First his health went, then his job, then his wife. After watching his life dissolve, Vladimir tried to take control in the only way he could imagine: killing himself.

It's long been a solution all too common among Russians when life becomes too painful. And suicides, already high in Soviet times, have soared in the 1990s, cutting across age, gender and class to claim thousands of victims each year.Even more fail in their attempts, ending up in emergency rooms, psychiatric wards or - like Vladimir - in suicide crisis wards.

"I don't even remember what it was that I swallowed," Vladimir said.

Suicides shot up 67 percent from about 39,200 in 1990 to 61,900 in 1994, the peak year. By 1996, the number had edged back to 57,900, and preliminary estimates for 1997 point to a further decline, to 54,900, the State Committee on Statistics says.

The level remains extraordinarily high - weighed against population, Russia's suicide rate is triple that of the United States and Canada.

Suicides are especially high among Russian men. Russia is the world leader in male suicide, along with Latvia, according to the U.N. World Health Organization.

Psychologists blame the instability this decade has brought, including the fall in standard of living, growth in unemployment and politically or economically motivated migration to other regions.

Vadim Gilod, deputy director of the 60-bed suicide crisis ward at Moscow's Hospital No. 20, said the ward was a reflection-in-miniature of the stresses Russians face.

"People used to try to kill themselves to solve purely personal problems," Gilod said. "Now the despair is magnified by social failure."