A new specter is haunting Russia, spooking financial markets and making political leaders tremble: devaluation of the ruble.

President Boris Yeltsin's government is fighting to defend the currency, spending down precious bank reserves. The West, fearful that a Russian financial collapse could rattle markets still shaky a year after the Asian crisis, has tried to shore up Russia's reserves with a $22.6 billion bailout.A devaluation would certainly hurt anyone holding ruble-denominated assets. Most foreign investors have sold off such securities in recent weeks, but some German banks are said to still be heavily invested.

Few ordinary Russians hold stocks or bonds, and most of the world of high finance takes place on a level far removed from day-to-day reality. So far, few Russians have seen any fallout from the summer's financial crisis.

That could change if the ruble falls, and it could have serious political consequences.

The most immediate possible effect on ordinary people is that consumer prices would rise sharply, especially on imports. More than half of the food in Russian stores is imported.

That could raise the possibility of social unrest. While there have been scattered strikes across Russia this summer, so far they have been uncoordinated and largely ineffective.

"Right now, the population is totally calm," says Igor Bunin of the Moscow branch of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank. "But devaluation could set them off."

Other analysts don't see a danger of widespread protests. Alan Rousso of the Carnegie Endowment says uprisings in Russia have historically been small and localized.