Rats run free, broken timbers stab out of the darkness and men stand in mud, breathing bad air, stripped to the waist.

That's how it is in a Ukrainian coal mine, 1,500 feet below ground.The men of the Trudovskaya mine say life on the surface isn't much better. Their shoddy housing has no running water and the stores have little to sell.

Many die early, killed by accidents, cancer or black-lung disease. They retire at 50, if they live that long.

Thousands of miners in the Ukraine, and in the Siberian coal fields of the east, shocked Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Kremlin and the economy last summer with the first industrywide strike.

Eight months and countless promises later, the original bread-and-butter demands have become political.

After a month of rallies and hunger strikes against the local Communist Party leadership, Ukrainian miners handed the party a stunning setback in elections March 4.

"Look how I live!" said Nikolai Golik, 36, who has two children. "Our conditions are not much better than down here in the pit. There is no gas, no hot water. We ain't got a damn indoor toilet."

Sergei Malchenko, 26, shares his comrade's bitterness.

"Gorbachev is showing off," he said. "He is not doing anything. I didn't go vote because I don't want to play those games. Nothing good will come of it. For 72 years, communists have been pulling our legs, and finally have mucked it all up. I won't help them. Not me."

The Trudovskaya mine is one of 21 in this eastern Ukrainian city of 1.2 million. In it, 3,500 miners work six-hour shifts around the clock to meet a yearly quota of almost 1.5 million metric tons.

Andrei Slivka of the Donetsk strike committee said working conditions have barely changed in his 19 years underground.

In the shaft, sections of wall show signs of caving in. Broken timbers protrude in all directions. Muddy water is underfoot everywhere.

Poor-quality wood brought in to prop up the shafts breaks easily. Hastily built scaffolding often is flooded and slippery, so miners must jump from board to board.

Rats lurk in the flickering light of miners' lamps, waiting for a chance to snatch leftovers from lunch.

On the surface, the temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In the shaft it is 77 degrees.

Men dig with shovels, drills and picks. They crouch, squat, crawl to scoop up coal in a narrow tunnel too low for a them to stand straight.

Sweat pours down their faces in black streams.

There is an alarm system to warn of explosive gas, but miners suspect it doesn't work. An explosion at the Pochenkov mine in the same coal basin killed 13 miners and injured more than 20.

Boris Grebenyuk, who visited the United States in January with several other Soviet miners, said it would be much easier to work there than in a Donetsk mine.

"We saw humane treatment and a real concern for the workers," he said after visiting a mine in West Virginia.

Few statistics are available on accidents and occupational illnesses in the nation's largest coal field, known as the Donbass.

Yevgeny Mironov, the acting regional Communist Party leader, acknowledged that the accident rate was "unfortunately rather high."

He blamed "shortcomings in working conditions" in the 55 miles of underground tunnels, and carelessness by miners about safety rules.

Miners who stopped to talk blamed their problems on the Communist Party.

The Communist Party district leader, Nikolai Nikandrov, got only about 3,000 votes, or 3.4 percent, in the Ukrainian legislative elections on March 4. Two miner candidates got the most votes for the seat.

Workers want more say in management and greater autonomy for the mines.

"We can't set wholesale prices as we wish," Vladimir Ivantsov, party leader at the mine, said. "We can't decide ourselves where to sell our production. We can't buy what we really need, even for production development."

Such problems in the mines make the social problems on the surface all the worse, he said.

Yuri Makharov of the city strike committee said he was in no mood for compromise:

"They must resign," he said, "not because they are personally responsible . . . but because they are part of the system and we are out to crush that system."