The white plaster walls of the three-room, walk-up railroad flat in this seaside Italian town are peeling and damp, the floors are unfinished, the kitchen primitive, but the six-member Sokol family doesn't seem to mind.

The living room doubles as a bedroom and dining room. Cartons and suitcases are stacked high in one corner. But for the Sokols the decaying, cramped apartment is merely a way station on their journey to a better home. As Jews who have been able to leave the Soviet Union, they consider themselves fortunate. The future is enticing, the present bearable, the past has been left behind.

Yuri Sokol, at 42, is a tall, lanky black-haired Ukrainian with high cheekbones and prominent nose, who over the last 15 years made a name for himself in the Soviet Union as a cameraman and director of photography.

Today, he is one of the thousands of Soviet Jews bivouacked in the Rome area where, aided by relief agencies heavily funded by the United States, they wait for immigration visas, primarily to the United States, but also to Canada and Australia.

Since 1972, the Italian government's traditional concern for refugees, the relultance of Austrian authorities to harbor Soviet emigrants for more than a few weeks, and the large staff of the U.S. immigration service office in Rome have combined to make the Italian capital the principal waiting post for those Soviet Jews who have succeeded in leaving the Soviet Union but who do not want to go to Israel.

Lineralization of emigration by the Soviet -- begun last October, presumably to assist trade negotiations with the American government -- has increased the flow of emigrants to about 4,500 a month. Currently only about 30 percent go to Isreal. Last year the emigrants and 577 went to Australia, 601 to Canada and 268 to other countries. This year 36,000 are expected to go to the United States.

More than half of those leaving the Soviet Union therefore come to Rome, settling for the most part in nearby seaside resorts like Ostia and Ladispoli. Since March, when the backing rose to almost 11,000, the U.S. government has cranked up processing to over 560 a week, the idea being to avoid the flaring tempers caused by local housing shortages and cultural misunderstandings.

With his wife, Irina, and their two daughters -- Anna, 3, and Oxana, 5 -- Yuri had lived a relatively good life in the Soviet Union. First in Kharkov in Soviet Central Asia and later in Moscow.

He enjoyed the privileges of a successful intellectual. His apartment was pleasant and his earnings sufficient. His lengthy and impressive background includes experience as a director photography and cameraman on television programs, film documentaries and several award-winning films.

His work had been reviewed favorably. His 20-year career included rewarding experiences in photography, journalism and screenwriting -- as well as a post from 1974 to 1978 an an instructor of film-making at the cinema department of the prestigious Moscow State Institute of Culture.

Yet Yuri was not happy. He found Soviet society oppressive and the country's bureaucracy, its low standard of living, its subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against Jews fustrating and depressing.

"It got to a point I could no longer stand the pressure to conform to official thinking. The feeling that everyone was a potential informer ws appailing," he says.

Yuri's energy and enthusiasm for work had been irrepressible. "but he felt stifled by life in Moscow. Irina, once a championship ice skater, was fustrated by her inability now to do meaningful work. They had reached the limits of success in their world and needed a challenge.

His dream was to emigrate to America. After years of thinking, hoping and planning (friendly diplomats helped him to gradually ship his equipment and film reels abroad), he and his family left Moscow last January. Two months later they were over joined by Yuri's parents, Vasyl, 74, and Estir, 73, who after months of indecision had finally also made up their minds to leave their native land.

The Soviet Jews who settle in Ostia, Ladispoli or Rome have three major concerns on their minds: getting into the United States, finding a good job when they get there, and getting by in Ostia, Ladispoli or Rome on limited funds while they wait for their applications to be processed.

Getting into the United States is largely only a question of time: out of 2,700 people processed in June only five were turned down. The Jewish and other relief agencies working with the emigrants -- the largest is HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society -- also make arrangements for housing and jobs in the United States.

Despite the summer-warm sand and the beaches, however, life for the Soviet emigrants in Ladispoli and Ostia is not a holiday. Graffiti like "Get the Russians out of Ostia," "We need our houses," and "Burn the Russian swarms" clearl show that their presence here has created tensions.

Irina tells of several incidents: a Russian forced to give up his seat on a bus ny an Italian woman crying, "This is our country," another Italian woman hitting a Russian for getting on the bus before her."I am Italian. I should go first" the woman reportedly said.

But the major problem is housing, Rentals to Soviet have caused a shortage of apartments and forced prices up, especially in summer when many Romans like to move temporarily to the shore.

In some ways Yuri is better off than many of the other Soviet Jews now living here. With professional contacts in Rome, he is considerably less isolated. The low rent -- about $125 --he pays to the widow of the late Italian film director Roberto Rossellini means that the $750 monthly subsidy he and his parents get from HAIS, the Tolstoy Foundation and indirectly from the U.S. government goes relativelty far.

But most emigrant families here are forced into Soviet-style communal living. Life in Italy is not cheap and the money channeled through the relief agencies is not always enough.

Yuri and his family use money to buy the fresh fruits and vegetables that were so hard to find at home. But some Soviet refugees have other priorities. On their arrival they snap up jeans, leather goods, suede coats, chewing gum and gold, often lured by the misleading Russian-language signs promising them special prices.

To get extra money they take odd jobs or sell personal possessions. Permitted to leave the Soviet Union with only the equivalent of $135 in currency, those with savings spend them on anything they can carry. At the Sunday morning flea markets in Rome they often do a brisk trade in coral beads, used books and clothing, cameras and samovars.

American consular officials appear impressed with the caliber of the prospective immigrants -- generally skilled workers. About 20 percent are artists, scientists, doctors, physicicts and musicians. But past professional excellence does not necessairly mean life in the United States will be easy.

"All my life I planned to go to American friends, Yuri has sadly reached the conclusion that he would be happier in Australia.

"All my life I planned to go to America," says Yuri, who has a ton of books and personal belongings waiting for him in New Jersey, "but my friends there tell me America doesn't really need me."

"They tell me I won't starve but that if I come I had better forget who I am and what I have done in the past," he adds. On the other hand, the Australian movie industry is booming and he was already had several job offers there.

Looking with pride at the blown-up stills and posters from his films that are pasted on the peeling dining-room walls, Yuri says he believes life in Australian will give him the opportunity to fully exploit his artistic energy and experience.

"Nevertheless," he says, "it has not been easy to give up my dream." CAPTION: Picture 1, Yuri and Irina Sokol have lunch with their daughters, Oxana and Anna, in their apartment in Ladispoli. By Sari Gilbert for The Washington Post; Picture 2, The Sokols pause to eat ice cream outside their apartment in Ludispoli. By Sari Gilbert for The Washington Post