With political, economic and social chaos enveloping their country, Soviet citizens are flocking to the traditional Russian Orthodox Church for spiritual comfort.

"Many people are now turning to the church because they see there is a niche here where they can still hold their ground," said Archpriest Vladimir Sorokin of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in Leningrad."The church has turned out to be the only organization with moral authority. Not the priests, not the patriarchs, but the church itself as a set of spiritual values," he said in an interview.

"People need certainties nowadays, and there aren't any others."

After nearly 70 years of hostility to religious observance, Soviet authorities have relaxed their grip. Last October, parliament passed a law guaranteeing freedom of worship.

According to Sorokin, about 7,000 church buildings taken over by the government after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution - for use as museums, warehouses or even sports centers - have been returned to the church in recent months.

The External Church Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate said last October that the Russian Orthodox Church had 11,940 parishes, 1,830 of which were opened in the first nine months of 1990.

Punitive taxes once imposed on priests have been reduced.

The church is now allowed to do charity work. Sorokin said a new church was even being built in a Leningrad suburban prison, and the prisoners were contributing to the costs.

"I think our society will reach some sort of normal level in its relations with the church. You see, our culture is linked with the Orthodox image of beauty and morality. This is deep-rooted and important," Sorokin said.

"Many people are being christened. You'll see hundreds of people being christened in any cathedral. The number of pupils in our seminary has doubled in recent times and we now have 480 people here," he said.

Sorokin said these people were rejecting the growing chaos and lawlessness in the country - a crime wave, explosions of ethnic violence, hostility between Moscow and the 15 republics and mass strikes.

"Criminality is a sign of the times, because the country is not controlled by its laws any more," he said. "Crime has grown because we have lost faith in party and leadership."

Sorokin said the root of all the evils that had befallen his country was Marxism.

"Our people have suffered for 70 years, and it's too much. Marxism has brought us too low, too far into the mud," he said.

"The worst thing in Marxism is that it says `we' all the time and `I' disappears. Individuality disappears and so does individual responsibility.

"This brought an elemental fear into our society which came to dominate the intelligentsia and the church. Now there's a period in which the intelligentsia are working with the church. This is a sign that people are recovering their sight."

He said double standards permeated Soviet society, now struggling to move away from the past.

For example, Russian Federation leader Boris Yeltsin took part in a televised Easter service in Moscow in hopes of winning support among Christian believers, although he is not a Christian.

"I'm not against Yeltsin, I just think he is typical of the two-facedness in our society," Sorokin said.

"He stood right through that service but he didn't cross himself once. If you come to church for God, you bow and you cross yourself, but Yelt-sin didn't.

"Why this hypocrisy? I prefer the position of (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev. He talks normally with the patriarchs and everyone, but he doesn't go to church because he says he's a Communist, not a believer.

"Yeltsin wants to play games, and it's very bad when the church starts to be drawn into political games."

Despite the improvements in church-state relations, there was still a long way to go, Sorokin said.

Easter was celebrated at St. Isaac's Cathedral in central Leningrad this month for the first time in decades - but the state has not finally decided to return the building to the church.

"They just allow it to be used as a church twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. Just imagine what a paradox it is, the museum director allowing the (Orthodox priest) Metropolitan to sing mass," he said. "We just arrived, sang, and went away."

Sorokin said that the state still - almost automatically - reacted with hostility to the church, and cited the presence at April's Easter services in Leningrad of 2,500 militia and Interior Ministry troops.

"I think the militia were sent to the churches out of mental laziness. In the old days, when people went to church the militia were supposed to hold them back and throw them out. Through mental laziness they still think these people will be disorderly."