SEVASTOPOL, U.S.S.R. -- Communism is never far from sight or mind aboard the Outstanding, a spit-polished Soviet navy frigate berthed in this Black Sea port.

Sailors still gather in the ship's mess every Wednesday and Friday for 30-minute "political information" classes. Posters in a passageway still depict brawny laborers and are emblazoned with the caption, "The Communist Party is the brains, honor and conscience of the Soviet Union." And Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, is still the most popular bunkroom pin-up.

Such loyalty to a dying ideology is the handiwork of Lt. Cmdr. Vyacheslav Fedorov, 29, the ship's zampolit, or political officer. For seven decades, political officers have formed a militant priesthood -- "the Jesuits of the Communist Party," as one U.S. diplomat in Moscow put it -- to enforce the sacred bond between the party and the armed forces.

Fedorov, who joined the navy for romance and adventure after growing up along the Volga River, is the spiritual heir of former Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, each of whom served as Red Army political commissars.

But a closer look at the Outstanding shows that Fedorov is no Brezhnev, and ideology is not what it used to be.

Sailors talk more about the Persian Gulf and market economics than Marxism in their political classes; the socialist realism posters are overshadowed by large exhibits on the glorious heritage of the navy, founded nearly 300 years ago by Czar Peter the Great; and Fedorov, in contrast to the Soviet idealization of Lenin, openly promotes him as a man who "is not an icon of the revolution, but a human being with merits and demerits and weaknesses. I try to show him as a personality, not a prophet."

This apostasy is symptomatic of the divided loyalties within the military over the proper role of the Communist Party now that the Soviet legislature has abolished the party's guaranteed monopoly on political power. With 1.1 million party members, including three of every four officers, the armed forces contain the largest single bloc of Communists in the Soviet Union; yet since the repeal last spring of the Constitution's Article VI, which guaranteed party hegemony, the Communist grip on the military has loosened.

The effect has been chaos in the armed forces and an epic rear-guard resistance by military conservatives determined to preserve the privileges that once flowed from party loyalty. This stubborn fidelity to the old order is further diminishing the military's standing among the Soviet citizenry, which blames the party for steering the nation into its current morass. The tighter the army clings to an institution rejected by the rest of Soviet society, the greater its alienation.

Even those disposed to the "new thinking" -- such as Fedorov on his ship -- are uncertain how far to go in supplanting Communist doctrine with the trappings of democratic pluralism.

Unresolved questions abound: To whom should the military be loyal if not the Communist Party? For what cause should soldiers and sailors be prepared to die if not the advancement of Marxist-Leninist ideals? And what will become of 100,000 political officers?Fear of Anarchy

Since 1918, politics has been as integral to Soviet military life as uniforms and marching bands. The forefather of today's political officer -- the infamous commissar -- was created by Lenin to be a Bolshevik watchdog, responsible for ensuring the loyalty of former czarist officers, whose military expertise was desperately needed by the newly formed Red Army.

Originally, a commissar shared power equally with a unit's military commander. This led to confused lines of authority, however, since every order required two signatures. In 1942, with the Nazis driving on Moscow, Stalin transformed the commissars into zampolits, who were subordinate to commanders but still responsible for political indoctrination in the ranks.

The military also provided a route to political power. Party activism was applauded, and in the recent past as many as three dozen senior military men served on the party's policy-making Central Committee, traditionally a body of about 300 members. Yet as the party's dominion has eroded, the activist impulse persists; more than 100 military men serve in the legislatures of various Soviet republics, and another 82 were elected to the current legislature in Moscow.

Few Soviets advocate an apolitical military modeled after the U.S. armed forces, where officers do not hold political office and some even feel queasy about voting while in uniform. "The army, being a tool of the state, cannot be depoliticized. Loyalty to the state, to the nation -- that's politics," said Nikolai Kapranov, a reform-minded analyst at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. "It's loyalty to Marxism-Leninism that isn't so productive."

And there's the rub. In an officer corps fractured by ethnic divisions, by a generation gap and by conflicting visions of the future, no schism runs deeper than the split over "de-partyization," the ungainly Russian term for stripping the Communist Party of its guaranteed dominance in the military. Most of the 2,000 generals and admirals -- virtually all party members -- bitterly oppose efforts to diminish the organization that guaranteed them power, prestige and perquisites.

Those trying "to eradicate party influence in the army and navy" are attempting "to spiritually disarm" the military, warned Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the general staff and a top party strategist.

"Lenin characterized all claims of the political neutrality of the army as vile and hypocritical lies," said Col. Gen. Nikolai Shlyaga, new chief of the Main Political Administration, which controls the political officers. "The Communist Party is the only real political force, the biggest and best organized."

