SUZDAL, U.S.S.R. -- A century ago, this small town on the immense plain of northern Russia boasted more than 70 working churches and monasteries. Today, only one remains open for worship, but it has become the center of a revolt against the official, state-supported Russian Orthodox Church that may intensify as Russians experiment with new-found religious freedom.

At first glance, Suzdal seems an unlikely place for the first open rebellion against the hierarchy of the church since the church swore allegiance to the Communist authorities in the 1920s. Suzdal is a conservative, predominantly agricultural community. The parishioners here are mainly little old ladies with kerchiefs tied around their heads, intensely devout but politically apathetic.

Yet these same little old ladies have spent much of this year staging protest demonstrations, waving placards and picketing the offices of the local bishop in Vladimir. The determination with which they have defended their right to worship as they please has focused national attention on the tragedy of the Russian Orthodox Church -- and such persistence of belief within an officially atheistic society helped bring about yesterday's decision by the Soviet legislature to abolish state control of religious institutions.

"We understood that perestroika is going on in the whole country, but nothing is happening in our church," said Valentina Antonova, one of the Suzdal protesters.

The Suzdal rebellion was triggered by a dispute between the local priest and his bishop. As Father Valentine tells the story, for years he had been required to submit detailed reports to the bishop on foreign visitors to Suzdal, a major tourist center. He assumed that the reports ended up with the KGB, the Soviet secret police, which has long kept a rigorous watch over the church. Last year, emboldened by President Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms, he decided to stop writing the reports. The bishop responded by ordering his transfer to a distant parish.

Rather than leave Suzdal, where he had worked for 18 years, Valentine declared his allegiance to the foreign branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, which broke away from the mother church in 1923. The overseas church observes the same rites as the Moscow patriarchate but has rejected the Soviet state's right to interfere in church affairs and regards the thousands of bishops and priests sent to labor camps in the 1920s and '30s as martyred saints.

What has been at stake in the Suzdal dispute is the relationship between church and state. The past three years have witnessed a dramatic revival of religious activity in Russia, with the reopening of nearly 4,000 abandoned churches and a tripling in the number of baptisms and marriage services. But the painful historical issue of the church's decades-long subordination to the Communist state has not been resolved. And the debate may become more pointed after yesterday's action by the legislature.

"The government can open countless churches. But if they are all subordinate to the Communist Party, what good does it serve?" asked Zoya Krakhmalnikova, who was exiled to Siberia in the early 1980s for "anti-Soviet" Christian activism. "Unless we return to Christian civilization, we will not renew our society. Our Russian culture was the achievement of the Orthodox religion, but this was destroyed under Stalinism."

The Communists declared war on religion within weeks of seizing power in November 1917. A government decree issued in January 1918 ordered the confiscation of all church property and suppression of the church's legal rights. The head of the church at the time, Patriarch Tikhon, replied with a stinging letter that accused the new government of betraying Russia's interests by signing an unfavorable peace treaty with Germany and sowing hatred through the ideology of class struggle.

After a short respite during the Russian civil war, Soviet state founder Lenin ordered a renewed offensive against religion in 1922. In a secret directive only recently published here, he said the clergy "must now be taught such a lesson that they won't dare even dream of resisting for years to come." On Lenin's orders, more than 8,000 priests and monks were executed in 1922 alone. Tikhon was placed under house arrest.

Under Joseph Stalin, the persecution of the church intensified. Of the 507 bishops living in Russia between 1918 and 1983, only 100 died of natural causes. By the beginning of World War II, just four bishops remained in office. The others either were dead, imprisoned in labor camps, exiled in Siberia or had fled abroad.

It was against this background of brutal repression that Tikhon's successor, Patriarch Sergei, published a declaration in 1927 that effectively gave the state full control over church affairs. The right to nominate bishops became the prerogative of the ideological department of the Communist Party Central Committee. According to Oleg Kalugin, a dissident KGB general, the church, even today, remains thoroughly infiltrated by government informers and secret police agents.

Sergei's decision to collaborate with Stalin has become a central issue in the debate over the future of the Russian Orthodox Church. For the dissidents, the former patriarch betrayed the church by agreeing to become the instrument of a godless state. For his successors in the Moscow patriarchate, he saved the church from annihilation.

"We have no moral right to judge Sergei," said Metropolitan Pitirim, the head of the church's publishing department and the son of a priest arrested by Stalin. "As a human being and a priest, I must state that he had no other way out. The church never excluded the possibility of dissociating itself from the authorities. But the church has to live in the open. Christ said that nobody should light a candle in order to hide it under the table."

"Nobody had the right to make such a compromise," countered Father Valentine, who insists that he will never return to the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate. "For a priest to compromise is one thing, but for the head of the church to issue such a declaration was unforgivable. If all the priesthood had been strong, God would have found a way of saving the church."

Sergei succeeded in preserving the physical continuity and outward rituals of the church, rituals that are of vital importance to the Russian Orthodox believer. But he failed to prevent the littering of the Russian landscape with the ruins of abandoned churches, some of them turned into warehouses or barns for collective farms. His action also made it more difficult for the church to renew itself today and cast off the shadow of collaboration with the authorities.

"It's easier to get rid of a Politburo member than a bishop," complained Krakhmalnikova, the former exile. "These people are chosen for life. Therefore, the most reliable people are chosen. They form part of the Communist Party's nomenklatura" -- the roster of approved personnel for sensitive posts.

Pitirim, who is regarded as one of the more liberal of church leaders, concedes that the KGB may have succeeded in infiltrating the priesthood. But he insists that the church could not avoid coming under the control of the Stalinist state. "Even so, to become a priest involved considerable personal risk. You had to have courage to commit yourself to this path," he said.

Last June, two rival ceremonies were held to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Suzdal. A Russian Orthodox bishop from the United States presided over the service in the Czar Constantine church, which was attended by most of the local faithful. Not to be outdone, the Moscow patriarchate paid the local history museum 10,000 rubles for a day's rental of the town's unused cathedral, busing in a church choir from Vladimir.

Father Valentine's supporters suspect that the patriarchate will try to quash the Suzdal rebellion by establishing a second, better-endowed church in the town, which has a population of about 11,000. But they insist that they will not allow themselves to be seduced. What they lack in material resources, they say, they make up for in the purity of their belief.

"We have discovered that the patriarchate is false," said Maria Bayeva, 80, who was accused of "hooliganism" by the local bishop after she lay down in the snow in front of his car. "This bishop is not a real bishop. He is an enemy of perestroika."

Interviewed by Soviet television, the bishop agreed that he had asked Father Valentine to write reports, a practice he said was routine. He accused the priest of violating his vows of obedience, saying he had no right to question the orders of his superiors.

"The way these bishops talk, they could be at a Communist Party meeting. At least we now speak pure Russian," said Andrei Osvetrov, an assistant pastor here who first became interested in religion after reading lectures in atheism as a university student.

At least a dozen Orthodox priests in different parts of Russia have now followed Father Valentine's example and defected to the overseas church. Some independent observers predict that there could be massive defections unless the patriarchate breaks with six decades of "Sergeianism." So far, however, there is little sign that the church hierarchy is prepared to denounce the 1927 agreement with the state, a step that would be tantamount to acknowledging that it is tainted by collaboration with the authorities.

But both sides say religion will play a vital role in Russia at a time when the official Marxist ideology is collapsing.

"Russians are a people guided by ideas. They need something to believe in," said Krakhmalnikova. "First they believed in the church, then in Stalin. Stalinism, too, was like a faith. It promised paradise on earth. Now people have lost faith in paradise on earth and are searching once again for eternal beliefs. Russians cannot have an empty heart."