It has been 11 years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but only now has the tide of reform reached a cavernous first-floor courtroom in this ancient town with a soaring white bell tower.

The walls have been painted, the floors redone. Fourteen straight-backed chairs upholstered in fake red velvet have been hauled out of the old Communist Party headquarters and placed on the right side of the courtroom in two neat rows. Radiators have been installed and are almost working.

Eighty-five years after Vladimir Lenin banished them, jurors will return next month to this courtroom and others across Russia, the result of a new code on criminal procedures that was pushed through a grudging parliament in July by President Vladimir Putin's supporters.

The new law's intent is to sweep away a thoroughly Soviet code that lingered unscathed long after communism's demise, and to replace it with trials in which the verdicts are not preordained, but fought over by legal opponents and hashed out in jury rooms by ordinary citizens.

It is a form of justice that most Russians recognize only from books and Western films. Although Russia's 1993 constitution envisioned the right to jury trials, only nine of the nation's 89 regions have actually held them, and then only as an experiment to see whether they would work.

The vast majority of this nation's courts have not rendered a verdict by a jury of one's peers since 1917, when the Bolsheviks abolished the system created by Czar Alexander II in the Great Judicial Reform of 1864. The jurors' reemergence, reformers say, shows how Russia's priorities have shifted from the interests of the state to the rights of individuals.

The old system produced a 99.6 percent conviction rate, partly because judges were forced to share the prosecutor's burden of proving a defendant's guilt. Defendants in the nine pilot regions have fared better before juries, winning acquittals about one-fifth of the time.

In Yaroslavl, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow, Vladimir Ananiev said he also expects more acquittals in the regional courthouse where he is chief judge -- unless prosecutors come into court better prepared than they were under the old system.

"Now if the prosecutor does not provide evidence, if the prosecutor does not interrogate witnesses, who will convince the jurors of the defendant's guilt?" asked Ananiev, a lanky 44-year-old with a quick stride and a reputation as a progressive in his 20 years on the bench.

"There will be no one. I would say the prosecutors are very worried."

January's shift to jury trials -- limited to cases such as murder, rape and treason -- is part of a process that began in July when the Russian parliament adopted 3,500 changes to the criminal code. The law, now being phased in, is modeled on the Western doctrine that the best chance for a fair verdict is an adversarial process.

It takes away some of the Russian prosecutor's overwhelming advantages, including his chance to search for years for more evidence while the defendant sits in jail. It establishes a defendant's right to an attorney upon arrest, allows defense attorneys to call witnesses without filing a motion to the judge and makes it almost impossible for defendants to be retried on the same charges once acquitted. Next year, only courts will be able to issue warrants for arrests, searches or seizure of property.

Perhaps most importantly, the new law envisions the judge as a neutral arbitrator, not as a prosecutor's helper. No longer are judges expected to interrogate witnesses, order expert analysis and otherwise pursue the evidence if the prosecutor fails to do his job.

Already, judges and lawyers say they see a difference. "We are trying to instruct the investigators to follow very strictly now," said Alexei Matreev, a lead prosecutor in Yaroslavl, sitting one afternoon last week behind a desk piled high with cases. "Because if a prosecutor or an investigator makes a mistake now, it might lead to any consequence, including an acquittal."

"We are made to work better," said prosecutor Alexander Parasotsky, 46, who paused on his way out of a hearing on a rape case. "The court has ceased to be our supporter, and finally has become a neutral observer."

His support for the new code is an exception. Faced with fierce opposition from law enforcement, the Russian parliament sat on a draft of the law for five years after voting for it once in 1997 under President Boris Yeltsin.

"The resistance to this was huge," said Yelena Mizulina, a member of the Duma, or lower house of parliament, who helped write much of the new code and championed jury trials. "I think the change is revolutionary. People will see how much depends on them, on their right to make a decision, and that will help create trust in a civil society."

Not everyone is ready for a revolution. Some local politicians are dragging their feet, letting money allocated to renovate courtrooms sit untouched. This month, the Duma voted to give 10 of Russia's 89 regions, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, more time to prepare.

Even in the pilot regions, jury trials have met with mixed political support. In Ryazan, in southern Russia, the governor complained. "Jury trials have . . . produced a large number of acquittals that invoked a strong negative response among the population," he wrote to the Supreme Court in 1998.

Jurors may be the least ready. Judges in pilot regions say they struggle to find citizens willing to do their duty for $4 a day. Those who ignore a summons face a fine of $250 that is rarely, if ever, imposed. Mizulina, the legislator, said she fears jury boxes will be filled mainly by poor or unemployed people if the sanctions aren't toughened.

The job can be even more demanding than in the U.S. system. In addition to deciding a defendant's fate, Russian jurors must fill out written questionnaires prepared by the judge and designed to guide them in reaching a verdict. The questions concern the proof of each charge, a defendant's guilt and whether leniency is recommended. Some forms have included hundreds of questions.

Perhaps the biggest danger is that the time and expense of jury trials will simply overwhelm Russia's courts, even though jurors will hear only major cases and the government is spending $1.5 billion to beef up the system. In the United States, experts say, only 5 percent of criminal cases are tried by juries; the rest are disposed of through a plea-bargaining system that Russia has so far rejected.

In Yaroslavl, judges confess to being nervous about their debut. "We are ready, we are even interested," said Dmitri Krekin, one of three judges who will hear what could be as many as 40 jury trials here next year. "But on the other hand, we know this process only as observers."

His qualms are understandable. Look at what happened in Saratov, a region 550 miles to the south that was part of the nine-year jury trial experiment.

Two years ago, a judge forgot to tell the jury in an attempted murder trial to consider only the evidence heard in the courtroom. The jury foreman, an engineer, decided it was his duty to do more than sit and listen to the testimony about whether a drunken police lieutenant shot a security guard.

Several times he visited the street where the shooting occurred, and reported back to his fellow jurors that the prosecution had it all wrong.

"He said, 'The prosecutor is saying the trees were there. But I went there myself, and saw myself the trees were here,' " said Alexander Shurygin, chairman of the Russian Supreme Court chamber that hears appeals of major cases.

The jury discounted the testimony of several witnesses and acquitted the defendant. It fell to Shurygin's court to throw out the verdict on technical grounds last year. The officer was eventually convicted in a second trial and given a five-year prison term.

Vladimir Ananiev, chief judge in Yaroslavl, Russia, says his court is ready to resume jury trials on Jan. 1 for the first time since 1917.