MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Boris N. Yeltsin squared off yesterday over the referendum on whether to preserve the Soviet Union with competing broadcasts that dramatized the central role of the power struggle of the Soviet president with his populist rival in tomorrow's vote.
Mr. Gorbachev pleaded for a vote in favor of preserving the Soviet Union as a "renewed federation of equal sovereign republics," saying that dissolution of the state would be a catastrophe.
"At issue is the fate of our country, the fate of our homeland, our common home, how we and our children and grandchildren will live," he said.
Mr. Yeltsin, leader of the Russian Federation, said that he and the majority of voters in the biggest Soviet republic favored Russia's membership in a union of free states and that no referendum was needed to prove it.
But he said a "yes" vote for the lengthy, tangled question on the ballot could be used to justify "the imperial, unitary essence of the union," or old-style Soviet socialism and even military intervention to prevent secession.
"The failure of the referendum would be a signal to the union leadership that the policy it is pursuing needs serious correction," Mr. Yeltsin said. A "no" vote would not, and could not, break up the union, he said.
Capping a massive Communist Party propaganda campaign in favor of the referendum, Mr. Gorbachev surely won the battle for audience share. He commandeered the first 10 minutes of the national evening television news broadcast for his address.
Mr. Yeltsin gave a 40-minute afternoon interview to Radio Russia, whose broadcasts reach only a little more than half of the Russian Federation. His request for 30 minutes of national television time had been turned down, and having taped the radio interview Thursday, he rejected a last-minute offer of 10 minutes on TV.
Six of the 15 republics -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova -- are refusing to hold the poll at all. At Moscow's orders, special polling places have been set up in military and other premises under union control, but the turnout is unlikely to reach the 50 percent mark necessary for a valid vote in the six republics.
Thus the battle of Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin is mainly for the hearts and minds of the Russian Federation, the 150-million-strong giant whose vote will sway the overall result.
Mr. Gorbachev carefully avoided his usual references to communist ideology, mentioning neither the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution nor the people's alleged "socialist choice," nor V. I. Lenin, founder of the Soviet state.
Instead he tapped into older, deeper, less-discredited traditions: superpower status and Slavic pride, ancestors' sacrifices, and today's fear of anarchy.
"Our 'yes' will preserve the unity of a state that is a thousand years old and that has been created through labor and intelligence, as well as through the immense suffering of many generations," he said.
He promised that a "yes" vote would work miracles -- eliminating the threat of war, ending "destructive processes" and "endless disputes and rising passions," starting "the consolidation of society" and giving new impetus to real reform.
He concluded his appeal by quoting not Lenin but the 11th century Russian Prince Yaroslav the Wise: "If you live in hatred, feuds and disputes, you yourselves shall perish."
For his part, Mr. Yeltsin rebutated the Communists' insistence that the referendum itself would determine the union's fate. Even if voters reject the union, he said, factories will continue to operate, the army and KGB will defend the state, and there will be no sudden disintegration.
He dissected the ballot question, arguing that the real goal of Mr. Gorbachev and the conservatives who now surround him is to cloak their totalitarian empire with the appearance of popular approval.
For instance, he asked, what would a vote for "preservation of the union" mean when the three Baltic republics have declared their independence and won a majority vote for it in their own referendums?
"Does that mean I'm for the union leadership holding onto the republics at any price, with the aid of violence against the civilian population, and against the will of the majority of the population? Or maybe for something else? It's totally unclear," he said.
Possibly because his sharply worded recent speeches have drawn criticism as unconstructive, Mr. Yeltsin began his interview by declaring that Russian Federation authorities would see to it that any citizen who wants to cultivate a plot of land will be given a plot by next month.
He also urged Russian Federation voters to approve direct popular election of the Russian president in a separate republican referendum that is being held simultaneously.
He denied Communists' claims that the vote would clear the way for his own dictatorship. He said he intended to be a candidate for the elected presidency, if approved, but said he expected other strong candidates to run and that the choice would belong to the voters.