FOR Valentina Volkova, charity is a constant struggle that starts at the end of a food line.In addition to doing the shopping for her family, Ms. Volkova cares for seven elderly shut-ins under a program run by the Russian Orthodox Church's Marfa-Marinsky charity. With state store food supplies unpredictable, the daily task of buying groceries for her charges has been transformed into a "hunt," she says. "I'm supposed to devote about six hours per week to every shut-in, but I actually have to spend much more than that," says Volkova, a burly woman with a bright disposition. "In order to get food you have to go around to many stores," she continues. "And the people are wicked." The food shortage is just one of many problems confronting the charitable movement in the Soviet Union. The concept of charity is struggling to reestablish itself in the Russian psyche after seven decades of suppression under communist rule. "Before, the people had mercy on their neighbors. We have to make this feeling grow again," says Archbishop Sergi, the chief administrator of the Russian Orthodox Church's charitable programs. Criticizing them as "bourgeois," the Bolsheviks banned charities and shifted responsibility for social care to the state. But the vaunted cradle-to-grave social system has now collapsed. And the fledgling Soviet charities that reappeared during the last few years of perestroika have neither the funds nor the experience to pick up the all the slack. "Every third person in Moscow could perhaps be qualified as needy," said Galina Bodrenkova, a member of the Moscow City Council's committee on charity. Foreign charitable organizations are doing their best to lend advice and assistance. The United States-based United Way is one of several foreign organizations with offices in Moscow. The United Way's top priority is to help Soviet officials draw up a law regulating charities, says Mary Yntema, director of programs for the United Way in the Soviet Union. Without such laws it is difficult for fledging groups to get off the ground. "We need a good law on charity, providing controls that will inspire public trust," she says. "Most of the problems ... with charities derive from the lack of a law." The Russian Federation parliament, which has worked closely with the United Way, may be ready to adopt a charity law, by the end of the year, Ms. Yntema says. Some small charities have managed to start up despite the lack of a legal framework. The Sotsprof trade union, for example, is providing subsidized meals for about 150 people each day at a cafeteria in Moscow. The food is typical Soviet fare - greasy meat and potatoes - but to pensioners, it is special, says Tatyana Popova, a union administrator. "It's not anything big, but you have to start somewhere," says Ms. Popova. The 10,000-member union spends up to 10,000 rubles a month (roughly $5,500 at the official exchange rate) on its charity programs, which also include a food delivery service for elderly shut-ins. The Orthodox Church traditionally had been the leader in charitable activity in Russia, but like other organizations it is starting from scratch, Archbishop Sergi says. The church was permitted to resume charitable activity in 1988 under President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika and now devotes 10 percent of its overall operating budget to charitable activities. The church runs rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addicts, as well as family counseling and care for orphans, says the archbishop. About 150 church-backed volunteer societies have been formed throughout Russia to help pensioners and hospital patients. The church also operates two nursing schools. The several dozen women in the first graduating class were in high demand at Moscow-area hospitals, the archbishop says. This fall, using aid received from Germany, the church hopes to build and operate a bakery to distribute free bread to the poor, he adds. Despite efforts by these organizations, most experts agree charity won't be successful in the Soviet Union without the participation of businessmen, especially Soviet entrepreneurs. So far that isn't happening. "Charities are facing the most discouraging conditions. There's absolutely no incentive to give," says Yntema of the United Way. What is really needed are tax incentives to encourage donations, says Ms. Bodrenkova, the Moscow councilwoman But volunteers such as Volkova are providing hope on an individual level, and they are making a difference in at least a few lives.