Lyosha rocks back and forth on his filthy hospital cot, wasted, glassy-eyed, hugging himself. His handshake feels like a damp, hot towel. A cockroach scuttles unheeded between his slippers.

A drug addict since puberty, Lyosha, 20, never imagined there was mortal danger in the used, dirty hypodermic needles he and his friends used and reused to shoot a cheap liquid opiate into their veins.

AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes it were a world away -- in the capitalist West, in destitute Africa, in the fleshpots of Asia. They certainly were not here in this sleepy, mud-caked, former Soviet wasteland between Minsk and Kiev. Here there was only a polyester factory, a paper mill, ghastly prefab housing blocks -- and a future so boring and bleak that getting stoned seemed a pleasant escape.

But suddenly, Lyosha is squarely in the path of a wave of HIV infection, nearly all of it borne by 20-something addicts using dirty needles. The epidemic has blown through Svetlogorsk with the fury of a medieval plague and is spreading fast in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In June, not a single case of HIV infection had been reported in this isolated factory town of 73,000, despite years of testing. Today, the virus has spread to more than 1,000 people in Svetlogorsk -- a rate of infection equal to that of New York, America's most HIV-ridden city.

The epidemic is sweeping Svetlogorsk with such speed that officials say it may ensnare 90 percent of the town's 3,000 to 4,000 addicts in the next two years. Money is so scarce, and drug addicts here so heedless of the risks of transmission, that authorities believe nothing can be done to save them. The focus rather is how to prevent the disease from reaching the rest of the population.

"The HIV virus finds the weak spot," said Viktor Zvyagin, deputy mayor of Svetlogorsk. "In America it was homosexuals. In Africa it was prostitutes. In our city, the weak spot was junkies."

Lyosha, hospitalized with hepatitis, is awaiting his HIV test result. He would give only his first name. By his own admission, he has no particular cause for optimism. Even in the hospital -- which does not provide fresh needles -- he shoots up every day when the nurses turn their backs. Fresh bruises and needle tracks form a purplish smudge at the crook of his arm.

And the authorities -- panicky, penniless, tangled in red tape -- have not informed three-quarters of the HIV-infected addicts in Svetlogorsk that they carry the virus.

"We junkies don't think about HIV or no HIV," said Lyosha, his words thick and slurred like a man unpracticed at using his own tongue. "If you have a {used} needle and somebody else doesn't, you give them the needle. No one thought about {HIV} before. I mean, I'd heard of it, but when you shoot up you pay no attention to it."

Svetlogorsk is a nightmare scenario come true -- a place where rootlessness, poverty, ignorance and a huge population of intravenous drug users have combined to make fertile ground for an HIV explosion. But a broader outbreak also has taken hold in recent months.

The epidemic has hit hardest in Ukraine, particularly the Black Sea port of Odessa, from which traffickers -- many of them Gypsies -- ply the drug routes along highways and railway lines north into Belarus and Russia, police and international health officials say.

In Ukraine, more than 8,000 new HIV cases have been reported in the last two years. In Russia, the number of new cases expected to be reported this year, about 1,000, represents a five-fold increase from last year.

While these numbers are low by Western standards, the actual number of new cases is thought to be many times higher than reported. The explosive rate of growth has alarmed health officials, who project a gathering epidemic fueled by poor health standards, toothless law enforcement, growing drug abuse and joblessness. Moreover, the incidence of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, which often heralds an HIV outbreak, has skyrocketed in former Soviet territory since 1993 and is now 400 times greater than the rate in Western Europe.

"A lot of syphilis means a lot of risky sexual behavior," said Henning Mikkelson, an AIDS expert in Geneva with the United Nations and World Health Organization. "When these two epidemics come into contact with one another we have a very alarming situation."

