Like Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, nuclear czar Viktor Mikhailov was a classic Soviet official who outlasted the Soviet Union -- and a symbol, like Primakov, of souring U.S.-Russia relations. Wily and arrogant, prickly and obstinate, Mikhailov guarded zealously the vast powers of his nuclear weapons and energy empire, and viewed suspiciously any offer of cooperation. Some Americans grudgingly admired the man, but almost all left meetings with him feeling like his prey, enveloped in clouds of smoke from the cigarettes he chain-smoked.

The atomic-energy minister wasn't beyond certain accommodations to the free-market era; after my first interview, an aide drew me aside and explained that I'd have to pay for subsequent conversations. (That's why my first interview was also my last.) But Mikhailov clung as best he could to the secrecy and privilege that his nuclear empire had enjoyed in its Communist heyday.

Last week Mikhailov resigned or was fired -- the uncertainty a reminder that Kremlinology too has outlived the Soviet Union. To what extent he will wield power from the shadows also remains uncertain. But his resignation confirms what we might have come to doubt: that the Soviet generation of leaders will pass, maybe not as quickly as we expected in 1991, but soon enough.

That is worth remembering at a time when U.S.-Russia relations seem to have nowhere to go but down. With Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin due this week for meetings with Vice President Al Gore, feelings here are still raw from Russia's undermining of the U.S. position during the recent Iraq crisis. The Clinton administration cannot forever put off a decision on sanctions against the giant Russian company Gazprom for its plunge, with the French firm Total, into the Iranian energy market. And Congress is pondering even more sweeping penalties to punish Russia for helping Iran acquire ballistic missile technology.

Meanwhile, many in Congress are furious about Russia's new law on religion, which allows the state to favor the Orthodox Church over Baptist, Jewish and other congregations. And the Russian Duma, as truculent and suspicious as Mikhailov, refuses to ratify the Start II arms-control treaty, though the pact is clearly in Russia's interest. That in turn has kept chums Bill and Boris from even scheduling their next meeting.

In many cases, it is the Primakovs and Mikhailovs and their generation who are blocking progress in U.S.-Russian ties, who often seem to want things both ways. They accept U.S. and International Monetary Fund aid, but complain it is insufficient. They demand to be taken seriously as a great power while dealing irresponsibly with rogue regimes. They whine that U.S. private investment is insufficient, but refuse to adopt or enforce reasonable laws on taxes, contracts or land ownership.

Yet these officials are not uncontested in Moscow, and imperialist yearning -- contrary to what many Russophobes here contend -- is far from the only strain in Russian policy. Last week Primakov lashed out baselessly at Latvia's government, and the Duma again put off ratifying a treaty, signed by Boris Yeltsin, that recognizes, once and for all, Ukraine as a separate country. But for every Russian who still dreams of dominating Latvia or Ukraine, plenty more just want to do business there.

One such person is baby billionaire Vladimir Potanin, who in the space of a decade has metamorphosed from low-ranking Soviet bureaucrat into one of the world's most influential businessmen, with interests in banking, oil, mining, newspapers and more. Like many of his generation, Potanin, 37, is just now coming up for air from the post-Soviet maelstrom and checking out the world. He is forming international alliances, including with British Petroleum and financier George Soros, and last week he came to Washington, seeking to show that not all Russian "robber barons," as they are commonly known here, are the same. Potanin notes that a new Duma will be elected next year, he hopes with a better "understanding of the modern world, of getting Russia integrated into the world." Businessmen like himself will be working toward that goal, he said.

There's no guarantee they'll succeed, of course. "There's a serious debate going on within Russia about the future direction that country should take," notes Z. Blake Marshall, vice president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council. He was referring principally to economics -- whether Russia will tie into the world or muddle along in protectionist poverty. But that decision will affect others central to U.S. concerns, including how Russia treats its neighbors.

As Mikhailov rides off into his atomic sunset, there's no assurance that his successor will be easier to deal with. What is certain is that plenty of Russians see the world differently than he did -- and that their struggle to shape Russia's future remains unresolved.

At the beginning of this decade, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it made sense for the United States to encourage those people, with aid, trade and exchanges, while hedging against an unfavorable outcome with, among other polices, NATO expansion. As the decade comes to a close, despite the disappointments along the way, that policy still makes sense. It's too soon to write Russia off. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.