Nearly eight years since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Russia has earned a lousy reputation. Its government is a stumblebum operation, run by a barely functioning president trusted by 3 percent (that is not a typo) of his countrymen, according to the polls. Its economy is a disaster. Russia's criminals have proven more resourceful and effective than its politicians, many of whom have turned out to be criminals. The price of a vote in the Duma, the national parliament, is reliably described as $30,000 on a big issue such as the impeachment of President Boris Yeltsin, who apparently was saved from this fate in May by quite a few $30,000 payments.

It's easy to paint a bloodcurdling picture of Russia in 1999, a nation plagued by gangs and drugs, poisoned by ecological degradation and reeling from a chronic health crisis. This Russia lacks strong civic institutions, a reliable physical infrastructure and the basic tools that would make possible a real market economy, starting with banks and enforceable contracts.

All of this is true--and yet it isn't the whole truth. Things are awful, and yet not so bad. Life is uncertain here, and yet often fun. It's easy to list the society's ills, but there are also palpable signs of better health: Russian culture is enjoying a renaissance, a new generation of entrepreneurs is making tangible headway in altering the economy, young people are rushing to master the skills that can make them effective participants in a free Russian marketplace of ideas as well as goods. Russians are getting used to freedom, and they like it.

Despite all the disruptions caused by a sloppy transition from communism to something else, this is still Russia, the largest country on Earth, home to millions of talented people and enormous natural wealth, nurturer of great art, great history, great humanity. It can't be written off after a difficult decade or two, or even after a lost century, which is how the 20th may look to Russian historians a hundred years from now.

A month's visit here after several years' absence is a startling experience because so much is changing so fast. Arbitrarily separated from the rest of the world for most of their history, Russians have managed, in a few years, to wipe away many of the distinctive attributes that so recently distinguished them from us. They dress with some personal flair, freely express their opinions, dance all night in lively nightclubs--well, some of the younger ones do--and read serious, unstilted journalism. Life on the streets of big cities looks calm and quite prosperous by Russian standards.

The simplest truth about Russia is that it cannot be summarized with any simple truism. There are now thousands of Russian realities, from the glitzy sheen of wealthy "new Russians" in Moscow's countless casinos to the primitive poverty of remote villages; from the corruption of everyday life (a non-driver can buy a driver's license for $500, a terrifying thought in a city where horrific traffic accidents are common) to the many orthodox churches being restored and filled with music and prayer across the country. The steady erosion of central authority has created much more room for different local realities in Russia's regions.

Another simple but perplexing truth about this Russia: Much of its reality is hidden from view. Intellectuals talk and write about Russia's "shadow society." The shadows start at the top: Yeltsin acts behind a thick curtain of mystery and intrigue. Many Russians are convinced that their president is really out of it now--so ill and disoriented that he rarely, if ever, plays a meaningful part in the nation's affairs.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political consultant whose office displays two certificates of appreciation from Yeltsin for helping him in his 1996 reelection campaign, said in a recent conversation: "I don't think Yeltsin is capable of making any kind of decision." Nikonov agrees with the widespread view that the country is being run by a circle of people around Yeltsin including his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko; the chief of his presidential administration, Alexander Voloshin; two of the dubious financial oligarchs so influential here, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich; and Valentin Yumashev, the ghostwriter of Yeltsin's memoirs and his former chief of staff.

Many Russians who follow politics closely are bemused by the efforts of Western leaders, particularly President Clinton and his staff, to pretend that Yeltsin is still capable of participating in sophisticated decision making. Their skepticism seems justified. Yeltsin's public performances are stiff, clumsy and apparently disconnected from reality. He looks bloated and unsteady on his feet. He has gone off on weird tangents in meetings and public appearances. His troops showed up uninvited in Kosovo, and it isn't clear what role, if any, he played in sending them there.

It is difficult to imagine a free society in which politics and politicians are utterly discredited, but today's Russia is precisely that. Indeed, there is no tangible connection between politicians and the public--a monument to the failure so far to construct a functioning civil society.

The shadow society exists well beyond politics. Ask Dmitri Malko, 28, for example, how he launched Le Club, a large and comfortable jazz venue on Moscow's Taganka Square. He explains: "Some friends and I put some money together and opened the club." Right. And does he pay off a "roof"--someone who provides protection for the club? "Everyone does. You sign a contract with a security company and they take care of everything. It's official now. I like that." According to other businessmen, "official" is indeed the correct word, since various police agencies now hire themselves out as roofs. Malko did not offer up the identity of his roof.

In the modern world, statistics are a basic tool of measurement, but any reliance on Russian statistics is dangerous. Andrei Melville, vice president of the Russian Academy of Social Sciences, said emphatically that statistics gathered in today's Russia are meaningless. "You can't believe anything" described with a statistic, he said. This may explain why no projection of famine and disaster since 1991 has ever proven accurate. It certainly helps explain why a country that is--at least statistically--reeling from an economic crisis looks to a visitor like it's doing pretty well, especially when compared with how it looked under communist rule 10, 15 or 25 years ago.

Another reason for the limited utility of statistics is that they don't take into account the Russians' ancient skill of coping with difficulty. Today's hardships don't seem so harsh in comparison with the terrors of the 1930s, the devastation and privation of World War II, or even the long lines and frustrations of the 1980s.

Why has the transition from communism been so difficult for Russia? There are scores of good answers--another reflection of the complexity of Russian realities. The best ones are connected to enduring truths that can't be swept away in just eight years.

