Boris Yeltsin's presidential campaign and its financial backers are spending large sums of cash -- hundreds of thousands of dollars by some estimates -- to bribe and influence Russian journalists and drive home an anti-Communist message, according to a variety of sources here.

Other campaigns in the Russian presidential race, including the Communists', also have spent heavily to arrange for favorable articles in newspapers and appearances on popular television and radio talk shows. But none has recruited journalists so methodically, nor paid them off so handsomely, as the Yeltsin campaign and its friends, said the sources, who include journalists, media executives, politicians and consultants to the Yeltsin campaign.

Working in conjunction with an array of private firms, including public relations agencies and other middlemen, the campaign and its backers have arranged for payoffs to journalists ranging from thousands of dollars a month for the most recognized reporters from major Moscow newspapers to $100 for a freelance article by a novice ghostwriting for a provincial newspaper, according to journalists and Yeltsin campaign insiders.

The price range for appearances on some television programs is considerably higher, and radio also does not come cheaply. But it is generally only lesser candidates who have had to pay for broadcast time because Yeltsin already exercises substantial control over Russia's main TV stations and has monopolized air time.

"This is a widespread practice," said Andrei Richter, director of the Center for Media Law and Ethics.

In an interview, a young Moscow journalist who described his recruitment said he was paid several thousand dollars during the presidential campaign to write articles stressing the danger of a Communist comeback in Russia. Many of the stories were planted in regional newspapers under a fictitious byline, he said.

He finally refused to take any more payoffs when he was asked to write what he considered to be disinformation about a rival to Yeltsin, liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky. "Of course, reporters aren't stupid. We understand this is corruption," he said, speaking on condition that he not be identified. "But when it's small-scale, we don't really see it as corruption.

"It's considered a normal means of survival. Salaries are not that high, and people have to live on something. . . . Besides, in comparison with what {we} know about corruption in government, this doesn't seem like much."

A top strategist with the Yeltsin campaign confirmed that the campaign and its deep-pocket allies have poured money into planting what is known here as "hidden advertising" in Russian newspapers.

"It is hidden political advertising, hidden so that it won't be talked about," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, the Yeltsin campaign official. "It is done in every campaign by every politician in every country. In this country it was done by the headquarters of every campaign, and naturally it was also done by our headquarters."

Pressed to explain, Nikonov changed tack slightly, insisting that much of the cash used to ply reporters comes from Yeltsin's backers rather than directly from the campaign itself. "Everyone has the right to campaign for or against a candidate," he said. "Public relations is not illegal in Russia."

Of course, not every Russian journalist is on the take. Journalists at certain large Moscow newspapers, such as Izvestia, are thought not to accept bribes in return for favorable stories, even though their coverage is overtly pro-Yeltsin. The daily Sevodnya, which has an elite readership and a good reputation, is believed to have fewer reporters on the take than other papers -- but still has some, according to a journalist with contacts there. Nezavisimaya Gazeta also is generally well regarded, although not entirely clean, reporters said.

Corruption tends to be heaviest at newspapers that are struggling financially and pay their staff poorly, such as Trud or Literaturnaya Gazeta, they added.

Yeltsin's manipulation of the media has played a key role in his political recovery over the last four months. The Russian media, after five years of relative independence, are now anxious about the prospect of Communists returning to power and have been overtly supportive of Yeltsin. In that sense, they have been an easy mark for manipulation. It is not only a question of paying bribes to willing journalists.

The only two national TV channels are heavily subsidized and effectively controlled by the government, and a third, nominally independent NTV, has become noticeably friendlier to the Kremlin since its president began moonlighting as Yeltsin's chief media adviser this spring.

In the five weeks preceding the June 16 first round of the presidential election, Yeltsin received three times more air time on prime-time news programs than his main rival, Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, according to the European Institute for the Media in Duesseldorf, which is monitoring the Russian elections. The institute also counted 300 positive references to Yeltsin compared to 150 negative references to Zyuganov.

"Of course, we are not paying for hidden advertising on television -- we don't need to," said Nikonov. "But a lot of candidates did."

Nonetheless, the Yeltsin campaign and its backers have taken care to make sure coverage in newspapers is just as favorable as on television.