Some officers retain a wistful, even sentimental attachment. "The Communist Party made our country a great state -- a superpower, as you call it," said Maj. Yuri Laskin, a student at the Lenin Political-Military Academy in Moscow, where the most talented young political officers spend three years preparing for high rank. "Now some hotheads are trying to throw the party from the political arena. But it would be nothing short of catastrophe, because the ruling order would be destroyed," he said.

That fear of anarchy, of a political void, is a recurrent anxiety among military conservatives. "It's impossible to abolish all previous institutions without first creating something new to replace them," said Maj. Sergei Masarnovsky, another Lenin Academy student. "If the Communist Party is abolished, who will influence the armed forces?"

But many younger officers believe that the military must hoist itself above party politics to renew the bond between army and nation, to restore some luster to the tarnished profession of arms. Thousands have quit the party; by some Western estimates, membership has dropped in the past five years from 90 percent of the officer corps to 75 percent.

Some of the party's harshest critics come from the ranks of younger officers. Perhaps the best known reformer in the Supreme Soviet, or legislature, is a 30-year-old political officer, Maj. Vladimir Lopatin, who is making a career of insubordinate attacks on his putative superiors. Substantive reform, Lopatin has charged repeatedly, is impeded by "the trinity almighty: the military-industrial bureaucracy, the party nomenklatura {senior apparatchiks} and the senior generals."

"In the Soviet Union," said John Hines, an analyst for the Rand Corp., an American think tank, "they've created a monster by which these radical -- by their standards radical -- young officers are given a forum to question the senior leadership."'A Loss of Hope'

For every Lopatin, however, a thousand less well-known and disaffected officers brandish their political consciousness against the system and the party from within. It is not clear yet whether they are the army's hope for salvation or its most dangerous enemy.

Lt. Col. Alexander Yenn, 42, a tall, mustachioed, Ukrainian zampolit, is a case in point. For 20 years, Yenn pursued a conventional military career, serving with armored units in Central Asia, the Ukraine, northern Russia. For 20 years he peddled conventional political beliefs, including the view that "America was a society where hate was bred, that it was horrible and only millionaires lived well there."

Then, in the summer of 1988, he volunteered for Afghanistan.

Yenn knew of widespread Soviet unhappiness over the war, knew that the cause was probably lost. "But I wanted to test myself. I'm a military man. Could I put the knowledge that I had to some practical use?" Yenn recalled during a long interview in the central Russian city of Kazan. "And we were told that we were fulfilling an international responsibility. I believed that."

Yenn served as the political officer of a motorized rifle regiment assigned to help guard the perilous road between Kabul and the Soviet border. Motivating the troops and explaining the war's purpose were his primary responsibilities. At first, he urged his men to follow orders, to do their duty.

But as the Afghan guerrillas' incessant rocket attacks killed and maimed more and more young Soviet soldiers, as the futility and phony premise of the Soviet cause became increasingly obvious, Yenn underwent a transformation. "I started to understand that we were unnecessary in Afghanistan," he recalled. "I began to understand that people should be able to look after their own country, their own destiny."

To his soldiers, he began urging: "You must stay alive, you must survive this thing. Your mothers and fathers are waiting for you. Don't get into any firefights now. Our assignment is just to get the hell out."

As part of the Soviet withdrawal, Yenn left Afghanistan in February 1989 to teach political classes at the Kazan Tank Institute. The political officer, whose politics had been upended by war, found himself disgruntled by his plummeting standard of living and rampant contempt among Soviet civilians for professional soldiers, especially those who had risked their lives in combat.

"I have a brother who's a bus driver in Moscow, and he earns 500 rubles a month. I'm a senior officer, and I earn only 400," Yenn said. "I buy meat, butter, sugar, all on ration coupons. If I want to buy a little gift for my wife or candy for my children, I can't find these things. Sometimes I write to my brother, and he sends me coffee, chocolate, cigarettes.

"Of course it's embarrassing. It brings on a feeling of pessimism, of a loss of hope. This is the worst thing you can experience as a man."

Whereas once, Yenn acknowledged, he would lie to himself and to his troops -- about the Soviet army, about Soviet history, about the United States -- now he speaks with brash candor, because "if you try to hoodwink the soldiers they detect it immediately." The Soviet system is "a parody of socialism," he contended. The party is a dead weight on the armed forces. And the army, which he is ready to leave, is "a very conservative organization" doomed to stagnation as long as the current pantheon of generals holds power.

"I can't say that there's a bright future for us," Yenn concluded. "We've thrown out one ideology but not yet adopted a new one. It's as though we're standing at a fork between two roads, frozen and unable to move."An Uncertain Future

For 100,000 zampolits, the future is indeed dark, or at least opaque. Some reformers advocate simply scuttling the institution of political officers. "I think this is a useless body in the armed forces and a very expensive one," said Col. Viktor Podziruk, an air force officer and member of the Supreme Soviet.

