MOSCOW (AP) _ For the past few years, most Russians have been millionaires _ in rubles, anyway. And a trip to the grocery store has been an exercise in higher math.

But starting Jan. 1, the Russian ruble will lose three zeros, changing its value overnight from about 6,000 to six for one U.S. dollar.

For the third time in seven years, the Kremlin is overhauling the country's battered currency. And with the previous two attempts resulting in widespread panic, some Russians fear the latest effort will also lead to chaos and ultimately make them poorer.

In a local branch of the state-run bank, Sberbank, one old woman burst into tears when asked about the re-evaluation.

``It's bad, very bad. Once again, they are deceiving us,'' she managed to say before hurrying off.

But other Muscovites expressed little anxiety, saying they are more concerned about how to earn money than how to denominate it.

``Who needs all those zeroes, anyway?'' said Evgeny Yerpilov, a retired electrician selling pine boughs in central Moscow for the New Year holiday.

Under the re-evaluation, a loaf of bread that now costs 3,500 rubles will be 3.5 rubles. Yerpilov's pine branches will go from 2,000 rubles each to 2 rubles _ a change he announced cheerily.

``Why should it be thousands of rubles for this, thousands for that?'' he asked. ``Two rubles sounds more normal, doesn't it?''

Perhaps the most welcome change will be with big ticket items: the price of a new car will shrink from a daunting 36 million rubles to just 36,000 ($6,000).

Of course, in real terms prices will stay the same. But the government wants to make calculations simpler, and they hope losing the zeroes will improve Russians' attitude towards the withered ruble.

``Financially, it means nothing,'' says Sergei Pobyvalayev, an analyst with the World Bank in Moscow. ``What the government cares about is the psychological effect _ maybe it will give people the feeling that money is money again.''

And the government is eager to promote that kind of feeling. The economy, which went into a free fall after the Soviet collapse, is finally stabilizing and there is the possibility of modest growth next year. Inflation, which peaked at 2,600 percent a few years ago, will be under 12 percent for 1997.

Nonetheless, many Russians have suffered terribly during the transition, losing jobs, savings and security. And those who have been unable to build a new way of life are unlikely to be convinced that the redenomination is anything other than another government gambit that will make their lives even more miserable.

Previous currency changes in 1991 and 1993 caused widespread panic, largely because announcements were sudden, Russians were given only days to trade in old notes, or there were limits on how large a sum could be exchanged.

This time, the new bills and old bills will circulate together for a year, and banks will accept old notes for exchange for a full four years.

``I'll just spend my old money, and then I'll spend my new money,'' said Yerpilov, the pine bough seller.

The government has also spent five months educating the public with TV ads, newspaper articles and posters showing the old notes and new notes. To ease the change, the new notes look practically the same as the old ones they will replace _ same color and design for each denomination, just with three fewer zeroes.

The biggest fear seems to be that prices will go up as shopkeepers ``round up'' to new rubles.

``They're already doing it,'' complained 60-year-old Evgenia Sorokina, who said her local kiosk has raised the price of a loaf of bread from 2,800 rubles to 3,000 so it will be an even 3 rubles in the new prices. ``Of course, there's still inflation, but the redenomination has accelerated it.''

Bank security guard Evgeny Krot says he's watched hundreds of people file in over the past few weeks to ask questions, and most have left convinced that the change is for the better.

Still, he expressed a certain nostalgia for the zeroes.

``For a while there,'' he said with a chuckle, ``we were all millionaires.''