THE PERSIAN Gulf War has our immediate attention, but 1991 may become known as the Year of the Russian Immigrant. Indeed, the largest peacetime emigration of ethnic Russians to the West in history is likely to occur. The scale of the exodus may surpass even that of 1918-1920 when, in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, nearly 2 million Russians left Russia.

The exact number of would-be immigrants is unknown. However, according to Moscow News, 500,000 Soviet citizens applied for exit visas in the first six months of 1990. Only 41 percent were allowed to leave (Soviet law recognizes "family reunification" as the only legal basis for emigration), but KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov estimated recently that exit visas for 1990 may nevertheless reach 460,000. At the present rate of rejection, this means that 1,112,000 Soviets applied to emigrate. And since the great majority of those allowed to leave were Jews, Germans and Armenians, it suggests that at least 652,000 ethnic Russians have applied to emigrate.

The impetus for this huge movement of population is no mystery. The Soviet Union ranks 77th in the world in terms of personal consumption; its people are among the poorest. The average Soviet citizen has to work 10 to 12 times longer than the average American to buy meat, two to eight times longer to buy bread. While 65 percent of Americans own homes, every third Soviet citizen -- more than 100 million people -- has less living space than even the meager Soviet "sanitary minimum" of nine square meters (about 100 square feet) per person.

The miserable day-to-day living is aggravated by the ongoing economic collapse, bringing food shortages and galloping inflation. As more Soviets travel, what they see in the West is dramatic enough to compel many of them to leave.

Meanwhile, the dissolution of the Soviet internal empire lends urgency to the issue of exodus. In all, 25.7 million ethnic Russians live outside the Russian republic and, increasingly, they feel like unwelcome foreigners, especially the 9.7 million living in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

Between 1979 and 1989, 1,633,000 more people left the Soviet Central Asian republics than migrated in -- most of them ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Russian-speaking minorities. (Several hundred thousand ethnic Germans in Kazakhstan went to West Germany.) In the last two years, following a slew of legislative measures passed by the Central Asian republics to increase their autonomy, the outflow of ethnic Russians grew sharply.

In March 1990, then-prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov put the total number of internal Soviet refugees at 500,000. Today, according to Galina Starovoitova, a People's Deputy of the U.S.S.R., there are over a million domestic refugees.

Yet, plagued by unemployment, poverty and shortages of everything, Russia itself is incapable of accommodating the refugees pouring in from Central Asia. By far the most difficult problem is the shortage of housing. In Moscow, where most of the refugees come seeking food and shelter, 344,800 families -- 12 percent of the Soviet capital's population -- are already on the waiting list for housing.

Today a Soviet refugee is given one-time assistance of 100 rubles and 200 rubles worth of clothes and footwear -- virtually nothing in today's inflated, erratic Soviet marketplace. Refugees sleep in offices or are sent to live at children's summer camps, which lack heat, hot water and often indoor plumbing. Even the meager allowances are stranded in the notorious Soviet red tape: over 60 ministries are responsible for helping refugees.

The last straw in the decision by displaced ethnic Russians to leave the Soviet Union stems from the bitter feeling that they are not welcomed in Russia. A poll taken in Moscow last May by the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion found that only 21 percent of the respondents thought that refugees are entitled to government assistance. The Muscovites expressed fear that the refugees will deplete the already meager resources of Russia. "The empire is splitting . . . . And those who became the first victims of the split are falling between the cracks," wrote Literaturnaya Gazeta, the popular Soviet weekly.

The "Law on Exit and Entry of U.S.S.R. Citzens" has been under discussion in the Supreme Soviet for almost a year and is expected to be passed by next summer. The law will give every Soviet citizen the right to a passport, valid for five years, for travel anywhere. Once the restrictions to emigration other than for narrowly defined "risks to national security" have been removed, the floodgates will be open.

Vladimir Sherbakov, chairman of the Soviet State Labor Committee, estimated that up to 3 million Soviet citizens will head west when the law is passed. A Soviet television show last fall said the number could total 8 million.

The inevitable exodus of ethnic Russians from the Soviet Union poses a serious moral and political dilemma for the West. It may seek to restrict the flow, but unless the West is willing to resurrect such hated symbols of the vanquished communism as barbed wire fences and border patrols, it is unlikely to stem it by much.

Most ethnic Russian refugees will travel to the West through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Thelast, which shares a 540-mile border with the Soviet Union, is especially vulnerable. Preparing for an unrestricted immigration, the head of Poland's Office of Refugees, Col. Zbigniew Skoczylas, said last December: "We are making arrangements for this as though it were a second Bolshevik Revolution. We expect Russians to come marching barefoot across the snow . . . like they did in 1917."

But obsession with America permeates Soviet society, assuring that the United States will be the first choice of emigrating Russians.

