MOSCOW -- Bright-eyed, blond-haired Natalia clutched an empty gum wrapper tightly in her small hand. She had chewed and, undoubtedly, swallowed the gum hours before, but, unaccustomed to gifts of any kind, she still treasured the wrapper.

Natalia, 6, was waiting for a medical examination, one step on a journey from a Russian orphanage to a new life in the United States. She is one of a group of 11 children slated for U.S. adoption, most of whom are to leave Russia today to meet new parents who so far have seen only their photographs.

The children, all considered by authorities here to be handicapped in some way, are among a growing number of Russians without families who are being matched with families in America eager to adopt. The movement is gathering strength as the collapsing Russian economy raises fears that many more children will soon find themselves abandoned.

The trend has elicited a complex mixture of hope, shame and anxiety among officials here.

Many of the children were misdiagnosed early on as retarded and so will be consigned, despite average or above-average intelligence, to lives of drudgery and mistreatment in adult residential institutions here, according to foreign and Russian experts. The labels are enough to keep Russian families from adopting them, and many care givers here rejoice if they can find homes in any country.

"These children don't understand the difference between America and the Soviet Union and Germany," said Isolde Peterson, director of Children's Home No. 5 in northern Moscow. "They just understand wanting to be wanted."

But many Russians, as well as U.S. diplomats and adoption executives, say they fear that this nation's impoverishment and its current legal confusion will encourage a mercenary trade in babies.

"One message we want to convey is that this is not the last frontier for healthy white infants," said Karen V. Stager, director of International Families, which arranged Natalia's adoption. "The embassy is very concerned that people will be flooding in making special deals."

Many Russians resent what they see as intrusion by foreigners into their problems and express shame at their inability to care for their own. "This is no occasion for celebration," said Marina Gavriyanova, director of Orphanage No. 12, as she prepared documents for one of her young charges to emigrate. "It's a shame that we have to export our children because we cannot support them."

Beneath such feelings lie even deeper fears that many Russians harbor for an entire generation. Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution 75 years ago, Soviet parents have eased their hardships by accepting the propaganda that they were building communism, or at least a better life, for their offspring.

Now that better life is supposed to come with democracy and capitalism. Many Russians, convinced that their Soviet education renders them unfit for this new world, again are comforting themselves through hard times with the hope that the next generation will prosper.

But the very difficulties of the transition, the economic privations and malnutrition caused by the collapse of the old system, are working against those hopes.

"Children are suffering most," said Ella Pamphilova, minister of social protection in President Boris Yeltsin's cabinet. "They don't have enough food for normal, healthy development. Everything in society that is bad affects children first."

Nowhere is that clearer than in Russia's vast network of sometimes cheerful, often bleak baby homes, children's homes and boarding schools for older orphans and handicapped children. There are about 310,000 children in such institutions, and only 2 percent of them are genuine orphans without living parents, according to Ludmila Fimina, chief psychologist in the Russian Education Ministry's department of rehabilitation.

The rest are what Fimina called "social orphans," whose parents are jailed or sick; or have been deprived of their rights because of abusive behavior; or simply cannot afford to care for their babies. It is this last category that officials fear will soar along with food prices.

"Unemployment is coming, the psychological stress is very great, the destructive process is striking," Fimina said. "Already, we have single mothers bringing their kids to us and saying they simply cannot take care of them."

According to Fimina, Stager and others who have visited many orphanages, the children can expect to be decently fed and clothed in most such institutions, but understaffing and overcrowding often leave little time for personal attention and affection. In baby centers, where children live until age 3, infants mostly lie on their backs without stimulation and are attended to only for feeding and changing.

In orphanages for older children, dozens of small cots are lined up with identical quilts and no teddy bears, no pictures on the wall, no signs of individual expression.

For those physically handicapped or labeled retarded, the future is especially bleak. An investigation by Caroline Cox, a member of the British Parliament, and a team of experts found that one-third to two-thirds of such children scored average or above on intelligence tests, but fewer than 1 in 1,000 will be reevaluated by the Russian system.

