MOSCOW -- While the Soviet Union's legislators and theorists ponder the vistas of a revolutionary economic reform program, people across this country live like hunter-gatherers in a real-world economy that is half desert, half medieval bazaar.

The official structures of the Bolshevik experiment are collapsing with such finality, the state-run shops are so barren, that nearly everyone now must participate in the immense "shadow economy" of speculation and petty bribery, barter deals and black marketeers. It has become a matter of survival.

The demands of the shadow economy trace a Soviet lifetime. A child comes into the world with his mother paying a 200-ruble bribe to the maternity nurse for a sterile needle and an anesthetic. When a Soviet citizen dies, his relatives are overcome not only with grief but with the knowledge that they must pay thousands of rubles in bribes to the mortician, the coffin-maker and the gravedigger.

What comes in between is an unending hustle. To buy a car means entering a world of markups in the thousands of rubles. A place in a good kindergarten requires 100 rubles -- or better, $10 -- slipped to the local school inspector. To find a pair of jeans or even the cheapest Western luxury item inevitably means a trip to places like Moscow's Vidnoye Market or Odessa's City Market, vast parking lots of primitive commerce that seem like market scenes in the paintings of Brueghel or Bosch. Crowds form around old women who sell shampoo, hairpins and lipsticks out of tattered plastic bags.

"In a way, this is the real economy, and it touches all of us, every day of our lives," said Yuri Shchekoshikin, a member of the national legislature who writes about the black market for the weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta.

Everyday survival here requires of everyone -- from childhood to old age -- a street savvy that makes life in the inner cities of the West seem innocent by comparison. Many older Soviet people say the situation is much like it was after World War II. Survival is a degraded art form requiring such skills as knowing under which bridge the black-market gasoline dealers operate on Tuesdays and what sort of Western chocolates to give a schoolteacher on a state holiday so that a child can get decent treatment in the coming semester.

"There is nothing to buy through ordinary channels, but you can get anything you need if you are willing to play the game and pay big money," said Anatoli Golovkov, the resident expert on economics at Ogonyok magazine. "The whole process makes all of us cynical about the law and ourselves. It degrades us. But what's the choice?"

"For example," he said, "say I have guests coming and I need a cut of meat, a couple of bottles of booze and a carton of good cigarettes. There's really just one option. With a fistful of money, you go to one of the city markets. The state-run stalls are nearly empty. But you explain what you need to someone. He nods and, never saying a word, he writes down a price on a slip of paper and says, 'Come back in an hour.' When you come back, the package is all wrapped up in a copy of Pravda and off you go."

The demands of the shadow economy have no sense of propriety. Take the story of Irina, a young worker who was faced last month with the immense task of putting together a funeral for her mother:

"Mother died, and I knew immediately this was going to run into big money for us. Soviet law guarantees that we all get a free funeral and burial. But that is a joke. The first stop was the bank. First, mother's body had to be taken to the morgue. We were told that the morgues were all filled up, and they wouldn't take her. But when we paid 200 rubles to the attendants, they took her. Then there was the 50 rubles for her shroud.

"Then the funeral agent said he had no coffins my mother's size and that we could only buy something eight feet long. My mother was five feet tall. For 80 rubles he came up with the right size. Then the gravediggers said they could not dig the grave until 2 p.m., even though the funeral was at 10 a.m. So that took two bottles of vodka each and 25 rubles each. The driver of the funeral bus said he had another funeral that day and couldn't take care of us. But for 30 rubles and a bottle of vodka we could solve the problem. We did. And so on with the grave site and the flowers and all the rest. In the end, it took 2,000 rubles to bury my mother. Three months' income for the family.

"Is that what ordinary life is supposed to be? To me, it's like living by the law of the jungle."

The law, and its protectors, are also involved in the web of survival. A few months ago, a Soviet traffic policeman waved down a Western correspondent. The officer said the correspondent had been driving too fast and had to pay a 10 ruble fine on the spot. Using a time-honored method, the reporter collapsed into pidgin Russian and feigned incomprehension.

"Well, that's okay," said the officer, reaching into his coat pocket. "Would you like to buy some good black caviar?"

