MOSCOW -- Shortly before 3 p.m. last April 3, Pvt. Alexander Zvezdin ended a long, dreary day of service to the motherland by pummeling his comrade-in-arms, Pvt. Shodman Tursunov, into a bloody pulp.

Zvezdin, nicknamed "Rambo," was arrested and charged with assault. On Sept. 24, dressed in gray prison sackcloth and escorted by four armed guards, he stood in the dock of Courtroom No. 1 in the military courthouse on downtown Moscow's Arbat Street.

At first blush, the five-hour court-martial simply highlighted another case of dedovshchina, the brutal, pervasive and often racist hazing of junior conscripts by senior conscripts.

In this case, victim Tursunov was a Central Asian Uzbek, defendant Zvezdin, a Russian. Only the trial venue was extraordinary -- Courtroom No. 1, rebuilt in 1813 after Napoleon torched Moscow, has been used to try assassins and deserters, Nazi war criminals and Western spies. Leo Tolstoy once watched a trial from the gallery, later reconstructing the scene in his novel, "Resurrection."

But in a deeper sense, The State vs. Zvezdin offered a parable of life in the Soviet military, an illuminating glimpse of the forces ripping apart the world's largest army -- and the country as well. In Courtroom No. 1 on Sept. 24, it was possible to understand why several thousand conscripts -- including 430 young Uzbek men -- died or committed suicide last year; why the Soviet Union's non-Slavic republics have turned draft resistance into a national pastime; why the romantic vision of the Soviet armed forces as a beneficent melting pot is a lie; why the centrifugal tugs of dedovshchina and draft dodging will help compel a radical overhaul of the Soviet army, recalcitrant generals notwithstanding.

In the morality play of Courtroom No. 1, it is possible to understand why Col. Alexander Beznosuk, chief of the Moscow military judicial district, would tell an American stranger, "When {Defense Minister Dmitri} Yazov proclaims repeatedly that our army is one of the finest in the world and that our standards are very high, he sounds like {the late Soviet leader Leonid} Brezhnev." 'Jail of the Peoples'

Construction Battalion No. 43114 was not a happy unit. About 200 enlisted men crowded a barracks near the Aviamotornaya metro station in northeast Moscow. The work was hard, the living conditions were poor, the pay merely peanuts -- the equivalent of a dollar or two a month.

As a stroibat, or construction unit, No. 43114 specialized in welding and the handling of concrete reinforcing rods, typically on civil projects such as movie theaters and kindergartens.

An estimated 330,000 troops serve in stroibats; after an amnesty in the mid-1950s eradicated many labor camps, the stroibats filled the void and subsequently contributed to such engineering feats as the construction of huge airports, the 1980 Olympics facilities and the roughest stretches of the Baikal-Amur railroad.

Frequently, such units serve as dumping grounds for the least educated and most irascible conscripts; critics refer to stroibats as "the jail of the peoples." Col. Gen. Nikolai Shlyaga, the army's chief political officer, disclosed in September that one in every seven conscripts sent to a stroibat has a criminal record.

Stroibats also are breeding grounds for dedovshchina. Although hazing is a legacy of the czarist army, it has become entrenched over the past 30 years as an elaborate pecking order evolved among enlisted troops, based on seniority regardless of rank. Retired Col. Yuri Deryugin, a military sociologist, traces the phenomenon to new draft laws in the late 1950s that led to the widespread conscription of criminals, "with jailhouse rules and habits."

Although slang terms vary among regions, a new conscript is often known as a salaga -- little fish -- or an ushan, someone with big ears (emphasized by a soldier's short haircut). A man who has served six to 12 months is a fazan, or pheasant, a bird of fine plumage that is prey for hunters. A cherpak, or ladle, has served 12 to 18 months, while a ded, a grandfather, has more than 18 months' seniority. Atop the heap are dembel (demobilized ones) and grazhdanin (citizens), soldiers about to be discharged.