Nowhere were conditions more ripe for the spread of the disease than in Svetlogorsk. Founded in 1961, the town imported young workers to man a power station and chemical plant and built drab cookie-cutter apartment blocks to house them. Today, those workers' children are in their teens and twenties, growing up in a town with few grandparents, no roots, no traditions and little in the way of culture. More than half of the population is under 35.

The first known addict -- a medical student who picked up the habit at school in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) -- appeared on the scene in 1984. After that, drug use spread quickly, helped by rising unemployment and the pervasive boredom of a provincial town whose nightlife consists of a run-down movie house and one barely heated disco. "There's nothing for young people to do," said Lyosha. "This place is a swamp, not a city."

Like all the addicts in town, Lyosha's drug of choice is an easy-to-make narcotic brewed from poppies that grow in the region. The potent, tea-colored opiate, boiled twice and mixed with vinegar, can be made on a stove in a few hours or bought cheaply on the street. Lyosha said that for about $5 -- a day's wage in his job as an electrician -- he can stay high all day.

Most of the users never gave a thought to the risk of HIV. Needles and syringes were used for weeks at a time, shared among friends in communal apartments, dipped in each other's homemade brews or those they bought from dealers out of large glass flasks. So when HIV arrived this summer, it arrived with a vengeance.

The virus was discovered in June when a husband and wife from Svetlogorsk, seeking treatment for their addiction, went to Minsk and were tested for HIV. The test came back positive, and the authorities went into a frenzy. In the first few weeks, police rousted some addicts from their apartments and hauled them into hospital labs for testing. But international health officials warned that Soviet-style methods would drive addicts underground. Now voluntary testing is the rule.

Still, the authorities' inexperience is taking a toll. Antiquated regulations require that people who test positive for HIV may only be informed of their status by a commission from a regional headquarters 50 miles away. The result: Hundreds of drug users in town have not been told they carry the virus.

"The rules were set up when there were individual cases, not a massive outbreak," said Svyatoslav Samoshkin, deputy director of the town hospital.

The town is terrified. On an AIDS awareness program broadcast here recently, viewers asked if the disease could be spread through handshakes, swimming pools, pocket money, shop counters or restaurant dishes.

There were demands to quarantine people with the virus. One caller said addicts were smearing their blood in the stairways of apartment buildings. He was advised to clean the stairways with bleach.

The town's neighbors are also worried. Border officials in Russia and Ukraine are refusing to admit travelers from Svetlogorsk unless they show certificates proving they are HIV-negative. Universities in Minsk, the Belarusan capital, demand the same from the town's student applicants. Svetlogorsk's children are shunned in soccer games with children from other cities.

The national response has been sluggish. After months of delay, a government commission on narcotics has been created. But Belarus's economy is in free fall, and its public officials spend most of their time in power struggles and political intrigues. No one has the several hundred thousand dollars a year it would take to address Svetlogorsk's epidemic. Even providing addicts with free needles is beyond the ability of officials in Minsk.

"We don't even have needles for hospitals," said Vitaly Glazovsky, head of the government's AIDS prevention center. "No one would understand if we used budget money from hospitals to give out hypodermic needles free to drug addicts. . . . We live poor, poor, poor."

A U.N. program plans to spend $65,000 to open three AIDS information centers in Svetlogorsk next year. Methadone in tablet and liquid form will be offered free in an effort to wean addicts from needles. Officials are not optimistic.

"These people are going to be infected in the next two or three years, and no technical assistance project will help," said one international official who has studied the problem. "But we have to do something for our conscience, even if it's not effective."

Said Samoshkin, the Svetlogorsk doctor: "For years people thought AIDS was far away in Africa or America, that it couldn't be in Belarus. Our Soviet education taught us that we don't have these problems, that these are the problems of capitalists, bourgeoisie, imperialists. . . . We have no experience in such situations." CAPTION: Hospital official Svyatoslav Samoshkin counsels Lyosha, a drug user in Svetlogorsk, where 1,000 people have been diagnosed HIV-positive since June.