In the great battle to rule Russia after Boris Yeltsin, the favored weapon is kompromat, or compromising materials, and the favored method is to leak them. There's never a direct hit; just innuendo, sleaze and questions left dangling.

Another chapter of the kompromat wars began recently when Moscow's powerful and ambitious mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and his wife, Yelena Baturina, were pictured on the front page of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a widely read Moscow newspaper. "Charges are being cooked up for Luzhkov's wife," the headline read.

The story said that federal agents in Vladimir, a city 118 miles west of Moscow, were investigating a company called Inteko on suspicion of sending money abroad. Baturina runs the company.

But this round of kompromat fell flat. Luzhkov vigorously denounced it, and Baturina protested the smear attempt. The prosecutors' office later said no criminal charges were being brought against her.

"We make buckets and all that stuff," Baturina said, speaking of her plastics company. "Maybe they think we launder money in the buckets we manufacture."

The episode offered a first, tentative glimpse of a little-known woman who may have a say about the future of Russia. As Luzhkov accelerates his political campaign--right now, for the parliamentary elections, next year maybe for the presidency--Baturina is stepping out of her self-imposed obscurity. She recently spoke in an interview with The Washington Post, one of the first with a Western newspaper here.

She is a world apart from the Soviet-era political wives who hid in the shadows. She is typical of Russia's new generation--a generation trying to ride the tiger of the wild, new market capitalism, a generation that enjoys tennis and horseback riding, mobile telephones and European vacations. She is articulate, direct, and wastes few words. She is the family breadwinner, mother of two young daughters and chief executive of a $12-million-a-year company.

Baturina stands out because independent women are extraordinarily rare in Russian politics. Yeltsin's wife, Naina, has taken a low-key role, focusing on charitable activities. Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana has become a top Kremlin operative, but behind the scenes. The wives of Russia's tycoons usually live overseas, and women hold few posts in government.

Elena Kudriashova, a social and political philosopher at Pomor State University in Arkhangelsk, said that it wasn't until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's era that the stereotype of women in places of power was broken.

"Raisa Gorbachev was the first woman in the Soviet period who appeared as an active wife of a central political figure," Kudriashova said. "Nobody knew the wife of Brezhnev, no one knew the wife of Khrushchev, and then Raisa Maximovna appeared--that smart, interesting woman of the intelligentsia, who knew several languages and had a PhD. She was the first to play such a role. But public opinion with regard to her was negative."

Throughout Russian history, women have had prominent roles, especially in Imperial times. Catherine the Great brought the Enlightenment to Russia. "In the consciousness of the Russian person, the idea that a woman can lead the country is normal," Kudriashova said, "Because that happened historically. But in the Soviet period, the management of the country was only conducted by men."

The men still rule. Luzhkov lords over Moscow; his own self-image is that of the builder and manager, a mayor who revels in barking out orders at a construction site.

Baturina, 36, and Luzhkov, 62, met a decade ago--his first wife died of cancer--when he was chief of a Moscow city commission overseeing nascent businesses known as cooperatives. It was still the Soviet era, and the cooperatives were viewed by many with a mixture of suspicion and envy. Baturina was Luzhkov's assistant. According to a construction boss who was one of the first to apply to become a cooperative, Luzhkov talked, but Baturina did all the work, filling out the forms.

Luzhkov is now at the center of Russia's newest political drama: Who will succeed Yeltsin? The presidential election is not until next summer but maneuvering has begun.

While Yeltsin remains aloof, his political strategists are flailing about because, analysts say, they lack a serious candidate to succeed him. Meanwhile, Luzhkov's Fatherland bloc is quickly gaining the establishment's support. Luzhkov has many political liabilities, including questions about corruption in Moscow and the city's lawlessness, but judging by today's polls, he is a strong contender to become Russia's next president..

The hostility to Luzhkov among Yeltsin's team goes back to long-standing differences over who will be the boss. Luzhkov has always made it clear that, in his realm, he is the unquestioned chief, and those with money must follow his orders. In Moscow, they do. But the tycoons such as Boris Berezovsky, who has close ties to the Yeltsin family and has said Luzhkov must not become president, don't want to be under Luzhkov's thumb.

When the first leaks of kompromat were aimed at her, Baturina said, "I was ready for such a test. . . . It was not the first attempt in my life."

Baturina's business has been at the center of attention before. One of her first commercial breakthroughs was making molded spectator seats for Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, the renovation of which was one of the mayor's pet projects. Baturina said she tries to avoid city contracts, and she said the stadium is a private company, although others noted the city extended a loan for the renovation.

In Moscow, where the government is also one of the biggest business owners, it is practically impossible to avoid enterprises either wholly or partially owned by the city.

Baturina said she wants to be regarded as a businesswoman, not just as Luzhkov's wife. "When I married Luzhkov, I asked him, 'What are we going to do about my business?' " she said. "And we made an agreement. I am a professional manager, and just to become a housewife would not be quite good for me."

"I am not Raisa Maximovna or Tatyana Dyachenko," she said of Gorbachev's wife and Yeltsin's daughter. "Now, when the role of women in Russia is growing, there is no getting away from it; I think it is a world trend. I do not understand why I must give up business, and not prove that women in Russia can be successful."

Now, however, her role is changing. "I don't have this big wish to become first lady of the country," she said, looking at a visitor intently. "I like very much doing business, raising my kids . . . but I understand if his status grows, I will have more such problems."

It's a year to the election, and Luzhkov is faced with many political hurdles. One is that his political style is a bit wooden. He is a self-styled manager. While at ease in Moscow, he has seemed unsure about stepping out into presidential politics. Another problem is that many in the provinces view Moscow as the bastion of all the excesses and corruption in Russia's short-lived experiment in free markets.

"Luzhkov has two qualities that distinguish him from many," Baturina said. "He is always capable of admitting he is wrong. And he is never scared to look ridiculous. I can give you an example from when we went to the regions, to a horse racing tournament. They brought a horse to Luzhkov and he mounted this horse and started riding. The leader of the region stood next to us. And people started yelling, 'You get on the horse too!' And he said, 'How can I do it, what if I fall?'

"Luzhkov is not afraid of falling down."

CAPTION: Yelena Baturina, wife of Yuri Luzhkov, runs a plastics company.

CAPTION: Moscow's ambitious mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, right, who is seeking a seat in parliament, has joined forces with former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.