KARAGANDA, U.S.S.R. -- Little more than a year ago, a young coal miner named Pyotr Schlegel led a strike here on the steppes of Kazakhstan that terrified the Kremlin, increased salaries and provided hope where once there had been none. Schlegel became a curious new character in the modern Soviet drama: a Western-style working-class hero.

At the age of 28, Schlegel now heads both the standing strike committee and the regional miners' union, a chapter of 120,000 workers. Some here believe that Schlegel has more power now than the local Communist Party officials. He is certainly more popular. But like many of the "young democrats" across the Soviet Union -- from the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad to the would-be entrepreneurs of the Pacific island of Sakhalin -- Schlegel has fast discovered that he is nearly powerless against the current economic collapse.

"The truth is that for all the gains we appeared to make during the strike in July 1989, life now is a lot worse," Schlegel said during a drive through some of the grim mining towns around Karaganda. "Now that the state stores are completely empty, the only way to buy things is on the private market, or even on the black market. And that costs a lot more than anything we ever got in raises."

To prove the point, Schlegel gave a guided tour of provincial despair. At the biggest state grocery store in Shakhtinsk, a mining center of more than 100,000 people, the only goods available were sacks of rice and macaroni, jars of watery fruit juice and a basket of rotten apples.

"Oh, it's a happy, happy life," Schlegel said with a pained smile.

If the endlessly flat steppes and broad skies here are God's country, Karaganda itself is surely Joseph Stalin's. A gray, smoldering mass of rust and poured concrete, smokestacks and fetid sinkholes, the city is a joyless, ashen landscape of heavy industry. Built in the 1930s by some of the countless victims of Stalinism -- forcibly relocated Volga Germans and inmates of the forced labor camps -- Karaganda is a model of what Schlegel calls "the whole, sick system." There are dozens of others just like it.

"The state used cities like this as their dumping grounds and then made us into huge furnaces for the great industrial system," he said. And the result, he said, sweeping his arm across the polluted panorama, "is what you see."

"Our lives are falling apart," said Vladimir Smolenski, another member of the strike committee. Workers at the mines, factories and construction projects find themselves with little or no fuel to fire their stoves and heat their homes; no fruit, vegetables or meat to feed their families. Nothing comes easily. With real cigarettes unavailable, workers often use ordinary note paper and roll their smokes using a foul mix: part tobacco, part herbs.

Huge, ill-conceived construction projects such as the Karaganda airport sit half-finished for years for want of materials, corroding before they are ever used. And so in a city of 675,000, people use a shed for arrivals and departures.

Nothing here seems to get done or cleaned or fixed. Deliveries never arrive. The crime rate is on the rise. The mines are unsafe -- 50 workers die every year from accidents in the Karaganda pits. A fire at the Lenin mine has been burning for a month. There is hardly any mechanization. "In the Karaganda mines," Schlegel said, "the shovel is still the tool of choice."

Those few who have the chance to emigrate to the West -- mainly Volga Germans with relatives in Germany -- do so as soon as possible.

The grim picture has created a cynicism, an exhaustion, so deep that it weighs on every remark, every conversation. Mention the debate over reforms in Moscow and hopes for dismantling the discredited economy under a new plan for a gradual transition to a free-market system, and you get a withering look.

At the Kostenko mine, the biggest in the area, miners sat in a grimy office between shifts one evening and said they had no confidence at all in their immediate futures. And what was worse, perhaps, they had no sense of how any single worker could make a difference.

"We have had 70 years of myths in this country, and now we have a new myth about {economic reforms} and all the rest," said Alexander Khailo, who has spent 18 of his 34 years shoveling coal in the Kostenko mines. "Would you believe it?"

Retirement-aged workers, many of whom suffer from various lung and heart ailments, find they must stay in the mines to support their families.

Khalid Khadiso, who is in his fifties, is eligible to collect a pension but said: "Nowadays no one can afford retirement. You've seen the stores. You know what it takes now to just feed a family and survive. You begin forgetting about things like your health, let alone retirement. Look, 10 years ago at least there was something to buy. Why should I be afraid now to blame our leadership for what we see now? I remember World War II, and life even then was better than it is now."

When the miners' strikes broke out in July 1989 in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Ukraine, President Mikhail Gorbachev tried to turn disaster to his advantage, claiming that the "revolution from above" had finally given rise to a "revolution from below." Strike committees such as Schlegel's went to war against the old trade union structures, which were traditionally little more than a layer of Communist Party bureaucrats protecting Kremlin interests.

For Schlegel, the first months were heady ones as the local party officials struggled to placate the miners. He not only took command of the union and attempted to turn it into an organization that defended the interests of the workers, he also scared the complacent souls who work at the one attractive building in town -- regional Communist Party headquarters. He began going over the heads of bureaucrats to make sure that miners got the raises and benefits promised them by the state.

"Oh, yes, the whole thing came to us as a great shock," said Marat Raimbekov, the party's ideology chief for the Karaganda region. "For decades, our party committees worked in conditions of complete comfort. We gave orders and no one thought about defying them. There were no debates, no problems." Now, he said, the Communist Party wants "consolidation, not confrontation," with Schlegel.

Members of the strike committee and union leadership are supremely cynical about Raimbekov and the party leaders in Karaganda. "They are just trying to sing a new tune and hold onto whatever they have," one strike committee leader said.

In the meantime, Schlegel has discovered that his search for allies beyond the coal mines has been futile. Among workers at the Karaganda factories, where pay is far lower than it is in the mines, apathy reigns. There is something about working in the pits, where every day is a risk, that "builds a certain solidarity. So far that hasn't happened anywhere else. The rest of the workers, unfortunately, live in their own quiet swamp."

Schlegel has decided that the answer is systemic, that the only way life will ever improve for the miners of Karaganda is for the Soviet Union to struggle through a long period of complete institutional change.

"Hell yes, I'm for capitalism," he said. "The first thing I did when I took over at the union was take Lenin's picture down from the office wall. When the relative success of the West stares you in the face, why should you be afraid of the word we learned to hate in school? Yes, I'm ready to be a capitalist. The question is, how?"

These days, Schlegel and fellow strike committee member Smolenski spend much of their time commuting to Moscow, petitioning government ministers and fighting for a new system. They spend one day after another at conferences and meetings and then face the thankless job of returning to Karaganda to let the miners know just how slowly the process is moving.

"Our biggest enemy is chaos, the lack of any system, any organization at all," Schlegel said. "How can anyone believe in radical reform in the meantime when not one presidential order is fulfilled? We may not need an iron hand here, but we need iron law. There is an expression here -- shalam balam, meaning 'all fouled up.' Until Moscow finally decides it can create a new system and the law is the law, that is what we will be: shalam balam."