Easter midnight neared, amid tolling bells, chanting voices, and flickering candles. Outside the 16th-century Cathedral of the Assumption, a 20th-century Communist Party activist did her bit for what the Soviets call ''scientific atheism.''
Easter services, she explained to two teen-aged girls she had snared by the elbow, are not the kind of thing teen-agers should get mixed up in. . . .
''Why?'' asked one of them, sheepishly.
''Why?'' echoed the other.
''Why?'' pitched in a slightly older boy, passing by.
The explanation was patient, straight forward: There are simply better things to get involved in, and much better holidays. ''There is May Day'' - secular with a vengeance, ''the day of international solidarity of the working people.''
The Soviet communist state is waging an open-ended battle for the hearts and minds of the Soviet people.
And as this year's May Day approaches, under the stewardship of the aging Leonid Brezhnev regime, there have been signs of official concern that this battle, if not being lost, is not being convincingly won, either. It is young people, especially, who are said to be going astray.
Some fall prey to drink, some to the values of a materialistic West, and others may simply wonder ''why,'' even in this officially atheistic state, they shouldn't spend Easter before the glittering iconostasis of a Russian Orthodox church.
Yet surely the most puzzling recent display by errant Soviet youngsters came roughly halfway between this year's Orthodox Easter and May Day - on April 20, Adolf Hitler's birthday. A half dozen Moscow youths sporting swastika armbands are said by witnesses to have shown up in Pushkin Square, three minutes from the Kremlin.
The area is a favorite hangout for youngsters who don't quite fit the Soviet socialist mold: truculent rival soccer fans, mere loiterers, or the relatively tame local variety of hippie.
Some accounts say the intruding ''Nazis'' were beaten up by a mix of these types. By other reports, the six were simply stared at. One thing is agreed: They were arrested.
A handful of neo-Nazis in a nation of nearly 270 million people is not many. Nor would Adolf Hitler seem a particularly promising symbol for a genuine political movement in a nation that was attacked and ravaged by Hitler's armies. But one Moscow student says privately that an extremist fringe of his school colleagues recently set up a discreet ''circle of Hitlerites.''
Its sympathizers, he says, seem to include members of what Muscovites call the ''golden youth,'' children of the official or professional Soviet elite.
A Soviet official who deals with youth issues told the Monitor he had ''heard from one of my colleagues about this Hitler thing, in connection with reports about Pushkin Square.'' He stressed he had still not confirmed to his satisfaction the details of the incident. He said he had ''no doubt'' that only a tiny minority of youngsters would dabble in such endeavors. But he did put credence in the possibility that some ''golden youth'' might be among them.
''They are kids who have had life easy, who have not had to struggle,'' he said. ''And they know of the (world) war only from films. . . .
''There is a tendency toward political naivete.''
He and other Soviet officials repeatedly stress that they feel the majority of the nation's youth are politically ''healthy.'' Boris Pastukhov, head of the Communist Party's youth organization, said in an interview with the Monitor several months back:
''There are some problems, like youth who go after liquor. . . . And some youth are politically more active (in support of communism) than others. But in common (among most) is the high feeling of civic and social duty . . . a sense of patriotism.''
Still, the ''problems'' do exist. In another country they might be taken less seriously. Yet the Soviet state - and its enormous, troubled economy - are run on the assumption of pervasive authority from above, almost, sometimes, like some monumental high school.
This is a country whose Constitution guarantees all citizens ''the right to housing.'' The final sentence of the relevant article adds: ''Citizens of the USSR shall take good care of the housing allocated to them.'' Officials here point out that all states balance citizens' rights with obligations. What is oddly Soviet in this country's basic law is the range of obligations, and the tone in which they are set forth.
Article 62, for instance: ''Citizens of the USSR are obliged to safeguard the interests of the Soviet state, and to enhance its power and prestige.''
