Easter in the Russian Orthodox Church began at midnight, and as that hour approached, the crowd at the back of the small "winter" church of the Feodorovski Cathedral began to push forward.

With a grim urgency normally seen in the rush-hour crush on the Moscow metro, determined people shoved their way into the back of the church that already was packed.

Kerchiefed grandmothers were pushed against the wall, clutching their red candles. They barely had enough room to make the sign of the cross. Overhead, rotary fans hung from makeshift rafters moved the still air as people held their breath to make room for others.

At midnight, the priests emerged from behind the sanctuary to begin the ritual procession around the building. Hesitantly at first, the crowd then broke the other way. People pushed and pulled, and some were swept out the 17th century doors into a line of militiamen holding back another crowd outside.

Yarolslavl, about 160 miles northeast of Moscow on the Volga River, is almost 1,000 years old. It is a city of churches. A local historian could not give the exact number, but their onion domes dominate the skyline. In the 18th century, the city center was redesigned, so that virtually every street radiating out from the main cathedral ended in front of a church.

Many churches remain, and some are under restoration. But of the several dozen that dot this city of 600,000 people, only four are still used as places of worship.

The Orthodox Easter -- whose date is calculated from a different calendar than that of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches -- has not lost its meaning during the 67 years of Communist rule, and for this holiday four services apparently are not enough.

As the "winter" church with its low ceilings filled to capacity last night, the larger "summer" cathedral next door stood empty.

To attend the service, people had to pass between two rows of militiamen, a dozen on either side. As they passed, they were asked point-blank if they were "believers." Even if the answer was yes, some -- especially the young -- were liable to be asked to show their documentation.

Beyond the gates, more uniformed police stood guard, and among the crowd within the churchyard gates were young men, some in groups, some standing alone, not in uniform, watching the crowd with stony faces.

Religion is not forbidden here, but there are many ways to discourage it. Last night, Soviet television offered a particularly appealing program, starring a popular singer, which ran late into the night. It was not lost on Soviet citizens that the Ala Pugachova film was offered as competition to the Easter service.

Yet outside the gates of the Yarolslavl churchyard, groups of young people peered through the iron gratings, watching with curiosity as the congregation, holding candles, walked behind the Easter procession before going back into the church to announce, "Christ is risen."

Some believers said last night they do not mind the militiamen's presence at church, especially on Easter. They said that without them, the crowd would have swollen to include the merely curious, some of whom might be drunk or want to cause trouble.

But some said they also wonder why it is necessary to check documents, to keep track of who goes to church. And they speculated about where that information goes.

For many Russians, Easter is not a religious holiday but a tradition, complete with traditional cakes and sweet cheese. Before the holiday, spring cakes are sold in bakeries. Nonbelievers also bake them. One staunch atheist explained that, after all, her mother did. The day before Easter, these cakes are blessed in the churches, as people prepare to break their Lenten fast.

On Easter, Russians, religious and nonreligious, also visit the graves of their relatives to clean the fenced-in plots and lay flowers. Today, on the road back to Moscow, people jammed the areas near the cemeteries, carrying wreaths of artificial flowers bought at the markets.

Inside Moscow, streets leading to the city's biggest cemeteries were closed off for buses.

Many families in outlying villages made the trip on foot. A blue sky and warming rising hinted at Easter's message of spring, although snow was still in the forests and fields.

An old woman flagged down a car, saying she was headed for a cemetery seven miles away. She had been to the Easter service until 3 a.m. in a church seven miles in the other direction.

It had been full, she said, as it was every year.