MOSCOW -- By the time 50 can-do Americans arrived to advise on setting up a federal government and legal system, the federation plan had been replaced by a commonwealth.
The Americans pressed on -- after all, the federal system could be adapted to government within the republics instead of among them.
But the encounter left some of them staggering over the sheer dimensions of the problems here and the total confusion accompanying every attempt to build new institutions.
"They are almost overwhelmed by the need for so many laws," said J. Michael McWilliams, a Maryland lawyer and president-elect of the American Bar Association. "It's a Herculean task, and it will take them a long time to sort it out."
In the former Soviet Union, laws were often written so that anyone could be found guilty when convenient. It was practically unheard of for a prosecutor to lose a case. Typically, lawyers became bureaucrats, and the field held few attractions for bright or ambitious young people. And laws have not generally been regarded as something that must be obeyed.
The U.S. delegation -- which included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, lawyers, law professors and public officials -- gave crisp talks on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, on federal vs. state and local laws.
Their hosts, scholars and legislators from Russia and other republics, gave long and emotional speeches on the terrible abuses of human rights and the general mess of the legal system.
At times it seemed their words were whistling past each other at about 100 miles an hour. The Americans kept talking about the state, as in the state of Maryland. Here, the word has far broader and more powerful connotations -- and it takes four pages of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to define it.
"In the United States, the law is not used to enforce a certain political agenda," said Jeffrey Teitz, a member of the Rhode Island Legislature.
"We certainly are living in hard times," offered Igor Blischenko, vice president of the Association of Soviet Lawyers. "The problem of democracy in our country provokes many problems. . . . We encounter many situations where human rights are violated."
John H. Stroeder Jr., a commissioner for Cook County, Ill., gave a short pep talk on politicking -- "As local officials you have to go out and get support for your programs" -- and on the county form of government -- "It's a system that would work well in all of the republics."
The nuts and bolts left the Russian side vaguely unsatisfied. They kept casting about for some philosophical mooring that they could hold on to.
"If you see the state as a car," said Alexander Blokhin, a Russian deputy, "the Americans sent us the best mechanics. But our engine is not diesel. It is not internal combustion. We have a horse, so you have to send us a veterinarian, not an engine mechanic."
"It is too soon to speak seriously of reforming our judicial system," said Natalya Nechaeva, whose title is chief expert for the Russian State Committee on Nationalities. "First we have to form some idea of the rights of the individual."
The legal system is only one of the many strands that must be taken up and woven into a new social order. And every one of these areas is wrapped up with great debate and little action. So many crises arise there's hardly time for anyone to think about rebuilding government.
This conference was compressed from the three days the Americans expected into two because Russian leaders are so busy averting catastrophe they couldn't spend the time.
Still, Mr. McWilliams said he was reassured by this visit. It's clear, he said, that Russian leaders are firmly committed to building a new system based on the rule of law.
"First they need laws," he said, "and then they have to persuade people to believe in them."