Russians themselves often underestimate the degree to which the Soviet system damaged this country. Under communism, Russians built a strange sort of primitive industrialized society, at huge cost. The structure could not survive market conditions.

In 74 years of communism, virtually no Russian mastered market economics. No one was prepared to cope with post-communist opportunities the way, for example, Leszek Balcerowicz, the mastermind of economic reform in Poland, has ushered his country to capitalist prosperity as finance minister and now as deputy prime minister. Russian politicians, emphatically including Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin, have been clueless about economics.

But the best economists could not have made Soviet enterprises fit for free-market conditions. How could they? The Soviet-era managers of those enterprises knew nothing about managing in a market economy; workers used to goofing off and shirking responsibility weren't prepared to adapt to the market, either. Soviet technology and infrastructure were utterly inadequate. The failure of the Soviet system was largely responsible for Gorbachev's ascent to power in 1985, but he did not fix it. He abandoned it.

It took communists nearly three-quarters of a century to ruin this country; it will take their successors a long time to overcome their accomplishments. "We were completely unprepared . . . for this change from 'fundamentalist socialism' to a real, contemporary, civilized existence," observed Yevgeni Velikhov, a distinguished nuclear physicist. Russia's adaptation to modern, civilized conditions was rudely interrupted in 1917, he argued--the year the communists took power and ended a brief period in which Russia had begun to industrialize and modernize.

Proud Russians have found it difficult to acknowledge that they are far, far behind the industrialized West. But some are coming to realize this. "My grandson will live to see a healthy Russia," said Alexander Bovin, 70, a columnist for Izvestia who was Russia's ambassador to Israel through most of the '90s.

One source of Russia's difficulties can be found in the distinction between "freedom" and "democracy." This Russia is remarkably free, but it is not a functioning democracy. The freedom is invigorating, much appreciated by millions of Russians, and a vast improvement over the regimentation of the Soviet Union. But elemental freedom from arbitrary power does not lead to honest and effective government.

What the Russians have now is a kind of democratic monarchism. The elected monarch is harassed by a mostly powerless parliament. The constitution Yeltsin persuaded his countrymen to adopt in 1993 gave him vast, unchecked powers. It gave the parliament such a small role to play that there was no hope of developing strong political parties ready to share responsibility for governing. The judiciary is ineffectual, so the rule of law does not yet exist.

The architects of this structure call themselves democrats, so a great many Russians have decided they don't want democracy. Both democracy and free markets have gotten a bad name among ordinary Russians--though neither has really been tried here.

Even so, Russians have decided that they appreciate the right to vote. Election turnouts here are larger than in the United States. In political circles, it is generally assumed that a new Duma will be chosen in elections scheduled late this year, and that a new president will be voted into office next year. The Russian people expect these elections to occur, and expect the results to be respected. This constitutes progress: In 1996, many Russian politicians feared that Yeltsin would try somehow to annul the scheduled presidential election.

Many political figures here favor substantial revisions to the constitution that would limit presidential power and enhance the Duma's authority. That would be an important start, but implanting a democratic system with checks and balances, civic institutions, accountability for senior officials and a meaningful rule of law will require much more. This is a society familiar only with the Big Man form of government, which has prevailed here literally for centuries. Choosing that man in a free election is revolutionary, but it doesn't constitute democracy.

Learning to share power and tolerate opponents won't come easily to Russians. Nor will honesty and truthfulness, two values that have never had much resonance here. Russians cherish human warmth, generosity, hospitality. But rigorous honesty, especially outside one's circle of friends and family, has been less important.

"There is no pressure on a Russian to be honest," said Tatyana Tolstaya, a novelist who recently moved back to Russia after years in the United States. "Most of our people don't want to be honest." She traces this condition back to the long epoch of serfdom in Russia, when the law of the land formally denied the humanity and individuality of most Russians. Serfs learned to assert their sense of self by stealing, she said.

This Russia is a struggling country of 147 million souls (deaths outnumber births, so the number is steadily declining). The Russian federal budget for 1999 is the equivalent of about $25 billion, slightly more than the U.S. government will spend this year on food stamps. Numbers like this at least begin to describe the extent of Russia's fall from superpower status. On the other hand, the budget is just another unreliable statistic. Costs in Russia are so low (many people work for $20 to $40 a month) that the money goes further than in more normal economies. Nevertheless, Russia is desperately poor.

Russians have survived eight years of changes without significant help from their leaders, who have shied away from any direct discussion of Russia's fate. Neither Yeltsin nor any other national leader has helped Russians articulate their plight and consider the best ways to deal with it. The communists--who constitute the biggest political bloc, with the support of perhaps 20 percent of the population--have abandoned Soviet communism and now have no ideology. No great book on Russia's fate has been published, though some writers have struggled with the theme. A few intellectuals have reopened the ancient discussion about "What is Russia?" but without much of an audience. On the biggest question facing the country, Russians are mostly mute.

This silence is symbolized by the Duma's struggle to agree on a new national anthem. It has chosen an old tune, but hasn't settled on any words to be sung to it.

As the Russians continue their great experiment, many will be tempted to predict the future. Those who feel this urge might take a cue from the typical Russian weather forecast. In the morning, radio weathermen here foresee conditions for today, no further. At night, the television weather report foresees tomorrow, but not beyond.

Robert Kaiser, The Post's Moscow correspondent from 1971 to 1974, recently returned from a month-long reporting trip to Russia.