MOSCOW, AUG. 4 -- In the Soviet economy, even the blessings of nature can mean national disaster.

After a year of warm weather that has turned the fields of southern Russia and the Ukraine into a golden bounty waiting for harvest, millions of tons of grain are rotting in the rain or have been dumped in parking lots for want of storage. And just miles away in Black Sea ports, huge ships arrive from the West, filled with expensive imported grain.

"It's as if God is playing his last joke on us, showing us that we cannot even cope with his gifts," said Yuri Chernichenko, a legislator in the Congress of People's Deputies and the country's best-known commentator on agricultural affairs.

Soviet officials estimate that this summer's grain harvest could be 260 million tons or more, far larger than last year's record crop of 211 million tons. Such a harvest could not come at a better time. Soviet stores are empty of even the most basic foodstuffs and the country desperately needs the hard currency that it has spent on imported grain to buy consumer goods.

But because of dire fuel shortages, miserable country roads, rail strikes, inadequate storage facilities, a lack of workers and a generally inefficient, if not hopeless, system of economic planning, up to 2 million tons of grain are being lost each day.

This week, Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov visited a huge farm in the republic of Kazakhstan, where he was told this summer's painfully typical good news-bad news story: The farm is producing three times as much grain as the year before -- but the lack of railway cars to ship the grain means that mountains of wheat are left to spoil.

The newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda printed a letter from farmers warning that unless the situation improves "Moscow could face a winter without vegetables or potatoes." Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin has called the situation "a catastrophe."

Farmers from Stavropol in the Caucasus to Yaroslavl north of Moscow have had to dump mounds of food because grain elevators are full or there are no trucks or rail cars to ship the grain.

Astonishing cases of bureaucracy contribute to the problem. According to a report in the Communist Party newpaper Pravda, farmers in the Volgograd region are waiting in vain for fuel supplies because planners seem intent on sending the gas and oil not directly but rather by a route "nearly through Paris." As a result, countless tractors and combines are idle and more grain rots in the fields.

Pravda accused some local officials of actually relishing the "feverish state of affairs" on the Russian farm that has led to the expensive phenomenon of "buying bread from the overseas uncle. After all it's less bother {for these officials}. All you have to do is empty out half the national treasury for imports and then you have no harvest-time worries at all."

Ryzhkov and the government have turned to old methods to bring in the harvest, issuing declarations for "more hands" in the fields and filling the official press with pleas to cityfolk to head for the country with trucks and pitchforks. In the old days, the pleas were nothing less than orders, and Communist Party committees had the authority to demand that city factory workers and intellectuals alike get on the next bus to the farm.

But the party's authority has all but disappeared. And now that the Soviet government's industrial policy of khozrachot, or cost accounting, calls on factories to streamline and turn a profit, managers have little interest in sending their workers out to help in the harvest. There are exceptions and some reports of efficient harvests in southern Russia, but mainly a curious apathy reigns in the cities.

As a result of the city workers' lack of interest and cooperation in the harvest crisis, farmers in various regions across the country are furious, organizing strike committees and threatening embargoes of food supplies to urban areas. Until now, job actions in the Soviet Union have been limited mainly to coal mines, factories and other industrial enterprises.

"We are absolutely fed up," said Leonid Shamkov, head of a collective farm in Kostroma in northern Russia. "We will not go on strikes in the fields themselves, but we are masters of the food we produce. That is a very powerful lever and under extraordinary circumstances, we will use it."

In the Urals city of Perm, farmers are threatening to suspend shipments of meat, milk and other foodstuffs to industrial centers unless they get more manpower and transport from the cities. Farmers in Michurin southeast of Moscow are threatening to cut off their supply of vegetables to the capital if more workers don't arrive to help in the fields. Farmers are also furious that city workers come to the country trying to exploit the situation. Shamkov told Pravda that some rail workers were demanding pay 75 percent above normal rates. "Only bankruptcy comes from such help," he said.

Ryzhkov has been able to mobilize some help for the harvest through traditional means. He has ordered 90 army battalions and 45,000 trucks and civilian drivers to go to various farms and help ease the crisis. He has also enlisted the Interior Ministry's troops and the KGB security police to add manpower to the harvest effort.

But according to Chernichenko and many others in the Russian and national legislatures, the current crisis cannot be solved with "cosmetic measures." Chernichenko, who wants to start a peasants' political party, said that while Ryzhkov is a "good fire brigade commander and may put out this fire, he has no idea what to do about the problem in general. Building a new system is not within his capabilties. After all, the leader of a fire brigade can't build the Empire State Building."

Yeltsin has tried a different, more far-reaching, tactic than Ryzhkov. In an appeal published this past week in the Russian republic's daily newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, he said, "I am not exhorting you to battle for the harvest -- everyone is tired of those exhortations." Instead he made it clear that in the long run the republic is planning to abandon the legacy of centralized planning and collective farming in favor of private property.

As a short-term solution to deal with the current harvest crisis, Yeltsin has adopted a plan called Harvest '90. As an incentive, the republic is issuing coupons to farmers working on the harvest that will allow them to buy consumer goods imported from the West. He has also allowed farmers to sell on the open market 30 percent of their grain that had originally been contracted to the state at fixed prices.

Yeltsin and Chernichenko are convinced that the Soviet agricultural system can thrive only with the rise of private property -- a change envisioned in a package of resolutions drafted by a committee in the Russian legislature to be considered in the fall. Among collective farm bureaucrats and local officials, there is great resistance to private property and farming. Private property not only is a violation of traditional Leninist principles but also would mean an end to a cushy life for the farm chairmen.

Gennady Lisichkin, a deputy in the national legislature proposed, only half-facetiously that each farming village build a "sort of Berlin Wall" with collective farms on one side and private farmers on the other. He said it was clear that the collective farmers would soon go the way of the East German Communist government.

Gorbachev, who worked on a collective farm in his youth, has supported the leasing of farm land to peasants but has so far been ambivalent about private property that could be inherited or sold. "If Yeltsin is finally able to impose his views of Gorbachev, that would be a triumph for all of us," Chernichenko said. "I pray that will happen and that this summer's harvest crisis turns out to be the last evidence we needed before a real revolution on the farm."