MOSCOW -- If all the deputies who are attending the 9-day special Congress here were to lie down in a single row, head to foot, they would stretch a mile, just about enough to encircle the entire Kremlin.
There are 1,002 of them, every one of them just dying to talk. Or maybe there are 1,004 of them; no one seems quite sure.
They have divided themselves into 13 separate, registered factions -- and still there are 43 deputies who have remained aloofly non-aligned.
This is the Sixth Congress of Russian People's Deputies. It was to be the make-or-break showdown for President Boris N. Yeltsin -- a constitution-writing, Cabinet-shaking session. But then the delegates got to talking, and somehow the first five days went by and the impassive Mr. Yeltsin barely budged.
Yesterday that may have all begun to change. The president's opponents nicked away at his economic reform program with amendments all afternoon. Then, late in the day, they pushed through a resolution that would have the effect of loosening his control over government ministers by next July.
Caught off-guard, the president's men immediately staked out a most-drastic-case reading of the events of the day.
"To put it bluntly," said Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Mr. Yeltsin's economic program, "today's decision completely revises the course of economic reform." He said that the parliament's interference would kill any chance of economic cooperation with the West.
Then he added, "If you try seriously to put into effect what the Congress approved today, well, you must understand that this is the road to the collapse of the financial system."
Notice his use of the word "seriously." A lot can happen between now and July, and the Congress itself has four more days to run, four more days during which the president's forces can attempt to turn things around.
Having 13 different factions to play with among the deputies can only help the Yeltsin forces.
Positions have already been staked out all over the place. There are deputies who oppose the economic reforms and support the government. Others oppose the government but support the president. Others support the reforms but oppose the president. There's plenty of room for intrigue.
And there's no question that feelings run high.
"There is only one way out of the situation now," gravely intoned Deputy Viktor Aksyuchits of the Russian Christian Democratic Movement. "Unfortunately, Yeltsin as president and prime minister, holding the two most senior posts of the state, and personifying the program of reform, has turned out to be a bankrupt!"
He said the only solution is a new government of "concord and trust" under the control of the parliament.
"Only a madman can question the existence of the present government," drily asserted Valeri Makharadze, a vice premier.
And so the remarks have flown back and forth all week, sometimes on the floor of the barrel-vaulted Meeting Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace, built in 1838 as a Moscow residence for Czar Nicholas I, and sometimes in the low-ceilinged anterooms where the deputies come out to smoke and elaborate on their invective for hordes of reporters.
But there's something unmistakably legislative in the character of this Congress.
Even during the most emotional, or important speeches, a sweeping glance at the 1,002 (or 1,004) dark wooden desks shows people idly chatting, people reading newspapers and taking notes, people reading newspapers and doing crossword puzzles, people dreaming, people writing letters, people dozing.
In several instructive ways, though, this Congress is sharply different from those that have preceded it. In place of the huge bust of Lenin at the end of the hall is the tricolor flag of Russia. Some of the deputies are walking around in the uniforms of the Cossack cavalry -- the czarist Cossack cavalry.
But more than that, this is a Congress where the democrats were actually better organized than the Communists -- until yesterday, at least. They have monopolized the microphones, which left the hard-liners stamping their feet in frustration -- but out where the reporters gather, where it doesn't count.
Maybe the biggest change, though, is in the nature of the president. Mikhail S. Gorbachev went through these meetings in serious dark suits. He was always trying for consensus and sometimes was a genius at defusing confrontations. But he had very little patience for personal criticism.
Mr. Yeltsin, on the other hand, showed up to give his speech in a suit that was a shade lighter than royal blue, about the same color as the blue stripe on the Russian flag. How could anyone wearing a suit that color not be self-confident? When the insults came, and the demands for his resignation, he just let it all flow by, and it evaporated.