MOSCOW -- Yelena sat like a large, scared animal, her eyes wide and her hands clasped in front of her in a taut knot.

About a month earlier, she had walked into the tiny kitchen of her parents' apartment and tried to kill herself by drinking the pickling acid that many Russians use to treat cucumbers and garlic. She scorched her throat and mouth, but she suddenly became frightened, spit out the acid and now she was in the suicide ward of Moscow's main emergency hospital, still tender psychologically but fully recovered physically.

"I am ready to go home," she said in a voice that seemed to be coming from far away, not from this tall, robust person.

For all her troubles, Yelena is very fortunate. She has been allowed to stay in one of the 32 beds available for treating suicidal Muscovites, about 2,100 of whom actually succeed in killing themselves every year.

"For 9 million Muscovites, it is so few places -- 32 -- that it's practically nothing," laments one of the psychiatrists at the crisis center, Alexander Poleyev. "We need help and, frankly speaking, we don't really know where to get it."

Coping openly with suicide is a new phenomenon in the Soviet Union, in large part because it has only recently become known that the country has one of the world's highest suicide rates.

During the long rule of Joseph Stalin and to some extent in the years when Leonid Brezhnev was the Kremlin leader, suicide was seen as a rejection of the communist system. It was the kind of deed that affected, in a variety of ways, anyone around the victim -- the parents, the children, the neighbors in some cases. The few luxuries obtained after years of climbing a difficult bureaucratic ladder could evaporate if the authorities learned that the husband or the child, for example, had preferred death to the socialist state.

Thus most people tried to hide any suicide or suicide attempt, and any figures kept on such matters were believed to have been compiled not by mental health experts but by the KGB secret police. Even as recently as six years ago, the government officially viewed a suicide attempt as evidence of insanity.

"Before perestroika, it was as if the whole society was dancing and no one was crying," said Aina Ambrumova, who founded the Suicidological Center about 20 years ago despite overwhelming resistance within the health establishment.

"After Stalin took over, it was absolutely impossible to admit that a Soviet person could commit suicide," psychiatrist Helen Vrono wrote recently in a journal called Chelovek (The Person). "As we know, there was no poverty or misery, officially."

Once this charade ended, researchers began to compile data, and what they found was alarming. The Soviet Union's suicide rate appeared to be among the highest in the world. Although it was not as high as Denmark's, which is 28 suicides for every 100,000 people, it was set at about 24 per 100,000, which means that about 69,000 people will kill themselves this year. (The rate for England, by contrast, is about 8 per 100,000; the U.S. figure is 12 per 100,000.)

Although the overall suicide rate for the Soviet Union is high, the rate varies greatly from region to region. In some areas, such as Central Asia, the rate is very low -- 2 to 6 people per 100,000. But in other parts of this massive country -- the Baltics, the cities and the bleak northern stretches of Siberia where it is only warm enough to stay outside a few months a year -- the numbers are higher. Some estimates are that almost 40 people in every 100,000 take their lives in the loneliest areas of the far north.

Overall, the list of reasons for suicides is the same as the list of problems facing Soviet society today. For men, who tend to succeed at suicide on the first attempt, there is the drab work, the low pay and finally the bouts of drinking that may tip an already-despondent man over his limit to cope. For women, who more often attempt suicide and then seek help in the clinics that have begun to open around cities like Moscow, it is often the struggle to deal with a family problem, usually a divorce.

The divorce rate in the Soviet Union is second only to that in the United States, but often it is impossible for divorced couples to separate because of the desperate need for housing. One woman who was being treated for a suicide attempt told about living in half of one room with her child. The room was divided by a sheet, and in the other half was her former husband and his new girlfriend.

"As our problems increase, so will the rate of suicide," said Ambrovna, a small, blond woman who wears a habitual frown. "There could be more suicides in our future because before, people were in the dark, and now that is over. Now, with perestroika," she said, "most people have begun to realize that they are worth nothing and can do nothing."

The relationship between such despair and suicide in this country is rooted in literature and tradition. The suicide holds a strange place in Soviet society. He is both admired and abhorred, both envied and pitied.

The revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930 -- leaving behind a powerful poem that revealed his aching despair about his love life and the state of a social and economic system full of promise and nothing more. Another poet, Sergei Yesenin, who wrote lovingly about the rural life and began to despair about what was happening to it, committed suicide in 1925 and wrote his final poem in his own blood.

More recently, the poet and singer Sasha Bashlachov jumped from the window of a Leningrad apartment in February 1988. His grave is like a shrine where people not only throw flowers but even their most precious belongings -- jewelry and pieces of edible meat.

"No one thinks that {those artists were} sick," said Poleyev. "This mode of behavior involves, in their cases, an imperial sense of honor along with the frustration of life. Suicide can hardly be viewed any more as something for only the mentally ill."

The teenage years and the retirement years are the periods when people are more prone to suicide, say the scientists here who deal with those issues. Teenagers tend to look forward and become overwhelmed with pessimism or upset about the authority figures that are everywhere in this society. Their reaction is to "play at dying," as Vrono put it. "They are capable of thinking that they will die and that they won't die, at the same moment."

Teenagers are becoming the focus of what few help groups there are, but the old, who often suffer from the most severe bouts of loneliness, are increasingly left alone by the system. Pensioners, who wear their war medals on worn clothes as they walk the streets in ragged shoes, see the society they once took pride in building declared a failure. As prices rise and free services seem to fall behind, they try to live on incomes of a scant 60 to 70 rubles a month.

"The Soviet situation with old people is very, very grave," said Vrono. "In the first place, villages are devastated now. Everyone has left and the old people remain there. Their life is absolutely unbearable. That's why many people like this commit suicide."

For the young, the problems here are worse than in the West. With all the trauma of adolescence, society adds huge new layers for this fragile age group. Moscow teenagers from 14 to 16 attempt suicide at a rate of about 2,000 a year. About 2 percent of those attempts end in death, and about a third of the youth try again, the success rate increasing with each try.

Vrono told the story of a group of 14- and 15-year-olds who were caught drinking champagne at school a few years ago. The teachers told them that the character references they needed to attend good universities would be revoked. Letters about the event were sent to their parents' bosses at work.

"The 'criminals' discussed the situation and came to realize that life was over, and there was no way out except to die together," Vrono said. They obtained sleeping pills, went home, took them and, luckily, were discovered. After a bout in Moscow's emergency hospital, they were returned to school.

At school, however, there was no guidance counselor to help them through their crisis. Instead, the teachers met again and wrote more letters about the students' "undignified behavior."

"Increasingly, the schools are beginning to understand about such problems," Vrono said. "But this kind of situation is still possible here."

In the summer, when the markets are full of strawberries, fresh carrots and flowers, the suicide rate -- especially among the young -- begins to drop, the psychiatrists said. But there are two especially treacherous times: spring and fall.

In the spring, when the snow melts and a winter's worth of garbage suddenly floats to the surface of the streets and fields, people react to their depressing environment. The other critical time is the first cold snap of fall that foreshadows the long, dark days ahead.

This year, the small band of psychiatrists -- who run a crisis hotline that is often busy -- fear a huge wave of suicides in the fall. While the changes being made in the Soviet system bring promise to the energetic, the healthy and the young, they are terrifying to the old, the insecure and the infirm.

"The unprecedented suicide rate is the product of the gigantic social experiment carried out by the Bolsheviks, coupled with a dramatic drop in living standards in recent years," said Ambromova. "The young people feel they have been cheated, while the older generation says it has been insulted."