SOVIET PRIME Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov spent last week under siege in the Soviet press because he recently bought a country home. That purchase, charged one newspaper, was a betrayal of Ryzhkov's stand against private property. The prime minister's defense was that he wanted to avoid criticism for living in a government-owned house.

As it happens, the Ryzhkov family has been remarkably candid about the inconveniences of living at the government's expense. Earlier this year, Mrs. Ryzhkov talked at length to the weekly Argumenti i Fakti about just those hardships. "A person loses his independence," she said, "when one lives in a goverment dacha where everything is basically owned by the state."

State ownership of everything can have unpleasant consequences. The family can't have its own automobile; it is "forbidden," says Mrs. Ryzhkov. If you need to go somewhere, you must order a car and driver. "Perhaps somebody envies me, but believe me, this dependence is difficult."

The prime minister's wife even addressed the allures of country living. Despite having a cook and a maid provided for free, Mrs. Ryzhkov said, "I dream of a little piece of land where I could build my own little cottage. Since long ago I have felt a pull towards the earth. I would like to plant some greens and flowers in the spring and know that in the fall I could pick them. Our daughter also dreams about having a small tract of land, even if it were 100 kilometers from Moscow." But this innocent longing for nature cannot be satisfied. Everyone will say that "Ryzhkov's daughter is building herself a luxurious dacha."

That's not all. The public criticism one must endure as a celebrity can also be grating. The Ryzhkov clan recently became the object of gossipy reports that the prime minister was building himself a new home in the very center of Moscow. "I didn't want to talk about this," said Mrs. Ryzhkov in evident pain. It was especially wounding, she said, that in her husband's seven years of work in the Central Committee and in the Council of Ministers, no one ever inquired as to how he was getting on. "Everyone assumed that since he was prime minister, he lived in luxury. But we lived until recently in a modest three-room apartment."

Even money remains a problem. As prime minister, Ryzhkov receives a monthly salary of 1,200 rubles. Although this is more than five times the national average, the Ryzhkovs may be too generous for their own good. Recently an elderly man on his deathbed left 22,000 rubles to Ryzhkov saying, "You work a great deal." But Ryzhkov gave it all to charity. Mrs. Ryzhkov also gives 50 rubles a month of her 117-ruble pension to charity. On top of this generosity, two or three times a year the Ryzhkovs send cookies to an orphanage in Sverdlovsk.

Additional expenditures drain the Ryzhkov paycheck. Ryzhkov has to pay 200 rubles each month in taxes and party and trade union dues. Shopping for groceries comes to 250 to 300 additional rubles a month spent in ordinary stores -- "now there is no special distribution." Ryzhkov also puts aside a little every month to buy his wife presents, " . . . my birthday, our wedding anniversary -- on March 8."

And there is clothing, which the Ryzhkovs like to have sewn for them by Soviet tailors. "A suit for Nikolai Ivanovich costs 200 rubles and for me 150 to 180." But things are better than they once were. "It used to be difficult -- from paycheck to paycheck we barely made it. Now, of course, it's another matter."

But living gratis in a government dacha has not corrupted the Ryzhkovs. Asked if they maintain a foreign bank account, Mrs. Ryzhkov was rightfully indignant. "What do you think?! We had never had or will have one. In order to put money away like that, you've got to have it . . . . And the morals of our family don't even allow us to think about such a thing."

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the editor of Soviet Prospects, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he is a senior fellow.