Some hazing is harmless. Senior conscripts, for example, get to sit on the huge barracks floor polishers -- known as B-52s -- while junior conscripts pull them around. A salaga might have to serve as a ded's valet -- shining his boots, mending his uniform, running errands.

The cycle is self-perpetuating. "For the first month I was in the army, I cried constantly, hiding in the toilet. I promised myself that I would never treat new soldiers the way I was being treated," former soldier Dmitri Ivanov recalled. "But I must say, I violated that promise a dozen times."

In recent years, dedovshchina has assumed sinister, ethnic overtones, with senior Slavs often shaking down Central Asians and Balts for their money or new boots. Those who resist may be beaten or even murdered. No reliable figures are available on the extent of the phenomenon, but it is now so rampant that the army has created a new field called "victimology, a branch of psychology that looks at the victims of dedovshchina," said Beznosuk, the military judicial district commander.

"We'll counsel a victim, try to talk him out of suicide or desertion, try to keep him from doing anything rash. It's stupid to instruct him to tell the commander that he's been beaten," Beznosuk continued. "Unfortunately, the commanders are useless. Not all, of course, but many." Rage Boiling Over

If stroibat No. 43114 was an unhappy unit, April 3 was a singularly mirthless day.

A comrade of the unfortunate Pvt. Tursunov, another young Uzbek private named Akhunov, had been beaten repeatedly by other soldiers in recent weeks, according to testimony in Courtroom No. 1. Tormented and battered yet again on this Tuesday afternoon, Akhunov snapped. Shrieking hysterically, he threatened to kill himself. Several officers -- battlefield victimologists, so to speak -- gathered in the barracks to pacify the distraught soldier.

Into this scene strolled Rambo Zvezdin, who had been working and -- the court later concluded -- drinking all day in the unit motor pool. A stocky 19-year-old with luminous blue eyes, Zvezdin had grown up on a collective farm near Rostov in southern Russia, where his parents had divorced when he was 3. His mother worked in a dairy, his stepfather as a joiner. An eighth-grade dropout, Zvezdin had been in trouble with the police several times for fighting before his induction into the army a year earlier.

Emerging from the barracks' latrine, Zvezdin spied a new conscript he detested. Shodman Tursunov was a shy, skinny six-footer with dark hair and darker eyes. His wrists dangled from his uniform sleeves, giving him the appearance of being even taller and gawkier than he was.

A native of the Denan Collective Farm in the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, Tursunov was a high school graduate but spoke little Russian. A month earlier, not long after being drafted, he had accidentally chopped off the tip of the middle finger on his left hand with a machine tool. Tursunov had just finished another visit to the unit doctor when Zvezdin stormed up to him.

"What are you doing here?" the Russian demanded. This Uzbek, Zvevdin believed, was malingering, pretending to be ill, to be stupid, to not understand Russian. It made him furious, Zvezdin later testified, to be stuck with "a wearisome, stinking job while that idler was just hanging around."

When Tursunov turned away, Zvezdin's rage boiled over. Later he claimed that he had only given the Uzbek a boot in the back, causing him to topple face-first against a water cooler. But Tursunov testified that after Zvevdin kicked him in the back, he whirled around and was kicked in the knee; as the Uzbek buckled to the floor, Zvezdin kicked him again and again, eight or nine times, in the back, the face and the head.

Several soldiers, hearing the din above the suicidal bellowing of Pvt. Akhunov, rushed into the corridor. Zvezdin was gone. Tursunov lay in a heap, his face masked in blood and a boot print clearly visible on the back of his uniform shirt. Someone called an ambulance. As his assailant was placed under arrest, the battered soldier was rushed to the hospital, where doctors treated him for a fractured shoulder blade, severe bruises and assorted other complaints.

In the precise terminology of dedovshchina victimology, Tursunov's injuries were classified as "less grave," because he suffered no permanent disability and required only three weeks of hospital recuperation. Can Discipline Be Restored?

