He was a man who tended carefully to his appearance, favoring a dapper little kerchief tucked neatly in his suit pocket. No one would call him a dandy, though; he was too shrewd, his black eyes too piercing. And by all indications, the Soviet Union considered him one of the most dangerous men in the country.

For years, Vyacheslav Ivankov slipped through the grasp of Soviet authorities, eluding capture and prosecution with the help of fast cars and smart lawyers. When he was finally tried and sentenced to a long prison term in 1982, the career of Ivankov -- once dubbed "the father of Soviet extortion" by the press -- seemed at an end.

But in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Ivankov was back. Released from prison thanks to the intervention of powerful officials, Ivankov applied for a visa to the United States, listing his occupation as film director, Russian police said. Now he lives in New York, where FBI and local law enforcement officials say he is suspected of leading one of the mafia groups that have sprung up among the city's 200,000-strong Russia emigre community.

The story of Ivankov's rise to prominence tracks the extraordinary growth of Russian organized crime. Like Ivankov, the mafiya, as Russians call the broad and diverse array of crime groups operating across the country, quietly grew in the 1960s and '70s, gained major influence in the 1980s and has expanded far beyond former Soviet territory in the 1990s.

Unacknowledged for years by the Soviet state, its leaders confined for long, harsh terms in prison, organized crime is now at the fore of Russia's domestic problems. In cities across the former Soviet Union, hundreds of gangs practice extortion, fraud and murder, as well as operating banking, wholesale and retail businesses, and conducting illegal trade in raw materials, according to police and government officials.

"In Western Europe and the United States . . . organized crime controls only criminal activities such as prostitution, drug trafficking and gambling," wrote Pyotr Filippov, a former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, in a report to the president last year. "In our country, it controls all types of activities."

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, an alleged criminal leader with a long prison record and a private militia loyal to him is the right-hand man to the country's leader, former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. In Russia's Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, an ex-convict named Vladimir "The Poodle" Podiatev, who spent 17 years in prison, is said by police to be the city's foremost power broker, allegedly controlling his own television station and much commerce in the city.

In major Russian cities, according to police and Filippov, it is the rare retail establishment that does not make regular payments for security. Those shops that do not pay extortion money to gangsters often pay police or private security firms to protect them from the gangs. Shopkeepers, kiosk owners and restaurateurs discuss their krysha, or "cover," as casually as an American business owner might mention rising overhead.

Russian police say that about 400 banks are controlled by organized crime groups, which they say helps explain why in Moscow, a city with a rising crime rate and hundreds of new bank branches, there are relatively few bank robberies.

Mobsters are equipped with high-quality automatic weapons, obtained with ease from arms factories and military installations, police say. In the last three years, crimes committed with guns countrywide increased from 4,000 to 22,500. Car bombs, homemade explosives and even rocket-launched grenades have been detonated in Moscow. Police attribute much of the bloodshed to gangland wars, including contract killings. Street violence, once rare, is now grist for racy Russian tabloids.

"What I used to see once a month -- at the most -- I now see every week and sometimes every day," said a paramedic who works in an emergency ambulance crew in Moscow.

Now, say police here and abroad, an estimated 200 or more Russian organized crime groups are staking their claims to power and profits in Europe, the United States and beyond. "Since 1991, there has been an influx of a different kind of {Russian} criminal. These individuals are better organized in the classic sense and much more ruthless," said Raymond C. Kerr Jr., who is in charge of the FBI's East European crime unit in New York.

One of them is Ivankov. Freed from prison in 1991, five years before his term was to expire, Ivankov decided to set up operations in New York, a move some federal officials portray as a milestone in the Russian groups' expansion.

FBI officials say that Ivankov, 54, is believed to live among the Russian emigre community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, though he is rarely seen. No charges have been brought against him, but sources said he is being investigated as part of a broad probe of Russian organized crime in New York that could lead to indictments in the coming months. Attempts by The Washington Post to locate Ivankov were unsuccessful.

Russian organized-crime groups, said FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who visited Moscow last summer, are "a new transnational enemy, one which is very powerful, very mobile and very well supported around the world."