In the Soviet scheme of things, loyalty, and not just the absence of disloyalty, is an official requisite. A spate of recent commentaries by the Soviet news media portrays a whole range of potential threats on that score: kids hooked on discotheques, kids who let Americanisms creep into schoolyard chatter, kids laying themselves open to ''pacifism.'' And kids wearing decorative crosses.
An Izvestia article tackled the ''cross issue.''
''For many young people, the wearing of a cross is linked to a feeling of bravado, a desire to stand out. . . But is this fashion all that harmless? Obviously not. It is known that in following this or that fashion, a man's aesthetic tastes are closely connected with his convictions. . . ''
Since Soviet newspapers often function as something of a collective state cheerleader, such articles need not necessarily suggest that the Kremlin is quaking in its boots. Some Soviet officials, including the editor of the youth magazine Pioneer, have lamented in interviews with the Monitor that media commentaries on Soviet youngsters tend to read political meaning into essentially apolitical fads.
But some fads, particularly religious ones, do seem to concern even some such officials.
Loyalty, again, is the issue. Many Soviet youngsters who manage to attend Easter services seem to do so as much from curiosity as from devotion. But rarely does one meet a Moscow teen-ager who would seem likely to join in a May Day gathering, for instance, out of curiosity.
''The fact of the matter is that (mere) indifference to religion, as a rule, becomes the same as indifference to (officially supported) atheism,'' lamented an article last year in the youth journal Molodoi Kommunist.
And indifference can become not merely a political, but an economic problem. The Siberian branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences recently ran a survey on the issue of ''labor discipline'' and reported that ''a sense of concern ran through all the responses.
''For example, G. N. Drozd, head of the management department of a high school. . . said something seems to be wrong. . . ''
''You often hear such comments as: 'People aren't like they used to be'; 'Nobody gives a darn.' ''
Religion seems a particularly thorny issue for Soviet officialdom. On the one hand, the state finds it useful to tolerate the politically pliant leadership of the Orthodox church. Although reliable figures are impossible to come by, one need only stand at the door of a church in Moscow, or in the religious center of Zagorsk slightly to the north, at Easter to confirm that some citizens, particularly old ones, retain religious loyalties.
The Orthodox church also makes nice propaganda overseas, an implicit sign of the ''freedom of religion'' formally endorsed in the Soviet Constitution. The Russian church will play a major role in an international antiwar conference convening here next month, with such figures as Billy Graham in attendance.
But there are potential debits, too. The church seems one focus of an emerging nostalgia among at least some Moscow intellectuals, and even Moscow officials, for things genuinely Russian, not just Soviet. Moreover, the church shows little sign of losing attraction for many more ordinary Soviet citizens. Even some young people seem drawn by religion, for whatever reason.
At present, the state seems of two minds on how to handle the issue.
There have been increasingly frequent calls in the official media for vigilance, for invigorated ''atheistic propaganda.'' In the Turkmen Republic capital of Ashkabad, where mosques and not Orthodox churches are the main issue, the local radio recently announced inauguration of a ''people's university of scientific atheism'' to consider ''methods of atheistic education, for teachers of Ashkabad schools and vocational colleges. It is planned to open 21 similar universities in the republic.''
But in Moscow this Easter, ''scientific atheism'' seemed secondary in official strategy. For the first time in recent memory, state television did not bother to mount an elaborate special program to compete with the church. The authorities also seemed to accept with equanimity, participation by tens of thousands of Muscovites in traditional Easter Sunday rites: visits, often with a picnic lunch, to the gravesites of close relatives.
Indeed, one evening newspaper printed an unprecedented official announcement that major roads near Moscow cemeteries would be closed to automobile traffic. Since the paper offered no explanation, many Muscovites, even some officials, took the announcement as cause for intensified speculation over the health of Mr. Brezhnev.
Officials told Western journalists, however, that Easter was the catalyst. ''But obviously,'' one official added, the paper couldn't say so.