A half-dozen witnesses took the stand beneath the 20-foot ceiling of Courtroom No. 1, its high casement windows shut tight against the bustle of Arbat Street. Capt. Andrei Fesenko, the 31-year-old military judge, asked dozens of questions, at one point clambering down from the bench for a hands-on reenactment of the assault with Tursunov.

But even the judge appeared daunted by the larger issue of how to restore discipline in the Soviet ranks. Eradicating dedovshchina from the military, Fesenko said during a recess, is "beyond the commanders' power. It's too deep-rooted. And simple edicts from above won't do it. . . . There's a saying from the east: One person can bring a horse to the river, but 100 cannot make it drink."

Why did this case come to trial when hundreds or thousands of similar episodes go unprosecuted? he was asked. "Just by chance," the judge replied. "Unfortunately, it's very typical."

Col. Beznosuk, the military judicial district commander and Fesenko's boss, said most of the cases routed through his courtrooms involve either "the shirking of duty" -- such as desertion or refusal to obey orders -- or dedovshchina.

A blond, round-faced Siberian who has been in the army since 1966, Beznosuk works in a large office with two pictures of Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, on the wall, a grandfather clock stuck at 8:45, and a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, whom the colonel described as "the father of Soviet justice" and whom most others think of as the founder of the secret police.

Asked to estimate the number of dedovshchina cases prosecuted in Moscow this year, the colonel pursed his lips and said, "Many." No one else in the military seems inclined to keep a public tally, either.

"I appreciate the idea of a professional army because the time of amateurs and temporary soldiers has passed. Of course, the armed forces need to be reduced. We don't need such a large social institution sponging off society," Beznosuk added. "Now we have people who are simply herded into the army. All of their interest in the service is focused on killing time until they get out. Under these circumstances, discipline is low."

Disorder in the ranks also reflects a historically weak noncommissioned officer cadre in the Soviet military. Humbled by defeat in the 1853-56 Crimean War, the Russians under Czar Alexander I adopted mass conscription and struggled to modernize military doctrine, logistics and officer training.

But the strong sergeant, the proverbial "backbone" of most powerful armies, never fully developed. Junior noncommissioned officers are simply promising conscripts who attend sergeant school and then muster out when their two-year hitch expires. An effort 20 years ago to remedy this deficiency by cultivating a corps of professional warrant officers had limited success.

As a result, Soviet officers shoulder many of the duties that, in the American or British armies, fall to sergeants. Dedovshchina, and the use of senior conscripts to keep newcomers in line, became an informal method of preserving order. "The pecking hierarchy," said Stephen Foye, an analyst with Radio Liberty in Munich, "is a kind of shadow government."

But the phenomenon is now out of control, and there is little incentive for an ambitious commander to call attention to disciplinary problems within his unit. Moreover, many officers believe the root causes of ethnic clashes in the military are beyond their control. "If this problem can't be solved in the country," said one Soviet colonel in Moscow, "it can't be solved in the army."

When the trial resumed, Fesenko peppered defendant Zvezdin with more questions. The prosecutor, Capt. Valeri Gorin, played a subordinate role to Fesenko in examining witnesses. Defense counsel Valeri Burov, a bald, bespectacled civilian retained by the defendant's mother, was permitted to cross-examine at length.

Fesenko: How were you treated as a young soldier?

Zvezdin: Not well. I suffered sometimes. I was beaten. I thought, that's the way it is.

Fesenko: Do you think that the situation must be improved?

Zvezdin: Yes.

Fesenko: And when you suffered from these older soldiers, did you tell your commander?

Zvezdin: No. I thought it was useless.

Fesenko: But now you believe that this treatment creates firmness and courage in young soldiers, don't you?

Zvezdin shrugged and said nothing.

The judges deliberated for 45 minutes and Fesenko pronounced the verdict. Guilty. The sentence: two years of hard labor in a disciplinary battalion and 390 rubles -- $65 -- in damages. The verdict was a small victory, a very small victory, in a war that otherwise is being lost.

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.