MOSCOW — "Hello, is this Yeltsin?"
"Yes, this is Yeltsin."
"When will you drop dead?"
"Oh, I've still got things to do in this world."
--An exchange between Boris N. Yeltsin and a caller during a phone-in session held by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Anyone who thinks President Mikhail S. Gorbachev won decisive support for his policies in that Soviet referendum nine days ago should have been at Leningrad's huge and grimy S.M. Kirov Tractor Plant when Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia's baritone-voiced prophet of change, swept in for a visit last week.
Workers stood up and applauded enthusiastically when Yeltsin, in a stem-winding speech, demanded that Gorbachev leave office. "Resign! Resign!" Yeltsin led them in chanting.
"The Communist Party has left the trenches and is on the offensive, pursuing its aim to take over power in Russia, to stage a constitutional coup," the silver-maned populist charged. "Today we need to save the country, not from the enemy without, but from the enemy within."
Yeltsin, who is both head of the Soviet Union's largest constituent republic and Gorbachev's personal nemesis, has gone on the attack before an emergency session of the Russian Federation's Congress of People's Deputies--a session at which his conservative opponents originally hoped to censure him before a national television audience or even unseat him. Reformers, according to ex-Communist Yeltsin, are at "a critical juncture in the struggle against the system."
Having gained some political momentum of his own thanks to a strong endorsement from Russian voters as part of that same referendum earlier this month, Yeltsin now hopes to turn the Congress, which opens Thursday in the Kremlin, into a crowning victory for the reformers. The radical from the Urals and his brain trust have drawn up a series of economic and political proposals so breathtaking in their historical context that adoption of a single one would make the sitting of the 1,060-member federation's Parliament a seminal event.
Yeltsin, chosen the Russian Federation's president by the Congress last year, wants to liberate Russia--a land almost twice as large as the United States, with 148 million people--from the tutelage of the central Soviet bureaucracy that Gorbachev heads. "Russia is tired of feeding the state and the other republics," he told the Leningraders.
If Yeltsin is successful, then Gorbachev's blueprint for a new Soviet "federation," where Russia and the 14 other constituent republics would be granted a much more limited autonomy, would be stillborn. Yeltsin and the Russian Federation would wind up setting the pace rather than Gorbachev and the Kremlin, because a Soviet Union without Russia--the union's heart, nerve center and mother lode of natural and human riches--is inconceivable.
Yeltsin's address promises to be the centerpiece of the Congress agenda. He has pledged "a constructive program of actions and, if the situation becomes really difficult, a direct appeal to the nation." Exact details of the Russian leader's plan have not yet been revealed, but among proposals being discussed as Thursday's session draws closer were these:
* To give 10% or more of the land on collective farms to individual farmers, allowing the first landholding class in Russia since the time of the czars.
* To allow privately owned factories employing up to 5,000 people in hopes of reversing the federation's economic nose dive. Drafted by a Yeltsin confederate, the approach would mean the first such large-scale private enterprise here since the Bolshevik Revolution pulverized "exploiters of the proletariat."
* To amend Russia's constitution to include a popularly elected president. Nearly 70% of voters in the federation approved Yeltsin's proposal for such a step in the March 17 referendum, and he has said he wants the job.
If that constitutional change is made, it would be a historic moment. In its often tragic 1,000-year existence, marred by the brutality and blood-drenched terror of rulers like Ivan the Terrible, the feeble-minded Czar Paul and Josef Stalin, the Russians have not once been able to freely choose the man or woman who led them.
Yeltsin, 60, wants to be the first.
But the dropout from Communist Party ranks is far from having a free hand. Once monolithic, politics here is now many layered, and Yeltsin is beset with various oppositions. At moments, perhaps, Gorbachev may be comforted by the thought that, on a smaller scale, obstreperous local leaders plague Yeltsin the same way Yeltsin plagues him.
The political entity that Yeltsin heads is not just "Russia" but the Russian Federation, or Russia proper plus 16 "autonomous republics"--homelands to the Volga Tatars, Kalmyks and other minority peoples. To build his "renewed (national Soviet) federation," Gorbachev has offered the lands that fit into Yeltsin's smaller federation rights and privileges on a par with those of Russia itself--clearly striking a responsive note with some of those minority groups.