Samoilenko is a regular guest lecturer at the Institute and takespart in cadets' induction and graduation exercises. He sees the RussianOrthodox Church as vital to restoring the military's sense of purpose,something it often loses sight of in Chechnya, according to human rightsmonitors.

Human Rights Watch, for example, has documented scores of cases ofRussian soldiers robbing, raping, and murdering civilians in Chechnyaduring sometimes drunken rampages. Russian military leaders areindignant at the accusations and point to what they call the greaterevil of Chechen bandits' kidnapping business that has claimed thousandsof victims.

Samoilenko said a "Christ-loving, peacekeeping army" would notengage in such excesses.

Among the high-ranking officers gathered at the Easter banquet,there was little doubt about the purpose of their military service. "We believe in Orthodoxy. We will die for Orthodoxy," said Kovalyov, who earns the ruble equivalent of $105 a month.

The newfound, post-Soviet union of army and church is full ofironies.

Both colonels at the Easter banquet are former members of theCommunist Party, which had no place for believers and nearly drove the RussianOrthodox Church to extinction in the 1930s. Samoilenko's five brothersare all priests, as was his father, the victim of frequent governmentharassment in Soviet times. His church is one of three Orthodox churchesin Vladikavkaz, which boasted 28 before the 1917 revolution ushered in70 years of state-sponsored atheism.

Largely because of this Soviet legacy, here on the edge of Russiathe church is straining to meet the demands placed on it. Samoilenkosaid a three-man delegation arrived on Good Friday from the Chechenvillage of Assinovskaya asking for a priest for Easter. He had to refusethem.

"We just didn't have anyone to spare," he said.