There is nothing new about the black market in the Soviet Union. There have always been shortages -- and illegal dealers to fill the gap for the right price. The Soviet economy has never worked efficiently enough to put black marketeers out of business, but talking about the black market was taboo. When Konstantin Simis -- an attorney and professor of law before he emigrated to the United States in 1977 -- was working in Moscow on an early draft of his book "USSR: The Corrupt Society," the KGB secret police confiscated the manuscript.

What was once heresy is now conventional wisdom. In the text of presidential adviser Stanislav Shatalin's "500 Day Plan" for economic reform, a section on the shadow economy concedes that to some degree the black market has been a "necessary adjunct" to the old "administrative-command" system. It estimates that the shadow economy accounts for as much as 15 to 20 percent of the gross national product.

Shatalin and other economists say that when a typical Soviet shopper cannot find, say, a pair of boots in the state-run shops and is forced to pay 200 rubles on the black market, he is, in essence, paying a market price. The trouble is that the producers are getting no incentive to make more and better boots because all the profit is going into the pockets of the middlemen. In the long run, Shatalin is hoping that the creation of real market mechanisms will put black marketeers out of business. In the meantime, they thrive.

There are several levels of the shadow economy, ranging from the pure exploitation and manipulation of shortages by party bureaucrats to the quasi-legal workers who provide services that simply cannot be obtained on the state market -- from construction work to auto repair.

Excerpts from the working diary of a retired Soviet investigator published in the press here last month describe the origins in the mid-1960s of what is commonly known here as the "trade mafia," a pyramid of payoffs that ranges from high-ranking Communist Party officials to butchers and bakers and grave diggers.

The author, Vladimir Oleinik, deputy chief of the Russian republic's investigation department, tells how a member of the party's policy-making Central Committee filled his bank account through bribes by manipulating various officials in the trade ministries. Positions in the Moscow city trade ministry were evidently a seat of riches, selling for 50,000 rubles.

The trade mafia works in ingenious ways. In Central Asia, sources described the "fruit juice scam." Workers pay enormous sums to get jobs servicing carbonated juice machines throughout the southern Soviet republics. When they service the machines, they skimp on the syrup and sell it on the side. They also skim some of the money when they collect the thousands of kopecks in the machine. They use part of their gains to pay bribes to their foreman. From there the money goes all the way up the line, to party bureaucrats and party chiefs.

"A typical dishonest party official -- and there are thousands of them -- is making a pile of money," said Golovkov. "Is there any wonder why the mainstream of the Communist Party resists the arrival of a market economy?"

"Look, it's very simple," said Andrei Fyodorov, the director since 1987 of the posh cooperative resturant 36 Kropotkinskaya. "The mafia is the state itself."

For 25 years, Fyodorov worked in various state restaurants, mainly the Solechny. "The game all started at 9 o'clock on Fridays when the inspectors came by," Fyodorov said. "I soon realized they were not really interested in the state of things in the restaurant. Very soon we established good contact in terms of giving them different foodstuffs, providing tables in the restaurant, arranging saunas. The director of the restaurant would just tell me which services I had to arrange for them."

"You see, every person working in services is always on a hook. The restaurant director's {monthly} salary is 190 rubles. You can't live on such money, and so he is forced to take bribes. But there is a system of bribing in the U.S.S.R. You can't get too greedy. A restaurant director cannot take more than 2,000 or 3,000 rubles per month. If he starts taking more, the system grows worried, and in the next five or six months new people will come around to inspect your place, which means that you can be arrested for violating the unwritten code of bribery.

"It goes from the bottom on up. From waiters, the bribes go to maitre d', then on to the deputy director, to the director of the restaurant and upward to the various party officials and auditing bodies. The same system applies to cafes, tailor shops, taxi depots, barbershops. A man who does not give bribes for more than a half-year is doomed."

Fyodorov said he is watching the current debate on switching to a market economy with some hope "but mainly a lot of skepticism." He has come to believe in the "ultimate tenacity" of the system and doubts if an honest family trying to open its own store or restaurant will ever be able to survive.

"After all, how can Gorbachev fight the state mafia when the enforcement bodies are on the side of the state?" Fyodorov said, shaking his head. "The system is a monolith. It cannot be destroyed."