MOSCOW -- For two days running, rumors that a top national leader had been incapacitated have swept Moscow.
Wednesday, the story was that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had been shot. Yesterday's rumor was that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had dropped out of sight because he was seriously ill.
The first rumor proved unfounded, and so did the second. But besides sending shivers through world financial markets, both rumors symbolized a growing feeling here that no one is in charge in a time of tumultuous changes.
Mr. Yeltsin, who complained of heart pains in September, went off on a two-week vacation to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, and there had been little word of him since then.
Yesterday morning, the Russian vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, told the Russian parliament that he had been unable to reach Mr. Yeltsin by phone, although he had tried 12 times. Every time he did get through, Mr. Rutskoi said, a voice on the other end would only inquire, "Did you really phone us before?"
The chairman of the parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, was also unable to reach Mr. Yeltsin.
For his part, Mr. Gorbachev has been much more in evidence, even paraphrasing Mark Twain on Wednesday to the effect that reports of his shooting had been greatly exaggerated.
But, as Arkady Volsky, deputy head of the Committee for the Operational Management of the National Economy, set up by Mr. Gorbachev to try to run things, explained to a group of U.S. pension fund managers Monday, "The thing to understand about the central government is that there is no central government."
Mr. Gorbachev makes headlines around the world with announcements of nuclear cutbacks, but the real management of the country is in the hands of the republics.
And the biggest and most important republic, Russia, seems to be adrift.
Mr. Yeltsin's aides said last night that he is not ill and will be returning to Moscow in time for today's session of parliament. And, indeed, he showed up last night at Moscow's Vnukovo 2 airport.
He will find a government paralyzed by disagreements over an economic pact that the republics appeared to have reached last week.
Yevgeny Saburov, the economics minister, initialed the agreement at Mr. Yeltsin's behest, but Russia's Council of Ministers -- a sort of parliamentary cabinet -- said he had no right to do so. By Wednesday, Mr. Saburov had resigned.
"There is no legal basis as to who is head of the government," Mr. Saburov said. "It's not clear."
Mr. Yeltsin also faces a fight with parliament over an edict giving himself the power to appoint presidential representatives to run local districts -- a power he says he needs to break the hold of leftover Communists.
All this political arguing has kept the government from launching any of the economic reforms that were promised after the failure of the August coup.
"So far privatization has gone along very slowly and very badly," said Oleg Ozhereliev, Mr. Gorbachev's economic secretary.
"Our democrats do not know how to organize things very well, and they can't reach agreements among themselves," said Eugene Yassin, one of the authors of the 12 remaining republics' economic pact. That pact is now in some doubt because of Russian parliamentary opposition, mostly based on jealousy of Mr. Yeltsin's authority.
Mr. Yassin said the country needs a strong executive who could see thenecessarily "painful" economic measures through to fruition.
With the government currently unable to act, he said, inflation could get entirely out of control, perhaps hitting a 1,000 percent annual rate.
The population, he added, doesn't necessarily have to understand the stringent moves that are required. "Life is getting worse and worse," he said. "People don't believe in logic. They believe in trust."
But yesterday people were trusting more in dire rumors about Mr. Yeltsin's well-being than in his ability to run the country.
It was perhaps more comforting, in a strange way, to think of the hero of democracy in dramatic ill health than to ponder his difficulties in politics.
It was all so clear in August, when Mr. Yeltsin climbed up on a tank and rallied the nation.
This week, before he climbed off Mr. Yeltsin's team, Mr. Saburov summed up the problem: "We're going at such a rate," he told the pension managers, "that we ourselves don't know where we're going."