CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- They're onstage in berets and shades, earrings and boots, laughing and high-stepping and jamming the blues. They have rocked, rolled, strutted, smoked cigarettes, sipped Budweisers and slam-dunked the music for only 10 minutes and the crowd has already gone wild. They are the James Cotton Big Band from Chicago, and they're killing the 400 New England diehards packed inside the Nightstage jazz club. The trombone player is on the floor playing to the tables, the girls are grabbing at him, and the Russian is watching this, astonished, her eyes wide as quarters.

She doesn't look like the stereotyped Russian. She has cinnamon-brown skin, pretty brown eyes, round face, full lips. Sitting here in her fashionable purple winter coat and pin-stripe suit, she looks more like a Harvard law student or a corporate executive, or perhaps a middle-class architect from Boston. But she's none of those.

Her name is Yelena Abdulavena Khanga, and she is a 25-year-old reporter for the Moscow Weekly News. She is working at the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor on a three-month exchange program cosponsored by the New England Association of Newspaper Editors and the Union of Soviet Journalists. She is the granddaughter of Oliver John Golden, a black communist from Mississippi who married a white woman from New York and emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1920s. She was born and raised in Russia. English is her second language. She has never seen a blues band in her life.

Khanga's arrival here last November prompted a wave of curiosity that has, at times, bordered on the embarrassing. She has been deluged with so many interview requests that The Monitor has assigned her a secretary to handle them: ABC's "20/20," Black Entertainment Television, numerous Boston radio and television stations, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Jet, Ebony ... People call or write asking her to lunch, to dinner, to speak at their convention or their church. Most remark that they never knew there were blacks in Russia. Black Americans in particular want to know her views of race in this country.

Khanga, one of two Soviet journalists on the first-ever exchange program that sent two Monitor reporters to the Moscow Weekly News last year, has handled the ruckus with a mixture of humor and restraint. She says she considers herself a Russian first, is proud of her Soviet background, and is confused that people find her views and her being so extraordinary. She finds it amusing that Americans see the Soviet Union as a land of dark limousines, sinister KGB agents and 100 percent Caucasians. Blacks are scarce there, she admits, particularly in the rural regions, but thousands of Africans come to study at the major Soviet universities, and some marry and remain.

Indeed, the clamor that surrounds Yelena Khanga is a revealing look at American national and racial stereotypes and may overshadow anything she can tell us about Soviet life.

For example, Khanga says she's been asked countless times if she feels more like a black person or a Russian person -- a kind of question black Americans are not unfamiliar with.

"I am Russian," she says in her lilting, accented English. "I was born in Russia. I speak Russian. My favorite writers are Russian. My favorite culture is Russian. I love Russia. Nobody asks me about my native tongue in Moscow. I'm a Soviet person."

So how does this Soviet person, sitting in this nightclub in Cambridge, dig the grits-and-gravy blues as served up by the James Cotton Big Band?

Khanga leans over the table and smiles.

"They are ... how do you say it? Awesome."

"It's much more complicated here than I ever thought," Khanga says. She is sitting in the empty editorial conference room of the Christian Science Monitor building. It's 3 p.m., a quiet afternoon, but her evening is already booked solid. Dinner is at 5 p.m., with yet another curious American, then there's a speaking engagement with the Boston chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.

"When I first came here, I had a stereotype about blacks," Khanga says, her hands folded in her lap. "I thought they were my brothers. I saw them walking down the street and they were smiling at me. And they said hello to me. I didn't know how to respond to them ... There was a special feeling between them that I didn't know about. I had to learn it."

She learned other things as well. "Where I was staying {in Boston}, a black man came to the door. He was so handsome, nice looking, a young man. He knocked on the door, but I didn't open it. He said, 'I have some money for you. It's from your job,' and he waved the money at me. I said to him, 'How do you know me? What's my name?' And he got so angry. And I realized how stupid I was to believe he wouldn't rob me because I was black.

"It's very complicated."

It is indeed. Khanga came here to discover her American roots, yet she clings to her Russian identity with pride. When a black American journalist asked her during an interview, "What does it really feel like growing up in Russia?" Khanga laughed and responded with, "What does it really feel like to grow up in America?" She is a curious mix: serious and lighthearted, with an Eastern European brusqueness and a dainty sub-Saharan elegance. Russian winter, African spring.

Khanga says she doesn't know much about her grandfather, who died many years before she was born. What she does know is that he led a group of 16 black families with agricultural expertise -- along with his wife, a white woman named Bertha from New York City -- to the city of Tashkent, the capital of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. They left America, Khanga says, partly because a mixed marriage was not accepted in the United States.