A campaign consultant who has been instrumental in planting pro-Yeltsin and anti-Communist articles in Russian newspapers explained how the system works. "For most journalists it's no problem as long as they aren't asked to write outright lies," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former journalist who is general director of the Foundation for Effective Politics. He said the foundation, which he helped to start a year ago, has a contract from the Yeltsin campaign to manage media relations, especially with provincial newspapers. It also has received money from private concerns, which he refused to name, that support Yeltsin.

"In every newspaper there exists a price list for political advertising," he said in an interview. "Of course, it's not always indicated that this is political advertising when the articles appear -- we don't control that because we're not interested in that."

Pavlovsky suggested that journalists, not the Yeltsin campaign, were the instigators in what he acknowledged is a corrupt system. "Of course, it would be much more pleasant to work with people who don't demand money," he said. "This circle of corrupt journalists is a tragedy of our time."

He estimated that 1,000 journalists in Moscow alone are on the take, including an elite group of perhaps 50 big-name reporters who received $3,000 to $5,000 per month on top of their other income for writing articles favorable to Yeltsin or other candidates. That would mean the Yeltsin campaign is spending more than $100,000 a month on bribes in Moscow alone.

Several hundred journeymen reporters at big newspapers have padded their monthly incomes by a couple of thousand dollars, and hundreds more freelancers have made good money, too, he said. Outside the capital, he added, prices and earnings are lower, but the practice is just as widespread. Journalists contacted for this article generally agreed with Pavlovsky's estimates.

Vladimir Averchev, a liberal member of parliament, said he could tell easily from reading the newspapers which articles had been paid for. He said it was widely known that a favorable profile in a major newspaper could be had for $2,000 to $5,000. "Journalists see this opportunity and they ask themselves, Why not use this opportunity when everyone around me is using it?' " he said.

The practice is widespread enough that journalists who do not accept bribes said they were reluctant to judge their colleagues harshly.

"People in this country -- journalists, policemen and so forth -- are not like in other countries," said Alexander Minkin, a leading muckraker for the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. "I know that traffic police in Switzerland do not take bribes, but everyone in this country knows that every traffic cop will milk you for a bribe.

"To deplore journalists for corruption and at the same time not to notice that we have corrupt lawmakers, corrupt ministers, corrupt policemen -- this is incorrect and very unfair."

On television, hidden advertising by candidates is less common on the large state-controlled channels -- whose coverage in any event is tilted heavily in the president's favor -- than on smaller, commercial stations such as Moscow's TV6.

In an interview, a Moscow journalist named Yelena recounted how she was wooed and offered payment two months ago by two of Pavlovsky's associates at the foundation. Yelena, 33, who has been a reporter for a decade, told her story on condition that her last name and the name of her newspaper not be used.

The effort to recruit her began at a funeral for a colleague who was killed covering the war in Chechnya. There, Yelena ran into a friend who was working at the foundation. They chatted, and a few days later he sent a white Volga sedan to pick her up at the offices of her newspaper, where reporters are not supplied with their own computers and salaries are around $600 to $700 a month.

When she arrived at the foundation, she was impressed. "They had gorgeous paintings, computers, modern European furniture," she said. "They told me I could make a lot of money for writing articles and they started mentioning this range of prices. But after a while they understood I wasn't interested so they cut off the discussion. They must have realized they'd made a mistake, and my friend asked me not to say anything about this to anyone."

The practice of paying reporters for favorable stories is not new in Russia, nor is it limited to politics. Russian corporations pay heavily for good publicity in the papers and on television. And a number of journalists, especially working in television, are rumored to have become rich during the parliamentary elections of 1993 and 1995, when politicians from dozens of new political parties were happy to pay serious money to get their names known. Indeed, a number of reporters said there was less money available this year than in past campaigns.

Nonetheless, the problem remains the same: Newspapers have not managed to secure an independent financial base, leaving them vulnerable to sponsors who are happy to trade rubles for renown.

"We are in the midst of a spree of corruption that involves not only the government and bureaucracy but many other spheres," said Averchev, the member of parliament.

"I don't try to excuse it, but I am trying to explain it."