MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev all but bowed to the inevitable yesterday, after Boris N. Yeltsin won overwhelming support in the Russian parliament for a new Commonwealth of Independent States to replace the Soviet Union.
"The main work of my life is done," Mr. Gorbachev said.
He said he had no interest in Mr. Yeltsin's offer of a role in the new commonwealth, preferring to quit "if the union state is buried."
Mr. Gorbachev has steadfastly argued that the commonwealth proclaimed Sunday by Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus (formerly Byelorussia) is unconstitutional and an invitation to catastrophe, but throughout the week the country has slid inexorably away from him.
"I want society to make a well-thought-out choice," he said in a conversation with Russian reporters at the Kremlin. "But I cannot rid myself of a feeling that the state is collapsing."
The Soviet president tacked one way and then the other during the day.
In the morning, he said he would support the commonwealth if the republics' parliaments ratify it. Russia's parliament joined those of Ukraine and Byelarus yesterday in doing so.
But in the evening, he issued a statement condemning the three from publics for withdrawing their deputies from the Soviet legislature.
That body met late in the afternoon to discuss the commonwealth but couldn't assemble a quorum. Mr. Gorbachev, who was scheduled to speak, never appeared. Without taking a vote, the legislature agreed that it had lost its ability to act and essentially disbanded itself.
Mr. Gorbachev complained about the rapid pace of events, saying, "This intolerable haste could augur serious consequences for the people."
But it was Mr. Gorbachev's perceived lack of haste, after the bold early years of perestroika (restructuring), that led to the death of his cherished Soviet Union with Sunday's proclamation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
"The country has found itself in the current political and economic crisis because of the shortsighted policy" of the central government, Stanislav Shushkevich, the Byelarussian leader, told his parliament in Minsk.
"This could go on no longer."
"The economic and political state of affairs in our country are such that we can no longer afford to waste time for endless discussions of our future destiny," Mayor Anatoly S. Sobchak of St. Petersburg told the Russian parliament in urging it to ratify the Minsk agreement.
"It was necessary to take resolute steps in order to reverse the unfavorable course of events," Mr. Yeltsin, the Russian president, said, in a brisk speech to the Russian legislators.
The commonwealth proclamation, he said, "suspended the process of chaotic collapse." Its aim is "not to destroy what was left, but to save what could still be saved."
Out in Red Square, a pensioner who gave his name as A. S. Alexandrov, from Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains, did what the politicians inside the Kremlin were unwilling to do -- blame Mr. Gorbachev directly.
"We've been waiting and waiting for Gorbachev, who didn't know what he wanted," Mr. Alexandrov said. "He's always lagging behind events. And he's lagged behind this event, too."
Even as the bright red Soviet flag still whipped in the breeze over the Kremlin, people in the capital and throughout the republics were quickly adjusting to the idea of a new governing structure.
On Monday, Mr. Yeltsin was expected to have trouble with his own parliament. Yesterday, it backed him 188-6, with seven abstentions.
At first, the Muslim republics of Asia were critical of what was being called the "Slavic Commonwealth." Yesterday their leaders met in Ashkhabad, in Turkmenistan, where they are expected to decide jointly to go along.
Immediately after the commonwealth was proclaimed, it looked as if a showdown between Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Gorbachev was unavoidable. Yesterday, it became evident that Mr. Gorbachev's position has simply crumbled beneath him.
Mr. Yeltsin's speech yesterday was forceful and well-received. Yet this has been the most soft-spoken overturning of a government imaginable. Rarely have such sweeping changes been accomplished with such a small expenditure of adrenalin.
Mr. Yeltsin, who in the wake of the August coup disdainfully humiliated Mr. Gorbachev in public, has gone out of his way this week to find a face-saving formula for the Soviet president.
The government's authority was publicly challenged by leading politicians, and no extra police were called out, no military units .. mobilized. In fact, the army said it was cutting back on maneuvers so as not to alarm people and to save money.
Only the conservatives were impolite.
"Gorbachev will become a nobody, and that is the only good thing to come out of this," Viktor Alksnis, a Soviet deputy, said. "I think he will have to emigrate from this country quickly."
Mr. Gorbachev himself has just looked worn out.
"I have done all that I could," he said. "If others were in my place, they would have given up long ago. However, I managed to push through the main ideas of perestroika, if not without mistakes."
rTC In an interview published yesterday by the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he said, looking ahead, "Perhaps the time has come to say that, personally, I do not seek a role in the future structures."
He said he wasn't even interested in a ceremonial position. "I do not see myself as guest of honor at a wedding."