"Her parents didn't appreciate her marriage," Khanga says of her grandmother. She couldn't live in the black community -- white doctors didn't go there -- and "black doctors were afraid to touch a white woman. In the theaters, she couldn't sit together with a black man. In the Soviet Union, nobody turned to find out what color they were."

Nevertheless, the immigrants found themselves in a dauntingly strange land. The Soviet Union is spread across 8.6 million square miles, making it the largest nation in the world, and encompasses at least 90 different peoples. Slavs form a majority of the population of 280 million, with Central Asians and numerous smaller groups comprising the remainder. Some 60 different ethnic groups live in Uzbekistan alone.

Though the five Central Asian republics, home to most of the estimated 44 million Soviet Moslems, are the fastest growing part of the nation, they have never achieved proportional influence in the ruling Communist Party. Underlying tensions between national groups and the predominantly Russian authorities in Moscow have led to riots, persecution and a lingering resentment toward the government.

But Khanga grew up far from all that, and has only visited the region once, on assignment to do a story on a film festival. "I don't think they have racial problems there," she says.

She says some of the 16 American families remained in Uzbekistan (others eventually returned to the United States), but her family lost touch with them. After her grandfather's death, her grandmother moved to Moscow, where she died three years ago at the age of 79. Bertha Golden "was like a mother to me," Khanga says. "She was a great woman. She never said anything bad about the United States. They didn't raise me up to hate it ... They loved the country. They hated racism."

Her parents divorced when she was a small child. Her mother, to whom she is also close, is a specialist in African culture who holds the equivalent of a doctorate from Moscow State University. Her father was Tanzanian, and after the couple divorced, returned home to serve as a government minister. He was killed during a coup d'e'tat in the '60s.

Khanga, who grew up in a home where music by the likes of Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and America played on the stereo, is an only child. "Sometimes I wish I had an older brother," she muses.

But she has plenty of Moscow friends, along with a Moscow boyfriend, with whom she can share some of the wild phenomena she's seen here in the land of the free and the home of the Japanese auto: like the peculiar habits of American women, she says, who wear dresses and running shoes; who count calories over a restaurant menu, then gorge themselves with two servings of ice cream; who press and perm their hair in outrageous styles; who are rich enough to buy expensive blue jeans, then rip them at the knees; who dance to rock 'n' roll till the wee hours, then wake up at 7 a.m., gobble a grapefruit, slam down a bowl of cereal and jog for an hour, faces twisted in pain. "I think the soul of the American girl is one of contrasts," Khanga says.

Other American contrasts are more troubling to behold. Khanga spent Christmas evening at a homeless shelter in the San Francisco Bay area: "I wanted to see it because I had never seen homeless people before," she says. "I was so shocked, I couldn't walk in. It was dark. No light. No heat. I said, 'I won't last more than 10 minutes here.' Then I thought to myself, 'What a terrible thought. These people live here. And I can't stay here for 10 minutes?' " So she went inside.

"There were old people lying on the ground. And children. And young guys. Smart, clever, strong young men. I asked one of them, 'Why not go to work?' He said, 'Why go to work? They only pay $5 an hour.'

"I said, 'How will you eat?'

"He said, 'We will eat.'

"And you know, a church van came up and gave them sandwiches and coffee."

"I thought about him quite a lot," she says slowly, puzzled. "He saw work as an opportunity to earn money. He didn't see it as an opportunity to live. When you don't work, you lose interest in life. In yourself. Work makes you a human being. I told this to him, and he said, 'Well, we don't need this.'

"He was black, and I was so offended. Because somehow something has been taken from him, but I can't say what. It's very difficult to understand. I can't imagine that my boyfriend or husband would take something for nothing."

"Just think, Yelena. In about a month, you'll be home."

So says Black Entertainment Television correspondent Andrew Jones, standing in the library of the Monitor building. It's past 5 and Khanga is due at dinner elsewhere, but Jones has shown up unannounced with a camera crew, telephoned upstairs to the newsroom and notified Khanga's secretary of his eminent presence.

He conducts the interview like Ed McMahon running "Star Search," pressing Khanga for quick answers: Did she experience racism in the United States? How so? Nobody's called her a name, but what subtleties does she see? And the big questions: Do they treat blacks differently over there? What was so great over in Uzbekistan, by God, that your grandparents left the U.S.A. for it and NEVER CAME BACK?

"They were happy," Khanga says. "Nobody paid attention that they were different colors. I wouldn't say their life was easy ... They didn't know Uzbek. And the Uzbeks didn't know English. But they learned Uzbek and the Uzbeks learned English and they were happy there. My grandmother never married after my grandfather died. She loved him very much."

