DZERZHINSK, U.S.S.R. -- Dawn, like fate, is unkind to the once mighty Chinstahov Tank Regiment, now encamped here at Military City No. 1.

As the garrison stirs on a snowy October morning for another day of hand-to-mouth destitution, officers and their families -- the lucky ones who have their own dormitory rooms or tiny, two-room apartments -- rise to cook breakfast on hot plates or one of four stoves shared by 17 families. The morning fare is meager because the military commissary carries tea, rolls, sugar and virtually nothing else. It is not Thursday, so there is no meat.

Only nine months ago, this regiment was entrenched in Czechoslovakia, as it had been since crushing the "Prague Spring" reform movement in 1968. "There we had a very good apartment. Here we have no apartment," said Maj. Ahshar Aslamurzayev, the regiment's deputy chief of staff. "There you could buy anything in the local stores. Here we can find nothing."

For the Chinstahov's 250 officers, dawn means another long day of drilling the regiment's 1,000 conscripts or maneuvering T-72 tanks in the field. Or perhaps not. Life is rather uncertain in the Soviet army these days. One-third of the troops, for example, spent much of the fall on neighboring farms harvesting potatoes and building greenhouses in this district 225 miles east of Moscow; others were deployed to bakeries to combat a bread shortage.

No image better suggests the calamity that has befallen the Soviet military than this one: The proud Chinstahov Regiment -- once wielded like a terrible, swift sword to drive the Nazis from the Ukraine in 1943, the democrats from Budapest in 1956 and the liberals from Prague in 1968 -- is now being used to bake bread and dig potatoes.

The Red Army, long viewed by the West as a force of infinite menace and impenetrable mystery, is coming apart at the seams. Like the Soviet empire they have served and shaped for 73 years, the armed forces are beset by profound ethnic schisms, indiscipline, plummeting morale and befuddlement over the role of the Communist Party.

Blamed by Soviet citizens for everything from the moribund economy to the Afghan quagmire, the army now carries less influence and prestige than at any time since its founding by Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1918. The armed forces also will be the first and worst victims of an inexorable effort to demilitarize one of the world's most martial societies. "Once, if my fellow officers and I walked down the street wearing our uniforms, we were viewed with respect," said Lt. Col. Alexander Yenn, 42, an instructor at the Kazan Tank Institute. "Now we are viewed almost as beggars."

No longer the "holy of holies" in Soviet life, as the late foreign minister Andrei Gromyko once dubbed it, the military will never again be the unchallenged beneficiary of Central Committee largesse, as in the golden years of Kremlin leader Leonid Brezhnev's reign, when defense budgets increased 5 percent annually for a decade. That army -- one of the sovereign institutions of this century -- is finished, dying.

What will emerge from the ashes is as uncertain as the future of the Soviet Union itself. Although restless about the country's rapid deterioration, the army -- or at least most of the officer corps -- appears to have little appetite for a coup d'etat and the consequent responsibility for solving this nation's crushing problems. Many officers offer a clear vision only of the army they do not want -- a Slavic gendarmerie policing rebellious republics with truncheons and water cannons. "If I was given an order to shoot unarmed civilians, I would never do it," declared Col. Vyacheslav Tretyak, 41, commander of the Chinstahov Regiment.

Nor is there eagerness to rebuild the old juggernaut. Many officers now are ashamed of Soviet actions in Budapest and Prague, mournful about Afghanistan and utterly opposed to any Soviet military role in the current Persian Gulf crisis. They hold inchoate hopes for a smaller, professional army of decently paid volunteers, whose esteemed mission is to defend whatever remains of the motherland once the carcass has been carved up.

Today's Soviet soldiers can and do draw solace from seven centuries of martial gallantry. From Alexander Nevsky, who routed the Teutonic knights in 1242; from Dmitri Donskoi, who crushed the Tatars in 1380; from Mikhail Kutuzov, who drove Napoleon's Grande Armee from Russia; from Georgi Zhukov, who smashed the Third Reich.