Instead, the team said, it found that such children will likely be sent to homes for the handicapped and then forced to provide cheap labor in factories. Those who rebel often end up on the streets, in jail or in psychiatric hospitals being given behavior-altering drugs for "social control," the team said in a 1991 report titled "Trajectories of Despair: Misdiagnosis and Maltreatment of Soviet Orphans."

Fimina described the case of 7-year-old Oleg who has a deformed hand and will soon be sent to a home for the handicapped. He would likely stay in institutions all his life unless he finds a home abroad, despite having high intelligence and an engaging personality. The director of the home, alarmed at the boy's prospects, recently sent an emergency appeal to Stager's organization, which said it believes it has found a family for him in the United States.

Peterson's Home No. 5, benefiting from a caring staff and considerable "humanitarian aid" from Germany, is a reasonably cheerful haven in a bleak industrial district of Moscow. Toys, stuffed animals and musical instruments fill its cabinets. But even children from here, stigmatized at school and shunned by the system, often "lose themselves" once they leave, Peterson said.

The upheavals, wars and political purges of Soviet life have created a tradition of orphanages, and Soviet propaganda long maintained that the state could nurture as well as, or better than, parents. Now the system is being reformed to encourage that children remain in one orphanage as long as possible, instead of moving at age 7 and perhaps again at 11, and to help families keep their children at home. But with Russia's economy in disarray, officials say improvement will come slowly.

In the meantime, interest from abroad is growing fast. An American diplomat said the first known U.S. adoption of a Soviet baby came in the fall of 1990. Last year, 35 adoptions were approved; in just the first month of this year, 16; and more than 100 applications are now on file from Americans hoping to adopt here.

Adoption-related scandals in Romania after the fall of communism there have "affected everyone who's involved," the diplomat added. "Our goal is to make sure nothing like Romania happens here by close adherence to the law."

American parents who want to adopt here must first get approval from their own state agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, then from Russian authorities and finally from the U.S. Embassy, which must grant visas to the children. The embassy's goal is to ensure that the child qualifies for adoption under both U.S. and Russian laws and that no parent here retains any legal claim, the diplomat said.

Russian policy is to let only those children go who could not find homes here, "so we don't take children out of the arms of prospective Russian parents," Fimina said. She and other Russian officials said Russians will not adopt children whom some Americans will welcome -- not only those with real or alleged mental and physical disabilities, but also those whose parents have a history of mental disease or alcoholism or those whose parents are not both white.

As Natalia waited with her gum wrapper for her U.S.-mandated exam, the social worker from her orphanage spoke of Russian parents' preferences.

"They will never take such kids," said Galina Denisenko, speaking openly in front of the three children. "They want perfect health and babies only. . . . In four years, we have not placed a single child."

Russian reluctance hinges in part on the difficulty of daily life here and the absence of medical and social support. Many parents could find an artificial limb, for example, only on the black market at prices few can afford.

Fimina said it also reflects a difference in motive. "Our families adopt for themselves, to feel fulfilled within themselves, and so they want their children to be the smartest, most beautiful of all," she said. "American families often are thinking of the child. They don't have this feeling of wanting theirs to be the best but instead want him to be the best he can, to live up to his potential."

But Fimina said she fears some Americans may seek to circumvent the rules and pay to adopt healthy children here.

"We wouldn't want Americans to bring this problem to us," she said. "Those who are willing to pay big money, let them go to some other country."

Peterson said such a scandal would confirm the worst fears of many bureaucrats, who already say, "We're criminals, moral criminals, giving our children away." But to the children themselves, she said, standards of living are irrelevant; all that matters is "being needed by someone."

"They all say, 'Please take me.' They write in their books, 'Please take me,' " she said. "They look at me with such eyes and say, 'When will it be my turn?' Sometimes I can't walk into their rooms."