MARIA UGLOVA could not hold back the tears. Wiping her eyes on an apron as she gestured forlornly around the cramped railroad car that has been her home for the past year, she was at her wits' end, she said.
``We'll probably never get a proper house now,'' she sobbed. ``They say there is no money to build us one.''
Mrs. Uglova is one of over 2 million ethnic Russians who have flooded back into Russia from neighboring republics since the Soviet Union began to crumble.
She fled Georgia with her bus-driver husband and four small children a year ago, when civil war in the southern republic made life there impossible.
Her fate is a bitter illustration of how the returnees - ``forced migrants'' as they are known here - have stretched the Russian government's ability to cope with them to the breaking point. And their numbers will triple in the next five years, officials predict.
``If the people coming back don't find jobs, if they are not given housing, they will simply add to the already critical social unrest in Russia,'' warns James Bissett, head of the Moscow office of the International Office of Migration (OIM), an intergovernmental agency that monitors and assists migrants. ``It could become really serious.''
Uglova is a member of the Dukhobor religious sect, similar to the Quakers, whose members were exiled from Russia to the Caucasus 150 years ago when they refused to serve in the Czsarist Army.
The 3,000-strong community, which had settled in six villages in Georgia, decided to move back to Russia en masse. Many of them have found a new home here amid the rolling fields and forests 200 miles south of Moscow, on an abandoned collective farm that they have renamed after Leo Tolstoy, a patron of their sect.
Different families came for different reasons. Some complain that the Georgian authorities were settling civil-war refugees on their best land. Others say they gave up on Georgia's disintegrating economy when they started being paid in coupons rather than money.
For Nikolai Chernishov, the farm manager, the final straw came when ``Georgian paramilitary groups started coming round and saying that this was not our native land, that we had better leave before anything violent happened.''
Similar pressures weigh on some 25 million ethnic Russians who now find themselves beyond Russia's borders - former colonizers sent to develop the outlying regions of the Soviet Union.
War is forcing them out of the Caucasus; discriminatory laws that deny them local citizenship are making them feel unwelcome in the newly independent Baltic republics; and rising nationalism in Central Asia has combined with poor economic prospects to drive Russians out of the predominantly Muslim countries.
In Tajikstan, for example, 560,000 Russians made up more than 10 percent of the population five years ago, but only 70,000 remain today.
Mr. Chernishov and his fellow Dukhobors were lucky enough to find sympathetic local authorities in Chern who assigned them the crumbling ``Soviet Russia'' collective farm and helped them revitalize it.
``We built housing for them with local money and government money,'' says Valentina Nikhonoshina, deputy chief of the Chern administration. ``That farm was an empty place, and now it is working.''
Some of the new residents are prospering. Ivan Balabanov, for example, has found work in his field - construction - and is proud as he shows off the modest but comfortable bungalow he has just finished building for his family.
His cellar is well-stocked with provisions for the coming winter - slabs of salt bacon, bottles of preserved fruit, jars of animal fat, boxes of apples packed in sawdust, and mountains of potatoes.
But more recent arrivals, such as Uglova and her family, have found that the money has run out. The Federal Migration Service (FMS), founded in 1992 to help deal with the crisis, can meet few of its challenges.
``So far this year we have been given only 140 billion rubles (US$54 million), when our 1994 budget was supposed to be 545 billion rubles ($US210 million),'' complains Tatanya Regent, head of the FMS. ``That's why we have so many problems.''
Government critics say the authorities are deliberately starving the FMS of funds for political reasons, in order to dissuade more Russians from returning home. Many officials in the Russian government, keen to exert Moscow's influence in former Soviet Union republics, are known to feel that is easier when large numbers of their compatriots live in the various countries.
``Our people in the near abroad [neighboring republics] are being used like a card to be played,'' charges Lidia Grafova, an activist on migrant issues. ``They are meant to stay to serve the Russian Federation's geopolitical interests.''
Beyond Moscow's possible interest in using its citizens to extend its sway is an undoubted concern about the social impact of the returnees.
``The state is not ready to accept the Russian-speaking refugees from the near abroad,'' said a recent classified report by the Public Safety Committee of the president's Security Council, leaked to the press. ``Our compatriots who arrive in Russia and do not get support and understanding ... become a destabilizing factor in the political life of Russia.''
Although that sort of thinking certainly does not reflect official policy, ``There is no rational, comprehensive program of resettlement,'' says one Western expert here.
In Tula region, for example, where Chern is located, ``Everyone who wants to come is allowed to come; nobody is refused even if it is sometimes hard,'' according to the regional migration chief, Anatoly Pantyukhin.
It is difficult to see how such a vague and general policy can last if no money is available to help the settlers, independent experts say.
As millions of migrants flock from the near abroad, and hundreds of thousands flee ethnic strife within Russia itself, hundreds of thousands more are abandoning the cities in the Far East and the Far North that have collapsed along with the communist command economy.
``We are looking at the largest migratory shift in Europe since the Second World War, and it's happening at a bad time for Russia,'' says the OIM's Mr. Bissett. ``But sometimes the important gets overridden by the urgent, and the West is overlooking it.''