It is nowhere more so than in Russia. Many Russians, including Yeltsin, regard organized crime as the main threat to the post-communist era's brave new economic and political reforms. Yeltsin has launched at least three crackdowns on crime, giving Russia the highest incarceration rate in the world, and some of the most crowded jails, but doing little to dent the popular conviction that organized crime is ruining the country. In virtually every poll, Russians list crime as the No. 1 problem.

"The overwhelming majority of Russians are haunted by an oppressive feeling of defenselessness before criminals," Yeltsin said in a speech to parliament last week. "The major crime networks, the so-called authorities of the criminal world, feel able to act with impunity."

The public mood has been noticed by Russia's radical right, which maintains that restoration of dictatorship is the most effective formula for fighting organized crime. Ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky made crime the centerpiece of his media campaign in the 1993 parliamentary elections, promising quick street executions for gang leaders.

One of the reasons organized crime offers such an appealing target for politicians such as Zhirinovsky is that the term itself has become a kind of Rorschach test. So varied are the criminal structures in Russia today that the word mafiya can mean almost anything. Thieves and Their Code

At various times in the past year Russian police have said that as few as 174 and as many as 5,800 criminal gangs are at work in the country. Russian citizens would surely include other groups -- government officials, most businessmen and bankers and, especially, the police themselves -- on the list.

At the top of the pyramid are men such as Ivankov, known as vory v zakone, or "thieves professing the code." Their traditions and elaborate code of honor stretch back to Soviet prison life in the 1920s and '30s.

The Vory were the very antithesis of the Soviet system, forbidden by their own oath to work in any job sanctioned by the state or to cooperate with officialdom in any way. {See code below.} Shunning accepted society, most Vory were confined in Soviet labor camps, where they continued to defy the authorities at every turn. In that rarefied environment, the Vory underworld grew and prospered.

The group faced a crisis after World War II, however, touched off by those who chose to defend the Motherland -- and thereby violate the Vory code. Members who remained in prison or refused to fight considered the veterans traitors (or "bitches," as the Vory referred to garden-variety inmates), and tensions between the two groups escalated into a bloody conflict known as the "bitches' war." By the 1960s Soviet law enforcement officials -- who had never acknowledged the existence of the underworld kingpins in the first place -- believed the Vory were all but extinct. They were wrong.

In fact the Vory stayed out of sight, presiding over their underground world of card sharps, black marketeers and shakedown artists. Ivankov, as part of a Moscow gang in the 1960s known as Mongol, preyed on black-market millionaires, demanding that he be paid tribute and earning a reputation for cruelty and violence that would later help him be crowned a Vor as a prison inmate in 1986, according to Galina Odinokova, a crime specialist in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

"As a rule, his victims did not contact the police," Odinokova wrote in 1992 in Russian Militia Gazette, a police publication. "They preferred to part with their wealth than with their lives."

Of course, there were risks. On his way to collect on a debt in 1980, Ivankov was involved in a shootout with undercover police, according to Genrikh Padva, a prominent Moscow lawyer who defended him. Ivankov escaped with his car riddled with bullets and three of its tires shot out and went into hiding for six months. When he finally turned himself in, he hired Padva, who managed to have all of the charges dropped, including attempted murder of a police officer, extortion and possession of firearms -- thanks mainly, he said in an interview, to the incompetence of Soviet prosecutors.

Two years later Ivankov was back in court, and this time he could not escape. He was convicted of robbery, sentenced to 14 years -- nearly the maximum term allowed by Soviet law -- and sent to a high-security prison in Siberia.

Nonetheless, Ivankov remained influential. His protege, a wrestling coach named Otari Kvantrishvili, rose to become one of the most prominent figures in the Moscow underworld, presiding over an empire of political connections, casinos and coveted export monopolies before he was killed by a sniper last April as he emerged, flanked by bodyguards, from his favorite Moscow bathhouse.

These days there are signs that the influence of the Vory is slipping in Russia. Many of them have been killed off in the past year or have left the country to set up operations in Europe. Several dozen are believed to be in Vienna, police say. New, younger leaders tend to be unimpressed with the legendary prestige Vory once enjoyed.

But others caution against discounting their power. "It's not just a rank of honor -- it designates a concrete sphere of influence and power," said Maj. Gen. Gennady Chebotarev, deputy chief of the organized crime division of the Internal Affairs Ministry. "There are new authorities in the criminal world who have great influence. . . . But this doesn't mean the role of the Vory is decreasing."

