Vain Americans who gratefully have watched their surgical scars vanish can thank the Soviets for preserving their cosmetic beauty.

The little-known surgical stapler, a modern-day substitute for the traditional suturing technique, came to this country courtesy of Soviet scientists who first patented the instrument. Their crude contraption fell into the hands of New Yorker Leon Hirsch, who adroitly turned it into a $350 million business known today as United States Surgical Corp. in Norwalk, Conn.

Like the stapler, a smattering of inventions made their way from Soviet laboratories into the American market during the Cold War years. But that is a pace far too slow to satisfy perestroika-era Soviets who in their urgent quest for hard currency are now reaching eagerly into their treasure-trove of brainpower for anything worth peddling to the West.

And while Americans seem increasingly eager to mine the Soviet Union for scientific ideas, industrial processes and other innovations, the nagging question is whether the Soviets really have much worth buying. Many Americans are likely to find what Hirsch did -- that there can be a difficult stretch between getting a Soviet technology and turning it into something marketable.

It was 27 years ago, long before the arrival of McDonald's in Red Square and clunky Soviet watches on Fifth Avenue, that Hirsch first encountered the Soviet stapler. But in certain ways the licensing of Soviet technology can be as frustrating now as it was then.

In the Soviet Union, where there are 30 percent more scientists for every 100 workers than in the United States, much research work is pursued for the sake of science or national defense and lacks the important litmus test of commercial marketability.

"We've long known that in fundamental science the Soviets are pretty good. But it's not so simple to immediately transfer that into technological products," said Loren Graham, a professor specializing in Soviet science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If I were a Western businessman, I would not think the Soviet Union is the best place to spend my time. I just don't see a harvest" there.

The West's harvest over the last few decades has indeed been meager. Americans import less from the Soviet Union than they do from a tiny country like Finland, with items like petroleum and platinum leading the list and vodka the only consumer item of any note.

Soviet manufacturing processes and laboratories have yielded slightly more bounty. U.S. firms including Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. and Reynolds Aluminum have obtained rights to use a few Soviet techniques in metallurgy and chemical production, fields where manufacturing processes can be transferred without having to tailor them to consumers' tastes. A trickle of Soviet medical products has flowed into U.S. hands as well. Du Pont Co., for example, expects federal approval soon to sell a Soviet-developed heart drug.

Often the transfers depend as much on serendipity as careful planning. An executive of Maxwell Laboratories in San Diego, for example, was in the Soviet Union attending a conference when he visited a lab and discovered that his hosts had perfected a technique to seal nuclear fuel rods using magnetic fields.

Maxwell licensed the process in the mid-1970s, only to see its value slip with the decline of the nuclear power plant business.

Few matches were less predictable than that between Hirsch and the surgical stapler.

An American businessman who made his living manufacturing coin-operated dry-cleaning equipment, Hirsch visited a New York patent broker in 1963 in search of additional products. On the broker's desk an odd-looking contraption caught his eye.

"It looked to me like a shillelagh, and it actually was a Soviet stomach stapler," Hirsch recalled in a recent interview, referring to the Irish cudgel.

After consulting with American surgeons, Hirsch licensed the rights to the instrument and then began to radically alter it, reducing its weight, making it easier to load with staples and fine-tuning other aspects to make it more commercially viable. To sell in America, the product required virtually a complete overhaul.

The stakes are far higher and the process more formal as Americans rush today to repeat Hirsch's success. Many think it's worth the considerable effort and are helped along by a flurry of matchmakers who in true capitalist style have jumped into the licensing fray.

"We happen to be good at the commercialization side. The Soviets happen to be good at the basic research side. That can be a good marriage," said Gordon Feller, a longtime U.S.-Soviet liaison in San Francisco. "There are literally hundreds of deals cooking."

Arthur D. Little Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., research firm, expects to raise $50 million from Western firms that in turn will acquire rights to exploit innovations funneled through the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Last month, Genesis Technology Group Inc., also of Cambridge, formed a similar partnership with two dozen Soviet biological institutes and expects to raise $10 million from Western firms.

An even more ingenious deal was concluded last week when a Soviet research institute agreed to provide a start-up California firm with a new technique for producing proteins in return for a minority stake in the company.

The eagerness among Soviet scientists and engineers to share their know-how can overwhelm visitors.

"Everywhere you go they dump stuff on you," said Mark Muchnick, a self-confessed opportunist who is bringing 11 members of the Soviet science bureaucracy to California's Silicon Valley next month for face-to-face meetings with electronics industry executives.

"Instead of 'Do you want to go to dinner?' it was 'Do you want to do a joint venture?' ... It was like a singles bar," said Esther Dyson, a U.S. computer-industry commentator who has visited the Soviet Union.

A glimpse of what Soviets consider their most marketable innovations was offered last month at a Munich exhibition sponsored by the Soviet defense establishment. Among the technologies and products peddled, according to a U.S. government official who attended, were explosives that can be used to economically destroy old ships, instruments for measuring gases in chemical and drug production, techniques for making synthetic diamonds and new materials for use in rockets and space vehicles.

By all accounts, the Soviet Union has little to offer in the way of electronics but holds considerable promise as a source of software, the instructions that tell computers what to do. Writing good software, a skill requiring a curious blend of mathematical and artistic aptitudes, is a favorite pastime among young Soviets with access to personal computers.

Even then, there are complications. The most famous Soviet software, the computer game Tetris, required considerable polishing before it became wildly successful in America. A subsequent game arrived with graphical touches that tried to mimic the American lifestyle. U.S. programmers had to substitute Soviet-style drawings and music to give it an unusual flair attractive to Western buyers.

As enthusiastic as the technologists may be, Soviet authorities want to make certain their brainpower isn't sold at flea-market prices. And they want their country to acquire manufacturing and marketing skills, not just hard currency.

"It's not really interesting to sell a license," said Vladimir Burenin, a project manager in New York with Amtorg Trading Corp., the Soviet trading organization. "It's interesting for Soviets to sell and improve it together with American partners {and} to produce products."

If the experience of DTI Medical Corp. is typical, Burenin may be right in saying Soviet manufacturers need help.

The Utah company licenses a Soviet technique for making a polymer implanted in animals for bone reconstruction. But it wasn't long before DTI figured out a more proficient means of manufacturing the polymer. Now, it exports the product back to the country that invented it.