She sits back and waits for Jones' next thrust. She's used to interviews like this, and she's noticed that the black reporters zero in on the race issue right away. The white reporters are curious about life in the Soviet Union and Soviet journalism and glasnost and other spins off the front pages. But the black journalists want the nitty-gritty: Are your white people any different from ours?

Khanga doesn't seem as touchy about racial questions as her American counterparts, yet she slides carefully around this one. If she goes to a village in the Soviet Union where the people never see blacks, she says, they might ask to touch her hair -- but then again, "if I see a beautiful Chinese person, I stare at him."

The media clamor began in December, a couple of weeks after her arrival, when a UPI photographer shot a picture of the young black woman standing amid her white Soviet colleagues at the summit press headquarters in Washington. Now, "people are worrying her to death," says Luix Overbea, a veteran Christian Science Monitor columnist who has taken the young Soviet writer under his charge. "She's here to write and she's upset because she hasn't had the chance to do it. She came here as a professional and a reporter and she's had one story in the paper."

That story was about her experiences in the United States and Boston. Recently she interviewed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for her home paper and she's written an article for The Monitor that appeared last week comparing her views of art exhibitions on Soviet and American life with those of an American Monitor reporter who has been to Moscow and seen the same exhibitions. A businessman recently arranged for her to fly to California to speak to a group of black professionals, and she's trying to arrange an interview with Stevie Wonder for the Moscow paper while she's there.

Khanga may not be used to American-style publicity, but she knows how to handle attention. She was a nationally ranked Soviet tennis player at the age of 13 and toyed with the idea of a professional tennis career, even buying a long blue dress for her meeting with the queen of England if she ever won at Wimbledon. "I dreamed of playing mixed doubles with Arthur Ashe," she jokes.

She also dabbled in jazz and opera singing, using the money she made working with a hotel jazz band to pay for private Portuguese lessons (she says she wanted to learn a language spoken in countries like Brazil and Angola). She abandoned music and athletics in favor of journalism, completing her university studies at the prestigious Moscow State University. She joined the staff of the Moscow Weekly News, a paper published primarily for foreigners, after her graduation four years ago.

The tabloid has a circulation of about a million and is published in Russian and four other languages, Khanga says. It has become more visible in the last two years because of its daring editorial direction under glasnost, publishing an interview with dissident Andrei Sakharov, accounts of strikes and discussions of literature that was formerly banned.

The paper has about 25 staffers, Khanga says, most of whom speak English or French in addition to Russian. They act as both reporters and editors -- gathering the news, writing stories and composing the headlines. A finished piece is passed on to a chief editor, who gives it a final read and signs off on it or bounces it back to the reporter.

Khanga writes features about interesting Moscow visitors -- jazz pianist Dave Brubeck; Ron Reagan, who came as a correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning America"; and former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein among them. She also writes stories on subjects of general interest, such as getting around in city traffic and the condition of Moscow's roads.

She says she is not restricted in her journalistic endeavors -- "I write everything I want, except a lie" -- but she doesn't write about politics and avoids discussion of the obvious differences between American and Soviet journalism:

"I think we shouldn't look for the differences, but rather the things we share with one another," she says, somewhat ingenuously. "We know by heart the bad things you have. And you know by heart the bad things we have. So we should look for the good things."

The rain comes hard in Boston this morning, and the New England winter settles on the city like a freezing cloud. A school bus rolls down Massachusetts Avenue, splashing small waves from puddles as it roars past the Monitor building. There was a time when the rioting over who would ride those yellow buses propelled this city into the national news and painful self-examination. But the well-dressed woman in the purple coat standing on the sidewalk as the bus roars past never experienced those moments. Yelena Khanga sees a yellow school bus with schoolchildren inside. America sees a school bus with black and white children inside.

"I was invited to Plymouth, where the Pilgrims landed," Khanga says. "I stayed with a wonderful family, and I never met a black person there. Only white people ... And when I went to black homes, there were only black people. Once I went to a student's house and saw white and black people together, but afterward, the blacks went home. I think there is something left of the hard times that my grandparents knew. Just small, small things."

Standing with Khanga in the cold January rain, one senses a deeply rooted determination in her. Her grandmother married a black man in the 1920s, an enormously courageous act. Her grandfather could have been lynched for his temerity. Surely few praised this defiant couple when they left America six decades ago -- yet today, their granddaughter has returned in a kind of triumph.

Khanga heads back to the Soviet Union Feb. 21, and says she's looking forward to going home. "I love my country," she says. "I don't know any other place where I would be happy."

Still, she says, "If I have anything strong in me, my grandmother gave it to me. I think she took the best from America and tried to give it to me. She gave me an American will. She always followed the Soviet-American relations.

"She was always hoping they would come together."