Beyond these figures are numerous Slavic and other ethnic groups, many of them drawn from natives of the Caucasus region: Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush, Georgians and Azeris. Other groups have bases in their home regions, cities and neighborhoods, specializing in whatever market niche the local commerce affords -- imported cars in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, smuggling and money laundering in the Baltic republics. Local traditions vary widely. Protection Rackets

An internal Moscow police intelligence report lists a slew of gangs operating in the capital alone, tracing how they have grown, faded, split, merged and migrated in the last few years. These gangs' members, known sometimes as "torpedoes" or "pit bulls," are familiar sights around town, hanging out in seedy hotels and cafes: athletic young men with close-cropped hair, long leather jackets and track suits, and a fondness for traveling in small packs.

Some of the gangs are more or less familiar to Muscovites, and for a time their turf was reasonably well demarcated. More recently, the lines on the map have blurred.

According to the police report and law enforcement sources, the well-armed Dolgoprud ny group, one of the oldest gangs in the capital, began its operations in northwest Moscow and deals mainly in protection rackets. The vaguely nationalist-leaning Lyubertsy, drawn from bodybuilders in a southeastern Moscow suburb in the mid-1980s, made their name as the local rednecks, fond of beating up what they viewed as counterculture "hippies" and "punks." After moving into prostitution, robbery, extortion and contract murders, many of the Lyubertsy graduated to senior positions in other gangs.

The Solntsevo group began with a base in southern Moscow, running slot machines and taxi rings. Its leader, a Vor named Silvester, was killed last fall by a bomb that blew up his Mercedes-Benz. Detectives were able to identify him only by his teeth, police said.

Ethnically based groups have never been much concerned with neighborhood turf, police say. The Ingush are said to smuggle fur and leather. Chechens, though hated by nearly all their rivals, weakened by police crackdowns and internally divided, still are active in produce markets. The drug trade is shared by Azeris, Chechens and Assyrians. With the disintegration of state controls in the last several years and the chaotic opening of the market economy, these large groups were supplemented by many others, some reasonably well organized, some amateurish freelancers. Competition is intense. The police, badly underpaid and therefore easily corruptible, are barely a factor.

Not every Russian and foreign entrepreneur and businessman is shaken down; some escape mob attention by good luck, modest cash flows or keeping a low profile. But no one is automatically exempt either. A documentary filmmaker with good contacts in Western Europe said he was visited at home by a man offering "protection" in return for hard-currency payments.

In Moscow's Izmailovo flea market, a popular weekend draw for tourists hunting for trinkets and gifts, a quiltmaker explained how she must pay 10 percent to 20 percent of her take every month. "If I resist, my stall will be trashed and everything in it," she said. "They did that to someone here not long ago."

In the north of Moscow, the manager of a large brewery turned to the police when a group of about 25 gangsters tried to extort money from his truck drivers by threatening them on the street in front of the factory each morning. A few weeks later, a bomb exploded outside his apartment door.

"It was meant to put the fear into a man," said Aleksei Kochetov, the plant director. "When a man's scared, he gets more agreeable."

Nor are foreigners immune. A U.S. consultant working here on a contract with the Russian government was visited by four men in long, black leather jackets proposing a protection deal.

"They asked to speak with our office manager, a Russian," said an American who worked in the office at the time. "They told him: You are to meet us in such-and-such a place Monday evening and you are to deliver to us $400 per employee. And you will continue to do this once a month from here on out or else we will make life very difficult for you personally."

The firm turned for help to a British security concern allied with a squad of retired Russian special forces troops. The Russians tracked down the four gangsters and warned them off. But the U.S. firm is paying $12,000 a year to the British company to make the problem disappear.

Racketeering has not made every Russian and foreigner afraid to walk the streets or do a deal. But the gangs' spreading activities have undoubtedly driven up prices and helped make Moscow one of the world's most expensive cities for some goods and services. And in some cases, at least, the risk of running afoul of racketeers also has discouraged business expansion and the risk-taking essential to capitalism.