For Soviets, such avatars of bygone glory are a source of pride and inspiration. For the West, they are reminders that to discount this army as a primeval force in Europe and Asia is to ignore more than 700 years of Russian history. 'The Army Is Also Ill'

Much of the chaos in the Soviet military today reflects President Mikhail Gorbachev's wrenching reappraisal of national security as a concept that embraces economic prosperity as much as it does a strong defense. This has led to the greatest turmoil in the Soviet army since the late 1930s, when dictator Joseph Stalin shot or imprisoned one-third of the officer corps as part of a ruthless purge.

Moreover, like any large army predicated on conscription, the Soviet military is a mirror, a glass by which to see this nation, darkly. "All the fractures and multiple personalities of the Soviet Union play out in the army," said Stephen M. Meyer, a Sovietologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As Vitali Korotich, editor of the magazine Ogonyok, put it, "When our society is ill, it means the army is also ill."

Among the symptoms of the sickness: Crime in the ranks has increased 40 percent since March, according to the chief military prosecutor; last year, 85 Soviet officers were murdered.

Desertion has jumped 60 percent this year in Siberia, where 100 officers spend all their time hunting runaways. The leader of the military labor union, named Shield, estimates that desertions this year will exceed 10,000.

Draft dodging is so widespread that the military now has a shortfall of 400,000 troops, the chief of staff of Soviet ground forces announced last month. In the southern republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the chance of being prosecuted for draft evasion is almost nil; of 1,100 conscripts who did not show up for induction last year, only one was prosecuted.

The ethnic strife rampant throughout this country is also rife in the military, making a mockery of Moscow's portrait of the army as a great homogenizer that blends 100 nationalities into a phalanx of Soviet warriors.

In many units, commanders cannot curb racial hazing, which is often bloody and even lethal. A coalition of reformers estimates that 15,000 soldiers -- more than were killed in Afghanistan during nine years of war -- have died from noncombat causes, including hazing and suicide.

Led by an overwhelmingly Slavic officer corps, the enlisted ranks are fast becoming predominantly Asian and Islamic because the birthrate has been booming in Soviet Central Asia compared to the Slavic republics. In 1988, according to Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov, 125,000 conscripts could not speak Russian, a 12-fold increase in two decades. "By the year 2000, half of all our soldiers will not understand Russian," said Maj. Vladimir Lopatin, a member of the Supreme Soviet, or legislature. "How can an army like this be commanded?"

Often used as lackeys by senior soldiers and as dray horses by their commanders, enlisted troops are paid virtually nothing. New privates earn 7 rubles a month -- $1.17 at the official exchange rate of 6 rubles to $1. A sergeant earns 18 to 24 rubles -- $3 to $4. Lt. Col. Viktor Shustov, an instructor at the Kazan Tank Institute, estimated that an American colonel -- who earns about $60,000 a year -- makes more than an entire Soviet battalion of 700 or so men.

Never monolithic, the officer corps is now badly fractured, particularly along generational lines. Younger men impatient for a smaller, professional army and decent living conditions vie openly with generals reluctant to surrender their privileges and the status quo.

One of the most contentious issues is the relationship between the Communist Party and the army, a cornerstone of the Soviet empire for seven decades. With more than 1 million Communists, the army contains the largest concentration of party members in the Soviet Union -- and 100,000 political officers in danger of becoming supernumeraries as the party's influence ebbs.

"If the party is no longer the leading force in the country, who is the army supposed to answer to now?" said a Western diplomat in Moscow. "To some extent, the Soviet military is going around looking for someone to be loyal to."

The sum of these difficulties is a deep discontent and even deeper anxiety about the future. "The army is sitting on a keg of gunpowder," warned retired Col. Yuri Deryugin, a military sociologist. "It's very dangerous."

Just in the last few weeks, some Soviets have suggested publicly that the country may need "a strong-arm regime." Yet few Soviet officers believe that military insurrection is likely.

"A coup is impossible," declared Lt. Gen. Ivan Panov, editor of the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). "The loyalty of the officer corps is a tradition with us, and without the officers there can be no coup. We can be displeased with this or that, but that doesn't mean we would rebel."

