MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said yesterday that the very existence of the Soviet state is in jeopardy and that politicians must put aside their differences to "save the fatherland."
But Mr. Gorbachev, during a stopover in the Soviet Far East on his way to Japan, nonetheless kept up long-distance sparring with his main rival, Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin.
Mr. Gorbachev said Russia will itself be "doomed" to disintegration if its leaders do not work for the preservation of the Soviet Union. He accused Mr. Yeltsin of inconsistency in calling for rapprochement with the Soviet leadership and then releasing another blast of criticism.
Traveling a continent away and in the opposite direction, Mr. Yeltsin tangled with European socialists in Strasbourg, France, some of whom made no secret of their preference for Mr. Gorbachev.
But Mr. Yeltsin assured the European parliamentarians that despite their battles, he and Mr. Gorbachev were still allies in the overall war against Soviet reactionaries.
"The right is preparing disasters for democracy, and when we see that, we act to prevent the right from advancing," Mr. Yeltsin said. "In that struggle, we are prepared to cooperate with President Gorbachev."
With Mr. Gorbachev in Japan, Mr. Yeltsin in France and Soviet Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov in London, there is an unprecedented absence of top leaders during a severe economic and political crisis.
Right-wing opponents of reform have in the past grown vocal and active during Mr. Gorbachev's trips abroad, and the military-coup watchers here are on high alert. But it might reasonably be questioned whether anyone in the military would be willing to take responsibility for solving the country's problems at the moment.
First among the problems is the strike movement that is spreading across the country, with no sign that either appeals from the Soviet president nor lavish promises of big wage increases can bring it to an end.
Soviet television had an unusually candid report from the Ukrainian Donbas coal field last night, reporting that strikers there were putting first priority on political demands. Like miners in Siberia's Kuznetsk, they are demanding the resignation of Mr. Gorbachev, the disbanding of the Soviet Parliament and the transfer of their power to the Federation Council, whose members are leaders of the Soviet republics.
Meanwhile, trade union officials representing Siberian oil workers were meeting in Moscow to discuss ways of pressing the government for greater financial support or permission to keep more revenue from oil sold. Any work action cutting oil production would be a severe blow to the economy, since most Soviet hard currency comes from oil sales.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, authorities were scrambling to head off a planned warning strike in support of the miners.
Mr. Yeltsin has repeatedly called on Mr. Gorbachev to join what ** he calls round-table talks involving all major political forces, including strikers. He says only a coalition government can stop the strikes and stabilize the situation to permit further reform.
Mr. Gorbachev hinted yesterday that he might be considering such talks by praising Mr. Yeltsin's "constructive invitation" to dialogue. But he then said that Mr. Yeltsin's subsequent remarks were in a much less cooperative spirit.
In his Khabarovsk speech, the Soviet president placed far more emphasis on his proposed Union Treaty than on round-table talks. He is urging the republics to sign the Union Treaty to create a new, ostensibly decentralized U.S.S.R.
Yesterday's edition of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda seemed to capture the confused economic and political situation. It asked readers to report any attempts to incite more workers to strike on an "alarm telephone" and gave two numbers. But calls to the two phones yesterday went unanswered.
And the staid, earnest newspaper slipped into an uncharacteristically cynical mode in a commentary saying there are two ways of solving the country's economic problems -- "the realistic way and the way of sheer fantasy.
"The realistic way involves the arrival of Martians to help us," Pravda said. "The sheer fantasy is our helping ourselves."