Yet the relationship appears more complex, more symbiotic, like a stormy but enduring marriage. For Fedorov, the slender, serious political officer aboard the submarine-hunting frigate Outstanding, the challenge is to shed his ideological duties while remaining indispensable to the ship's 175 crewmen and 25 officers.

Son of a pipefitter who fought in World War II, Fedorov joined the Komsomol -- the Communist youth organization -- at 14 and the party at 21. He admires Lenin, but loves the navy and his country more; with a wife and two children to support, he also needs the job.

Under new reforms that will take effect in the navy in January, Fedorov is expected to remain "an engineer of human souls," but his formal ties to the party hierarchy will dissolve. As second-in-command to Capt. Alexander Podloinov, Fedorov's responsibilities will become increasingly secular and practical. The new zampolit is expected to be equal parts sociologist, psychologist, chief disciplinarian, personnel manager and morale officer.

Fedorov is hard at it already, with the captain's blessing. In the ship's seven "political study" groups, sailors discuss training, morale and the history of the fleet; Fedorov invites as guest speakers curators from the Sevastopol museum or veterans from the Great Patriotic War, the Russian name for World War II, rather than party apparatchiks.

To make the many non-Russian crewmen feel at home, he organizes ethnic festivals and "days of national cuisine" for the Balts and Uzbeks and Ukrainians. He tries to stifle dedovshchina -- hazing of conscripts that in the military is often brutal. When an older sailor battered a novice crewman in August, Fedorov tossed the offender in the brig for 10 days.

Political officers throughout the Soviet military are making similar adjustments, some with greater alacrity than others. Whether a clean break can be made from the party's influence remains to be seen.

Decades of Marxist indoctrination will not vanish overnight; true believers in the officer corps will see to that. Although no longer formally tied to the political officers, Communist Party cells will persist in most large units, and few alternative parties have taken root. Some officers complain that promotions and assignments are still strongly influenced by party loyalty -- and may be for years.

It also remains to be seen whether political officers can learn to think for themselves. Debate, initiative and unconventional ideas are now officially encouraged at the Lenin Political-Military Academy.

Yet in a society that long suppressed independence and creative thought, the old ways will be slow to perish. "You can feel quite comfortable when you don't have to think, when you are told from on high what's going on and what you are supposed to do," said Col. Stanislav Mishanov, 40, an academy history professor.

Sitting next to the piano in the officers' wardroom aboard the Outstanding, Fedorov ticked off the problems bedeviling his ship: persistent rancor among the 16 nationalities represented in the crew; poor housing ashore for the officers' families; not a single computer aboard; lousy pay and long sea duty.

Of his political future, he was uncertain. "I'm not going to leave the party just now," he said, "but it's difficult to know what the future will bring." But of his professional future, he was confident.

"Ask the captain," Fedorov suggested with a tight smile, "whether he'd like to be on this ship by himself, without his zampolit."Awash in Irrelevance

As the officers specifically responsible for motivating soldiers and sailors, zampolits face two critical conundrums: Who is the enemy and what purpose should the Soviet military now serve?

A few reactionaries continue to warn of a NATO threat, but virtually no one in the ranks takes that seriously. "In military schools, we often had maps showing how the Soviet Union was encircled by American bases," said Lt. Col. Viktor Shustov, an armor officer. "The U.S. was viewed as self-loving imperialists who arrogantly wanted to impose their own values and beliefs on others. . . . Now we see Americans as more human. We see pictures of them with their children, even with their pets."

Fedorov's pitch to the crew of the Outstanding is typical of the new tack: "We have a motherland to defend. Our country borders on many nations that have weapons, armies. We have to be prepared to defend ourselves."

That argument from a Russian political officer carries little weight, however, with a Lithuanian nationalist or a Ukrainian separatist. A "motherland" is beheld in the eye of a native son. With 15 republics going their separate ways, pan-Soviet patriotism is a concept as hollow as the old image of Soviet legionnaires forming an international vanguard for the proletarian revolution.

The army is further estranged from the country every time troops are dispatched to quell a nationalist uprising -- as they were in Tblisi in April 1989, when 20 Georgian civilians were killed.

Today, officers are nearly unanimous in their conviction that the army should not be used against domestic insurrections or as a national police force. "The army should be called out only if paratroopers from Monaco or Paraguay are on Red Square," magazine editor Vitaly Korotich declared, only partly tongue-in-cheek. "That's the only case."

No credible foreign enemy. No animating ideology. No unifying sense of nationhood. No appetite for foreign adventurism or domestic riot duty. The Soviet military, more than 4 million strong, is awash in its own irrelevance. Clearly, it will take more than a few clever political officers to give the Soviet army shape and purpose.

"Certainly political officers are thinking about their future," said Mishanov, the Lenin Academy professor. "I think about my own future. Every man in the country is thinking about the future."

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.