One entrepreneur who sells sleek European office furniture and high-tech video editing equipment explained why he keeps his well-appointed offices in a bleak, unmarked walk-up far from the center of Moscow. "Why would I want to draw attention to myself?" he said. "If we advertised where we are to the whole world, I'm afraid of the kind of attention we might attract." The Long Arm of the Gangs Gangland influence also has reached the government, which is widely considered by cynical Russians to be acting in league with the organized crime groups. Some reformers argue that the government even invites corruption by maintaining its tight grip on licensing and distribution functions for a stunning array of services that in Western countries would be exclusively in the hands of the private sector.

"In the regions, 28 various types of activity are subject to licensing by the government. In fact, these are 28 separate types of corruption," said lawmaker Viktor Pokhmelkin, deputy chairman of the committee for legislation and judicial reform in the lower house of the Russian parliament. "It's not just medical practice, building trades and those fields connected with public safety that are controlled by government licensing. It's all sorts of trade and services, public catering, publishing -- you name it. This limits free competition and invites corruption." If the government's heavy hand remains one source of public cynicism in Russia, another is the government's crime-fighting record -- as opposed to its public rhetoric. Consider the story of Ivankov's release from prison in late 1991, after he had served nine years of a 14-year sentence.

According to Maj. Alexander Sirotkin, a detective in the police organized crime division, Ivankov's prison record was terrible. Following the Vory code, he refused to cooperate with prison authorities, threatened guards and incited other inmates to disobedience, Sirotkin said.

Nonetheless, in 1990, a prominent member of the Russian parliament, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, appealed to the Russian government for Ivankov's release, saying he had been rehabilitated. Police said the prison warden in Siberia forwarded documents to Moscow portraying Ivankov as a model inmate. In a recent interview, Fyodorov explained that he felt sorry for Ivankov's family. When Fyodorov's petition ran its course without result, the deputy chairman of Russia's supreme court, Anatoly Merkushev, asked the lower court that had convicted Ivankov to reduce his sentence. When that petition failed, Merkushev in 1991 turned to his own court, the final arbiter of such cases. Merkushev, through his secretary, recently confirmed his role in the case but would provide no details.

On Merkushev's request, the Russian supreme court moved to reduce Ivankov's sentence to time served. "The father of Soviet extortion" was a free man, and, in a few months, on his way to America. NEXT: Law enforcement and organized crime CAPTION: Convicted Russian criminal Vyacheslav Ivankov, who now lives in New York, personifies FBI Director Louis J. Freeh's view on the Russian mafiya: "A new transnational enemy, one which is very powerful, very mobile and very well supported around the world." CAPTION: Violent remains: A car destroyed by a bomb last July lies just off the Arbat, Moscow's most famous pedestrian street, in the heart of the Russian capital. CAPTION: BORIS YELTSIN CAPTION: CRIME RATES IN RUSSIA

MURDER

PER 100,000 PEOPLE

'92: ...... 15.5

'93: ...... 19.7

'94: ...... 21.0

ROBBERY

PER 100,000 PEOPLE

'92: ..... 110.9

'93: ..... 124.1

'94: ...... 90.4

BRIBERY

PER 100,000 PEOPLE

'92: ....... 2.2

'93: ....... 3.0

'94: ....... 3.2

NOTE: 1994 figures are through October at an annual rate.

SOURCE: Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs CAPTION: TRADITIONAL CODE OF VORY V ZAKONE'

THIEVES PROFESSING THE CODE'

* A Thief must turn his back on his family (mother, father, siblings) ... the criminal community is family.

* It is forbidden to have a wife or children.

* It is forbidden to work. A Thief must live only off the fruits of criminal activity.

* A Thief must give moral and material assistance to other Thieves using a communal fund.

* When a conflict arises in a criminal group or among Thieves, there must be a summit meeting to resolve the issue.

* When necessary a Thief must attend a summit meeting to judge another Thief's conduct or behavior if it comes into question.

* A Thief must be proficient in criminals' jargon.

* A Thief must not enter a card game if he does not have the money to pay.

* A Thief must teach his craft to novice thieves.

* A Thief must not lose his wits while drinking.

* A Thief must not in any way become involved with the authorities, nor participate in social activities nor join social organizations.

* A Thief must neither take up weapons on behalf of state authorities nor serve in the army.

* A Thief must fulfill all promises made to other Thieves.

Source: Joseph Serio and Vyacheslav Razinkin, "Thieves Professing the Code," unpublished paper.