Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, beset by congressional criticism of the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia, said yesterday that "the suggestion made by some that Russia is ours to lose is arrogant; the suggestion that Russia is lost is simply wrong."

However, in the wake of recent reports about Russian corruption and capital flight, Albright said Moscow's response to corruption "has not been adequate," and she maintained that Russian President Boris Yeltsin "needs--at last--to make fighting corruption a priority."

"The Russian legal system remains no match for well-connected criminals," she added. "The deadweight of corruption is holding Russia back."

In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Albright said that Russian leaders should cooperate with the investigations into money laundering and the misuse of International Monetary Fund funds "no matter where or to whom the evidence leads."

Albright's unusually pointed comments about the need for Yeltsin to take a personal role in fighting corruption followed a report that Yeltsin and his family directly benefited from improper payments from foreign companies seeking to do business in Russia.

Rumors have also circulated in Moscow about the possibility that the unpopular Yeltsin might use the recent terrorist attacks as a pretext for postponing or changing Russia's scheduled parliamentary elections in December and the presidential election next year.

Many Russia experts have said the Clinton administration has invested too much political and diplomatic capital in bolstering Yeltsin personally. Yesterday, Albright said that Russians should be given the chance to choose a successor to Yeltsin "because nothing could do more damage to Russia, at home or abroad, than a failure to observe the constitutional process."

Albright's remarks were the latest in a series of Clinton administration efforts to rebut critics who say that the new allegations about Russian corruption point to a failure in recent U.S. policy toward Russia.

Attention has focused on the possible laundering of Russian funds through accounts at the Bank of New York and on alleged misuse of IMF loans.

On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said that "the unparalleled financial graft in Russia . . . marks the ineffective end of the Clinton-Gore administration's approach to Russian reform. . . . The stated purpose of the Gore-Clinton policy was to help the Russian people become a peaceful and productive free-market democracy. Instead, Russia has become a looted and bankrupt zone of nuclearized anarchy."

Armey added, "It's time for Congress to ask the question: Who lost Russia?"

Albright responded yesterday that the corruption scandals were a blot on a record that had many other successes.

"It is right to focus on the cloud of corruption in Russia," she said. "But it is not the whole picture."

Among the bright points, she cited a reduction in nuclear warheads, the elimination of nuclear weapons from three former Soviet republics and the U.S. purchase of more than 60 tons of enriched uranium that could have been used for nuclear weapons. She also praised U.S. efforts to obtain Russian cooperation on arms proliferation, the expansion of NATO and the peacekeeping forces in the Balkans. And she hailed the rise of a vigorous press and electoral process in Russia.

She said financial assistance to Russia during the Clinton administration has helped to employ Russian nuclear scientists, thereby safeguarding their technical know-how, and has benefited programs for aiding entrepreneurs, independent media and independent trade unions. She attacked congressional plans to cut 25 percent or more of President Clinton's budget request for programs in Russia and other former Soviet republics, saying the cuts "would require unacceptable and self-defeating trade-offs."