MOSCOW -- More than 100,000 Muscovites heeded democratic activists' call yesterday, pouring into the streets to denounce President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and to reject his referendum on preserving the Soviet Union.
The crowds once again filled the broad square outside the Kremlin in the late-winter sunshine. They chanted their allegiance to Mr. Gorbachev's nemesis, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, cheered striking coal miners and decried the lies and decay of Communist rule.
"So-called socialism Is the opium of the people," one poster paraphrased Karl Marx's dictum on religion. "Gorbachev: Once you led us forward -- now you lead us backward. Resign!" said another.
Bone-weary from the endless hunt for food, angry about rising prices, tired of unkept promises, Moscow still managed to produce a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration as big as any to date. There were also big rallies in several other Russian cities.
"The Communists have shown their capabilities and achievements. It's time Yeltsin had a chance," said Mikhail Mashonin, an economist who came with his wife, Paulina, and their 8-year-old daughter, Natasha. It was their first political rally.
But there was a growing feeling, reflected in some speeches that boomed from loudspeakers atop the Hotel Moskva, that the democrats are winning the battle of demonstrations and losing the political war for the future of the country to the Communist Party.
"In the past, we've been pleased that we were so many," said historian Yuri N. Afanasyev, one of the leaders of the Democratic Russia coalition. "Now that's not enough."
Mr. Afanasyev, like many other speakers, called for "unity" and "action." But the rally offered little evidence of either unity or any considered plan of action beyond fending off the constant attacks on the democratic movement from the Communist propaganda machine.
Nikolai I. Travkin, the leader of the Democratic Party of Russia, perhaps the largest and most organized of several dozen new, non-Communist parties, appealed for reform-minded Russians to rally around a single party -- his party.
Next to speak was Telman K. Gdlyan, a member of the Soviet parliament and former prosecutor. He appealed for reform-minded Russians to rally around a single party -- his party, the just-announced People's Party of Russia.
Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov told the crowd that to show their opposition to Mr. Gorbachev's call for preserving the union in the March 17 referendum, they should cross out both "yes" and "no" on the ballot, rendering it invalid.
Mr. Afanasyev immediately stepped in to note that the leadership of Democratic Russia -- of which Mr. Popov is a key member -- was officially advising its supporters to vote "no" on the union in the March 17 referendum. It also is calling for "yes" votes on democrats' proposals to establish direct elections for the Russian president and Moscow mayor.
"In unity is our strength," said Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei B. Stankevich, with no hint of irony in his amplified voice.
Mr. Yeltsin did not appear at the rally; Mr. Afanasyev said he was ill. But tHe day before, Mr. Yeltsin had appeared at a democratic conference looking well, and Mr. Afanasyev had explained that he would not appear at the meeting for fear he could be physically harmed by political enemies.
In his absence, the organizers played a 10-minute excerpt from Mr. Yeltsin's Saturday speech into the public address system. The quality of the sound was so poor that most of the crowd understood little of the tape.
The democrats' Communist Party opponents suffer from no such technical difficulties. In the evening news program "Vremya" last night, more than 15 minutes were devoted to further attacks on Mr. Yeltsin's Saturday speech, although it was likely that few viewers heard any of the excerpts broadcast only on one radio channel.
A number of Communist parliamentary deputies and a "political observer" of state television took turns bashing Mr. Yeltsin, citing several out-of-context quotes and distortions. Where Mr. Yeltsin had spoken figuratively of "declaring war" on the Soviet leadership and of "fighting" and "battle," his stern-faced critics implied that the words were meant literally to urge violence.
The observer, Alexander Artsibashev, suggested that Mr. Yeltsin intends to break up the Soviet Union, a "great power," into "little pieces." He did not explain how the 150-million-population Russian Federation could be a "little piece," even if it became independent of all the other republics.
The organizers of yesterday's rally called on people to be prepared for another mass action on the eve of the special session of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies set for March 28. Communists are hoping to have Mr. Yeltsin, who was elected to the presidency by a narrow margin at the first congress last May, voted out of the presidency at the congress.