, "There is some reason behind the view that the Soviet Constitution is no longer effective. It should be kept in mind that the Soviet Union has in fact disintegrated."
While trying to allay fears of a Russian ascendancy, Mr. Yeltsin explained why Russians have become so prominent in the new government. He placed them there -- with Mr. Gorbachev's acquiescence -- simply because they had been on the right side during the coup, he said. Unlike Mr. Gorbachev's advisers, he said, they hadn't betrayed anyone.
To emphasize the need for change, he described in an interview with Cable News Network some of the things he thought were wrong with the old government.
"For the last few days, my telephone has been working much better; it hasn't been clicking," Mr. Yeltsin said. "Even the president of the Russian Federation was being bugged."
"There were a lot of mistakes," Mr. Gorbachev told the deputies in describing his pre-coup government. "I didn't see in time we had to throw away totalitarian structures.
6* "Gorbachev has also changed," he said.