AFTER almost single-handedly creating the institution of public opinion in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev is beginning to experience its irritating vagaries. With the economy in crisis, the Supreme Soviet engaged in eloquent inactivity (in the view of many Soviet citizens), and strikes and more ethnic unrest looming, Mr. Gorbachev's image is taking a battering. He has been hit by the Soviet equivalent of a midterm slump - common in the West, but an uncomfortably new phenomenon here.
A number of recent polls, mostly unpublished, reportedly show Gorbachev's public-approval rating dipping sharply from the 80 percent that he registered during the summer. Meanwhile, at least one poll this month - unpublished, despite the efforts of its organizers - shows Boris Yeltsin's popularity holding firm, notwithstanding allegations of drunken and bizarre behavior during a visit to the United States last month.
Gorbachev's irritation with this state of affairs apparently came to a head last Friday, at a meeting with senior editors and cultural figures.
Unlike earlier gatherings of this type, nearly the whole of the top leadership of the Communist Party assembled to hear Gorbachev speak. And in another departure from tradition, none of the news media officials were invited to comment when Gorbachev finished his presentation.
During the meeting, Gorbachev is said to have criticized leading perestroika radicals Yuri Afanasyev and Gavriil Popov.
Commenting on critical remarks on the future of the Communist Party made by Mr. Afanasyev in a regional newspaper, Gorbachev reportedly wondered why Afanasyev wanted to remain in the party. (Speakers at a pro-Yeltsin rally on Sunday night claimed that the newspaper in question had been placed under the tight supervision of the local party leadership after Afanasyev's article appeared.) The Soviet leader is also reported to have expressed surprise that Vladislav Starkov, editor of the lively weekly Argumenty i Fakty, was still occupying his editor's chair. Late Monday evening, according to unofficial reports, Mr. Starkov had been fired.
Members of the audience differed on the message he was trying to give them. One senior editor said that Gorbachev's tone was ``normal'' and ``reasonable.'' Another, however, thought that Gorbachev was trying to warn his allies on the left of the reform spectrum that they were making life dangerously difficult for him with their attacks on the Communist Party and on Gorbachev himself.
In fact, Gorbachev took a similar tack recently with Baltic activists, warning them that too much pressure for independence could trigger a backlash from Russian nationalist extremists.
While Gorbachev is having problems, Mr. Yeltsin is turning up the heat. At a public meeting last Sunday, he presented himself as a fighter for the ``salvation of perestroika.'' He lumped Gorbachev together with the rest of the party apparat (bureaucracy) and conservative leadership who were attacking him. And he claimed that a videotape of one of his US appearances shown on Soviet TV several weeks ago had been doctored to discredit him. The crowd responded enthusiastically to his claims.
Yeltsin supporters have alleged that the videotape had been slowed down to give the appearance of someone who was drunk. US TV representatives in Moscow, however, say that it is extremely difficult to tamper with videotape in this way.
Whether or not the film was faked, Yeltsin's popularity remains high, according to a public opinion poll conducted immediately after the videotape was shown on Soviet TV on Oct. 1. Liliya Kazakova, the researcher in charge of the poll, says that both Moscow News and Argumenty i Fakty declined to publish the results of the survey.
The telephone poll of 1,000 Muscovites indicated that Yeltsin's unusual behavior had caused some negative reaction, but had done little to damage his popularity:
About 95 percent of the respondents had seen the broadcast.
About 30 percent expressed doubt that Yeltsin was sober during his televised presentation.
71 percent feel that Yeltsin's visit to the US destroyed the long standing stereotypes of of the severe, formal Soviet leader.
51.6 percent thought that perestroika would go faster if Yeltsin was in charge.
58.6 percent like Yeltsin and his program.
74.2 percent agree with the content of Yeltsin's speeches, but 60 percent do not like his delivery. Ms. Kazakova says that those who disapproved of Yeltsin's style were mainly over 55 years of age. The nearly 40 percent who approved were mostly younger and better educated.