Even so, the West can take little comfort from the instability and uncertainty besieging an organization that cherishes order and equilibrium -- and maintains 4.5 million men in 190 divisions as well as a formidable arsenal of tanks, artillery, warplanes, submarines and nuclear weapons.

The new conventional-arms control agreement to be signed Monday in Paris will require the Soviets to cut their tank force in Europe by roughly half, to 13,150. But "when you remember that Hitler attacked France with 2,500 tanks, that's still not a small figure by any means," Gen. John Galvin, NATO supreme commander, said in an interview.

For two generations, the Soviet military has been the preeminent factor in sizing and shaping U.S. and NATO forces. That convenient adversary may be less sinister, but also less predictable. "You have a country that is falling apart, a country that has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons," said Alex Alexiev, an analyst with Rand Corp., an American think tank. "The possibility that a country armed with these weapons could go through even a minor civil war is very frightening to me." Army Living: a Struggle

The Soviet empire took 73 years to construct and consolidate. For the men of Chinstahov Tank Regiment, it took but two weeks to dismantle their fragment of that empire. On Feb. 28, the first T-72 rumbled onto a flatcar in Frenstat, Czechoslovakia, for the long trip home.

A brass band played, raggedly. Tretyak, the regimental commander, apologized for 22 years of wrongful occupation. The Czechoslovaks complained to the press that the Soviets had plundered their abandoned apartments of doors, light fixtures, toilet bowls. Officers packed their household goods in wooden crates; when the crates ran out, they jammed furniture and clothes into boxcars. Retreat became rout.

On March 15, the first train pulled into the Oktober Square rail station in Dzerzhinsk, an industrial city of 350,000 souls near Gorki. The tanks rolled a mile down Mayakovsky Street to Military City No. 1. Named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, Dzerzhinsk is a petrochemical sewer. When the weather warmed, a foul chemical miasma settled over the garrison. One officer worried openly about the environmental effect on his sexual potency. Mothers fretted for their children.

Nearly everyone misses Czechoslovakia. Not the placards demanding "Red Army Out!" or the shouted obscenities, of course, but the restaurants and the well-larded stores and the modern, Soviet-built tank garages. When Maj. Vadim Pliska, a 32-year-old Ukrainian, wants to explain what life in Dzerzhinsk is like, he removes his fine, round officer's cap and pulls out a scrap of paper listing the housing status of his fellow officers -- 14 families in one-room hostels; nine families in a dormitory in town; 25 in a five-story dorm on post, and so on.

Pliska, whose duties as political officer now include housing headaches, does not even bother listing the 150 officers crammed into shabby boarding houses while their families remain scattered from Leningrad to Vladivostok.

"Of course it affects morale," Tretyak acknowledged. "There are officers who keep everything inside them, while others are more expressive about missing their wives and children."

The Chinstahov wives who are here spend an average of three hours a day, yellow ration coupons in hand, prowling through the city's shops in search of a wedge of cheese or a pound of butter. Most know better than to waste time at the barren post exchange. If decent merchandise arrives -- children's boots, for example, or winter gloves -- those on the waiting list will be notified.

In Room 6 of a single-story hostel set in the middle of the Chinstahov garrison, Yelena Antropova, the 25-year-old wife of a company commander, lives with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter, Tamara. The room is perhaps 16 by 14 feet, with a rough plank floor, two single beds, two armchairs, a small table, a wardrobe, a desk and a television set.

For meals, the building has a communal kitchen; for showers, a communal bathroom; for washing, a communal laundry room (with tubs, not machines). The recreation room features a chessboard, books and a wall display recounting the exploits in Afghanistan of 12 soldiers decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union.

The Antropovs know that they are fortunate in one important respect: By being among the first to retreat from Eastern Europe, this regiment got first claim on the army's meager resources.

The buildings have hot water, heat, electricity, telephones. A new apartment block is under construction. And although 70 percent of the garrison's young children -- about 200 in all -- have no day care or kindergarten opportunities, most Chinstahov wives can find jobs in town, unlike a majority of army spouses.

