Alexei Yablokov was driving down a dark country road one night this summer, headed for his weekend cottage with his treasured white Opel jammed full of food and books, when suddenly car thieves tried to run him off the road.

They rammed his car and shouted, but Yablokov sped faster. After a harrowing chase -- at one point the thieves jumped onto his hood -- the white-bearded environmentalist made it safely to the cottage and called police.

But even a career spent challenging Russian authorities on nuclear-waste policy and other such issues had not prepared Yablokov for what happened next. When he went to press charges, he recalled, "It was explained to us that one of the attackers is the `little son' of one of the tycoons of criminal business" in the region.

"They nervously asked me, `Do you have to? It's not especially serious! Let's look at it as hooliganism,' " he said. "Nothing happened. They caught [the assailants] that night, and then they let them go."

Yablokov's experience is a small illustration of one of the most startling failures of post-Soviet Russia: the inability to build a state based on the rule of law. Russia has yet to replace the over-arching Soviet police state with a new system, and the outcome has been a frenzied, dangerous free-for-all.

The vacuum touches almost every aspect of Russian society, from the everyday dealings of average citizens to the high-flying finance of the country's millionaires. The chaos is highlighted by current investigations in New York and Switzerland into massive illicit flows of Russian capital abroad, and allegations of money laundering and payoffs at the highest levels of the Kremlin, including the family of President Boris Yeltsin.

At issue is what kind of post-Communist society Russia is becoming. Today, according to many businessmen, politicians and analysts, the two central goals of Russia's post-Soviet transformation -- to build a democracy and market capitalism -- are threatened by the absence of the rule of law. Without it, they warn, Russia may be on its way down a different path, that of many other corrupt, clannish, authoritarian regimes.

Throughout its history, from the czars to the Soviet Communist Party, Russia has no tradition of the rule of law. The legacy of previous generations runs deep and includes a chasm between state and society and a heritage of arbitrary and unreachable authorities. Power was exercised ruthlessly and without recourse for its victims. Today's Russia, despite the changes of recent years, still bears the deep imprint of this history.

"We are only 10 years away from this period," said Yuri Dmitriyev, a lecturer and law professor. "This is not 800 years of the existence of the British Constitution. This is not even 200 or 300 years of democracy in Germany and France. So, we need to create a different law, with entirely new principles and approaches. But when I talk to our members of parliament, to the presidential administration about this new structure, it is very difficult. The past is in the consciousness of the people in power."

"We are coming to the end of a crossroads period," said Mark Galeotti, director of the Organized Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit at England's Keele University. "The window of opportunity is almost closed to create a new Russia, rather than the old one. We are pretty close to Russia losing this opportunity."

When the new Russian state was born in late 1991, it was an article of faith among reformists that if they created a nation of property owners all else would follow. They believed that if property were taken out of the hands of the state, new owners would find it in their interest to insist on a state governed by laws.

This view has turned out to be wrong. While an estimated 70 percent of the property was transferred to private hands, the new class of property owners has been uninterested in codifying the rule of law. Many got rich by using bribery and coercion to lay claim to Russia's mines, oil refineries and factories.

Sergei Pashin, a judge, said the intense struggle over wealth actually warped the rule of law. "When everything is finally distributed in the so-called wild capitalism, then maybe they will be interested in the rule of law," he said. "But so far, it hasn't happened. So far, it's the process of redistribution, and basically . . . the law enforcement bodies are used as a club" to settle private fights.

Georgi Satarov, head of a foundation that tracks the progress of democracy here and a former Yeltsin adviser, said the new capitalists are seeking maximum profit, regardless of the rules. "If there is the smallest opportunity to get access" to resources held by the state, he said, "it's more effective than fighting for clients. This practice is the child of this transition period. The old has been destroyed, the new hasn't been built; it's just being born. There are legal, cultural and ethical loopholes, and business takes advantage of them."

New laws were written for the new Russia. The country has a post-Soviet Constitution, a civil code, family code and criminal code. But much remains unfinished, including the revamping of a tax system that is universally viewed as confiscatory and is widely disobeyed. The laws on criminal procedure date from 1964. A new land code -- which could enshrine land ownership as private property -- has been stymied by opposition from Communists.

"Russia lives not by law, but by understandings," said Yulia Latynina, an analyst at the Institute of the Economy in Transition, a reformist policy research center. "When I say not by the law, I mean not by those formal rules and regulations that are written into our Constitution and civil code, but by some informal rules, which are something in between a bandit's code and feudal code."

For example, she said, on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East, regional officials issue quota permits for catching fish, the only local commodity of value. Formally, the permits are free, but the reality is different, she said. "I know of cases where bandits paid $2 1/2 million for a hundred-ton quota for fishing crab. It is obvious that officials are interested in being able to issue `free' quotas; in this case they get more. The higher the level of arbitrariness is, the bigger is their profit."

Russia's legal institutions are also weak, from law enforcement to the judiciary. One day last spring, for example, businessman Andrei Yakovlev raced to his retail outlet after being told that a fire had broken out there overnight. When he reached the store, Yakovlev, a 39-year-old geologist who started a company making oils and fluids for Moscow's burgeoning auto market, found that the damage was not serious. But his inventory had disappeared.

"I saw empty shelves," he recalled. "Witnesses said the [police] loaded up several cars. Simply stolen was $50,000 to $70,000." He said it was useless to file a complaint, that nothing could be accomplished, and he felt sorry for the police and firemen. "When the official wages of these people is below the poverty level," he said, "a part of the people in these jobs have to forage."

A glaring sign of the failure of law enforcement is the proliferation of contract killings. Police have failed to solve even one of several high-profile slayings here in recent years. The victims were a journalist, a television personality, a leading reformist member of parliament and an American businessman.

After legislator Galina Starovoitova was shot to death in the stairwell of her apartment building last November, President Yeltsin vowed "to do everything" to find the killers. Operation Whirlwind, a sweep inspired by outrage over the killing, yielded 5,810 arrests over a few months, but no progress has been reported toward solving the case.

Even at the top, the rule of law is weak. Dmitriyev, the law professor, said many lawyers thought it an enormous victory that the Constitutional Court was established, even if only on paper. "They did not foresee a small detail," he added. "The mechanism of enforcement of the decisions of the Constitutional Court -- it does not exist. There are court bailiffs who will beat you for not paying alimony, but there is no mechanism that will make the state obey a decision of the Constitutional Court."

Russia's political and financial leaders share blame for the lawlessness by flaunting laws themselves. "The central element of a rule of law state is that the rulers subordinate themselves to those laws," said Galeotti. "That's what's been lacking."

Earlier this year, for example, Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov -- now suspended -- issued an arrest warrant for business tycoon Boris Berezovsky on corruption charges. Shortly thereafter, the interior minister at the time, Sergei Stepashin, announced he would not honor the warrant. "I am not going to arrest Berezovsky," Stepashin said, inviting him to return from abroad for questioning. The warrant was dropped.

Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, has ignored three rulings by the Constitutional Court against the use of the notorious propiska, or residence permit. In Soviet times, the propiska governed where a person could live; Russia's 1993 constitution sought to end the practice, and a federal law codified the same principle.

However, Luzhkov has stubbornly preserved the system in Moscow while changing the method. Now, a permit is available only to those willing to pay thousands of dollars to buy property or pay certain "fees."

A final roadblock to building the rule of law may be Russian unfamiliarity with the notion. Dmitriyev said Russians "do not know that it is possible to resolve anything by means of law; they are simply unaware of it. If you look at the appeals of citizens to the government, to judges, letters to the president, complaints to the human rights representative, you will find a blind belief that only authority can resolve things, not the law."