Since October 1989, 600,000 Soviet citizens picked up emigration forms from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. As of last June, the Washington Processing Center in Rosslyn processed 150,000 family applications for emigration, representing between 375,000 and 500,000 people. Clearly, it is not too soon for the United States to begin thinking about a policy vis-a-vis hundreds of thousands of potential Russian immigrants. And Washington should, to be sure, be guided by long-term U.S. interests. Chief among them is seeing the Soviet Union peacefully evolve toward a democratic state. If the millions of displaced ethnic Russians are left without hope in their homeland, the effect on the future of the Soviet Union, at least in the short run, will be devastating.

Like more than a million French pieds noirs repatriants from Algiers who fled following the collapse of the French colonial rule there in 1962, Russians returning from the national republics are likely to blame their misfortune on democracy and decolonization. As these repatriates find themselves within a homeland that doesn't want them, their bitterness may lead them into the camp of Russian nationalist reactionaries.

From the standpoint of the United States, current immigration laws offer little help. There are two ways for foreigners to settle legally here: One is to be granted refugee status and the other is simply to be admitted as an immigrant.

The refugee solution is hobbled by two problems. One is that, despite a 50,000-refugee quota for the Soviet Union, fewer and fewer Soviet citizens qualify for a status that requires the applicant to demonstrate "a well-founded fear of persecution." Another problem with refugee status is that it is costly. On average, each refugee costs the U.S. taxpayer up to $7,500 in direct cash support as well as such public assistance as food stamps, Medicaid and vocational placement services.

Very few ethnic Russians would be able to enter the United States as non-refugee immigrants. The law entitles every nation up to 20,000 qualified immigrants for permanent residence, but five of the six categories of "preference" are based on having close relatives in this country -- something that applies to very few ethnic Russians. Nor is the sixth category of "preference" likely to be of much help: It calls for "skilled and unskilled occupations in which laborers are in short supply in the United States." Russians, with few exceptions, are not likely to qualify.

The United States, then, has little choice other than to respond with a flexible and imaginative resettlement policy. Otherwise, the freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union, for which the United States has fought so long and hard, would seem in retrospect a cynical propaganda exercise. The United States could take a few useful steps at once. It could, for example, develop a joint immigration strategy with Western Europe, which is likely to bear the initial brunt of exodus.

Part of this could be accomplished through cost-sharing: The United States, with its tradition of welcoming immigrants and unsurpassed economic opportunities, would resettle the immigrants while West Europeans help defray the cost.

Second, we could normalize emigration from the Soviet Union by introducing a special category of immigrants. Last year, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, which raised the worldwide immigration ceiling from 270,000 a year to 700,000 for 1992-94 and 675,000 from 1995 onward. The act also established a permanent "diversity program" that gives preference in immigration permits to people from countries with small (less than 10,000 a year) immigration to the United States. However, the number of "diversity" immigrants is very small: 40,000 worldwide for the years 1992 to 1994 and 55,000 from 1995 onward.

Congress should add a "humanitarian immigrant" category, as suggested by the Refugee Policy Group, a Washington-based, non-profit organization. Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.) sought to redress the "preference" disadvantage by allotting 200,000 immigration visas a year for five years to applicants from "countries that, since World War II, have traditionally denied freedom of emigration." (The Lipinski proposal died in committee.)

Since "humanitarian immigrants" would not have relatives to help them or skills to make them employable right away, some form of public assistance such as low-interest loans guaranteed by West European governments, may be advisable.

Two decades of Soviet emigration shows that such loans would be a profitable investment. Of Soviets who entered the United States in 1987-1988, 95 percent were judged by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be eligible to become permanent residents in 1989 -- the highest proportion of any major refugee group. According to a 1989 survey, within a year of their arrival in the U.S., two-thirds of adult Soviet refugees were working. In 1988, the median household income of Soviet refugees who arrived between 1977 and 1981 was $34,000. (By comparison, in 1988 the U.S. median household income was $29,000.)

Most of those surveyed were ethnic Jews, but Soviet Jews, for all intents and purposes, are no different from well-educated and skilled urban Russians -- precisely the category that would be the first to leave outlying republics for the United States. For example, the Russian exodus from Uzbekistan in 1990 was spearheaded by 30,000 college graduates between 22 and 30 years of age.

Finally, as an alternative to the costly process of emigration abroad, the United States and its European allies should offer short-term assistance to help resettle Soviet internal refugees who decide to stay in the Soviet Union. The Russian exodus is an inevitable result of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Both outcomes seem remote. Moscow News puts it best: "There is nothing to be done about all this -- it is a penalty for our past: poverty, hatred, fear . . . . Our country has slaughtered tens of millions of its children. It has ousted -- and is still ousting -- hundreds of thousands."

Only two developments can halt it: restoration of totalitarian controls or a speedy economic and social recovery. What better chance is there for the administration obsessed with Soviet "instability" to do something concrete about it -- by defusing one of its potentially most dangerous sources, the millions of destitute Russian pieds noirs?

Unlike the administration's steadfast support of the doomed Gorbachev regime, which has been prolonging the agony of the Soviet empire, helping to alleviate the Russian refugee crisis would reduce chances for large-scale violence and help keep Russia on the road of a peaceful evolution toward democracy and a productive economy.