"We Soviet people -- especially those of us in the military -- have always led lives of hardship. We get used to the idea of constant struggle," said Maj. Alexei Kasin, 37. "You compensate for the difficult things in life by committing yourself to the defense of your country. It's an honorable pursuit that fills in for all the things that we don't have."

Lena Siderov, wife of a Chinstahov battalion commander, surveyed her two-room flat with its hot plate and cheerful Renoir calendar and added with a shrug, "We are living."

But from one end of the Soviet dominion to the other, army "living" -- like much of civilian life -- has become a tawdry struggle for dignity, for professional standards, for survival. "It's shameful to say, but next year I'll have served 25 years in the army, and I don't have any money saved in the bank," said Lt. Col. Bronislav Fattakov, a 43-year-old engineer in Kazan who earns 410 rubles a month -- $68. "When I die, there won't be enough money to bury me."

"The hardest thing is trying to feed my family. We can't afford meat and cheese," said Capt. Alexei Yemetz, a 28-year-old officer in Ulan Ude, near the Mongolian border. "To make sure our two children get a nutritious diet, we try to feed them a lot of fruit. Sometimes we had to pay 10 rubles for a couple of apples, but we bit our lips and did it.

"We can't afford to put any furniture in our flat. . . . I cannot dream of ever owning a car. We get one hot shower a week. The rest of the time, it's a couple of splashes of cold water."

Two hundred thousand officers and their families are now "homeless" -- meaning they are warehoused indefinitely in barracks, classrooms, prefabricated huts and the like -- and the number is swelling with the exodus of troops from Eastern Europe and Mongolia. In Vatutino-1, a signal corps garrison 25 miles southwest of Moscow, a young lieutenant who lives with his wife in a 10-by-8-foot room refers to himself as "a former human being."

If most enlisted troops live under conditions that are passably austere, others are subjected to a life that resembles penal servitude. Soldiers assigned to a construction battalion in Armenia complained in a recently published letter that even in subfreezing temperatures they live in summer tents without electricity, running water or eating utensils.

Often conditions are even worse for those who have completed their service. According to testimony before the Supreme Soviet, 22 million veterans receive a monthly pension of 60 rubles -- $10 -- or less, and nearly half of them have no other income. The disabled are not much better off. "I get a pension of 76 rubles a month. For that I lost my leg," said Radik Akmirov, 30, a former warrant officer who was wounded in Afghanistan in 1986. "Oh, and they gave me an apartment -- on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator." No Illusions About Home

Thirteen hundred miles southwest of Dzerzhinsk, in the German city of Halle, the Omsk Guard Division watches with more than idle curiosity as the motherland crumbles. The Omsk Division lives like the Chinstahov Regiment used to live. In Halle, there is a surfeit of milk, meat, fresh vegetables; there is also plenty of anxiety because soon the Omsk Division, too, will go home.

Lt. Col. Nikolai Kadomzev, the division's political officer, lives with his wife, Natasha, and their two children in a yellow stucco apartment house with blue trim and a cobblestone walkway. By Chinstahov standards, the four-room flat -- originally built for the Nazi Luftwaffe -- is capacious and flecked with Western touches, such as Dutch cognac and Swiss chocolate.

A Soviet colonel still based in Germany collects his salary in rubles, plus food and other necessities, plus a new monthly stipend of 1,250 German marks ($833, after taxes) paid by the reunified German government. "Of course it's financially advantageous to be abroad," Kadomzev said, smiling.

Created in 1918 during the Civil War, the division took its name from the city of Omsk, captured during a bloody campaign against royalist forces in Siberia. The Omsk later distinguished itself in the Great Patriotic War -- the Russian name for World War II -- fighting from Stalingrad to Berlin. The unit lost 14,000 men in the war, a number identical to its current strength. After Potsdam, the Omsk moved to Halle, about 100 miles south of Berlin.

But the division's days in Germany are numbered. The 30 Soviet divisions that occupied Eastern Europe two years ago will shrink to 19 by next year, with all forces out of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The 360,000 troops and /5,440 tanks in Germany will leave by 1994, possibly sooner.

