The debate over who lost Russia is legitimate and even necessary, as long as it's understood that Russia is not lost and was in any case never ours to lose. But the debate can be useful only if it's historically honest -- about Russia's initial handicaps, about its prospects, about how much worse things might be.

The coming presidential elections both here and in Moscow are one spur to the recent flaring of the debate. Another is this autumn's 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall -- a logical moment to examine the gains and shortfalls of a decade of post-Communism. But the most urgent cause is simple disappointment, here and in Russia, in how things have turned out -- in continuing poverty, declining lifespans, malign instability, sickening corruption and ruthless robber barons masquerading as reformers.

All this is a long way from the prosperous, capitalist democracy that a younger and healthier Boris Yeltsin pledged to deliver within six months of taking power at the start of 1992.

Many critics have coalesced on the basic reasons for his failure. Yeltsin and his reformers, it is said, erred by privatizing state-owned property and promoting democratic reform too soon, before they had put in place the legal and regulatory structure needed to make democracy and capitalism function properly. The Clinton administration abetted this mistake, according to the critics, by averting its gaze from Russia's problems and funneling aid even when official corruption became evident.

There is much truth in these criticisms. Certainly, things would have turned out better if Russia had established an honest judicial system, a reliable securities and exchange commission, functioning bankruptcy courts and an impartial election commission before embarking on its great experiment.

But who would have built such institutions? Who would have staffed them? What political force would have supported their creation? Unlike in Poland, say, or the Czech Republic or Estonia, countries where Communists had been in power for less time, there was in Russia no consensus supporting such change. Yeltsin's reformers, or at least some of them, understood the need for such institutions. They also knew that they were not going to emerge, full-grown, from the Soviet ruins.

So they took a calculated gamble -- a conscious, witting gamble. Inheriting a failed and bankrupt state, they decided to put as much property into private hands as quickly as possible, hoping that the new propertied classes would then become a political force for a rule of law. Even those with ill-gotten gains, it was hoped, would eventually see the merits of a judicial system to protect those gains.

This guaranteed a high level of cynicism among those who fared poorly in the initial scramble for property. Nor was there any guarantee that society would recover from the corruption that was tolerated and even encouraged. Looking today at the results, the gamble doesn't look good. But it's too soon to know whether it will ultimately pay off. Critics may fairly speculate that it will not, but they should also then explain what alternatives were open to the reformers in the early days.

We have, after all, models within the Soviet Union of the alternative strategy. In Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, post-Communist leaders promised gradual reform, postponing full democratization and privatization until appropriate institutions were in place. The result: continued despotism, little reform and easily as much poverty and corruption as in Russia. Without democratic pressure, the promised gradual changes simply have not come.

Was the Clinton administration guilty of wishful thinking? Absolutely. Every Russia-watcher has his favorite example; to my mind, the basest moment came when President Clinton appeared to endorse Yeltsin's brutal war in Chechnya by comparing the Russian president to Abraham Lincoln fighting to preserve the Union.

But the administration was not blind to Yeltsin's erratic behavior or the shortfalls of reform. In supporting IMF loans it took a calculated risk. On the one hand, much of the money might be wasted or even stolen. On the other, it might buy some time for Russia's democratic experiment. If the critics think it would have been wiser to write Yeltsin off, to allow or even encourage the Communists to reoccupy the Kremlin -- well, that's not an outlandish position; maybe Russia would be better off today under Zyuganov or Zhirinovsky. But those who believe so should explain why.

Small comfort though it is to Russians, it is also worth remembering that things could be worse. Yes, many Russians are poorer today than in Soviet times. But, as anyone knows who's been stuck in Moscow traffic, many are better off.

Most of those who have prospered, moreover, are not crooks. They are young people who have enjoyed a decade of remarkable freedom in which to make their fortune and shape their own lives. Only when that generation comes to power will we know for sure whether Russia is lost.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.