"We don't know where the division is going when we go back, and we don't know when," said Maj. Gen. Alexander Shurov, 46, who has commanded the Omsk for 3 1/2 years. Officers who own apartments in the Soviet Union -- about 20 percent of the division cadre -- will be assigned to their home areas; for the rest, a Dzerzhinsk awaits them. Shurov, an intense, barrel-chested commander with a face like a rock slide, is busy drafting plans for packing up and moving the division when the retreat sounds.

In the interim, he said, the division will "try to be a good guest." When local Greens complained about environmental damage wreaked by the Soviet troops, the Omsk dispatched soldiers to clean up a local park. Maneuvers have been restricted. Aircraft training missions are flown at higher altitudes.

Within the high, white stone wall encircling the garrison, there is a sense of living in a besieged stockade. Throughout eastern Germany, Soviet soldiers have been beaten, harassed with taunts of "Ivan" or, conversely, implicated in burglaries and robberies. German "hooligans" in Halle have tried repeatedly -- though unsuccessfully, Shurov said -- to swap video cassette recorders and other Western goods for weapons; every day, officers inspect the locked rifle racks in the barracks, carefully counting each AK-47.

While officers said desertion has not been a problem in this division -- "the soldiers came from their motherland, and they'll return to their motherland," Shurov vowed -- hundreds of soldiers have fled other units in Germany. Gen. Valentin Varennikov, the Soviet ground forces commander, attributes this to "low morals" and "misconceptions about the easy life in the West."

Perhaps so. But in the Omsk Division, there are no illusions about life back home. Officer and soldier alike know that Soviet public esteem for the military has been sinking like a stone, partly because of disdain for all Soviet institutions, partly because the army is seen as a reactionary, anti-democratic bastion of privilege and stagnation.

This "anti-army psychosis," in the words of former chief of staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, has led to the heckling of returning soldiers as "Hungarians." Even Gorbachev, in defending his unilateral cut of 500,000 troops, declared that many units had become "feeding troughs" for officers. A recent poll of 1,000 Soviets found that 68 percent believe the country is in no danger of military attack; only 6 percent said they were "happy" or "reasonably happy" with the state of the Soviet armed forces.

For officers in the Omsk Division -- and throughout the Soviet army, for that matter -- the future is terra incognita, dark, uncharted, alarming. "We just couldn't continue to live as we did before. In economic terms, in terms of democracy," said Kadomzev, the political officer, "there's a sense that we're going somewhere now. But we're not used to this. We're a little confused, perhaps."

The Soviet military has been through contractions before. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, seeking "breathing space" to modernize his missile force, slashed the army in half and packed a quarter-million officers willy-nilly off to civilian life.

Yet the current upheaval is even more radical, involving such momentous political and economic issues as whether the nation will have 15 republics or less than half that number. Most Soviet republics, including Russia and the Ukraine, already have passed declarations either demanding that their native sons serve on home soil or advocating creation of indigenous defense forces.

With the ground shifting beneath their boots, many officers, including Shurov, seek refuge in a credo of professionalism -- a taut blend of duty, discipline, technical competence, patriotism. Since 1364, they know, Russia has been at war for 310 years. Minsk has been sacked eight times, Kiev 10 times. The country has fought Tatars, Swedes, Poles, Finns, Turks, French, British, Japanese, Germans. The country, they believe, will always need a good army.

As for abandoning the empire and going home, the officers in Halle have violently conflicting emotions. They speak of the things they miss most: Col. Eduard Shevchenko of the boulevards and canals of his native Leningrad; Shurov of his father, who died this year, and his mother; Kadomzev of the taiga of his native Siberia.

Yet in Germany they live comfortably, on soil conquered with the blood of their fathers. "This is very difficult," Shurov said, staring at the war memorial in the center of the garrison. "We will never forget, and our children must never forget the difficulties with which we managed this victory."

"We're Russians," he continued. "We are in control of our destiny, and we have to live the destiny that we're controlling."

But perhaps the last word belongs to Ludmilla Pranisheva, wife of the division's Communist Party secretary. "Where the husbands serve, we will serve, too. Of course, we're worried about the move back to the Soviet Union. I just hope they don't leave us on the street."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.