KAZAN, Russia - Far from Moscow in a quiet, snowy neighborhood in the ancient capital of Tatarstan, three generations of actors are performing an operetta in a warm, old theater. A young actress stretches her arms out and sings in a language that, for the 70 years of Communist rule, people here were ashamed to speak.
Half of the audience listens to earphone translations of the performance from Tatar to Russian.
The ethnically mixed crowd reflects modern society in Tatarstan, a place that is trying to manage a full-scale revival of Tatar culture without alienating its other citizens.
The operetta in the Chinchurina Theater is a traditional Tatar tale and a rather typical love story. But its significance goes deeper for both the audience and the performers. For them, this small theater has become one of the few living examples of a culture driven to the brink of extinction under centuries of Moscow domination.
"Here, in this theater, this is one of our tasks, to promote the sources and roots of Tatar culture," says Ilsiar Safyulina, a young actress. She is putting on makeup backstage and looking into a mirror that shows a room strewn with colorful, traditional Tatar costumes.
"We learn about Tatar practices, language, customs, and we accept these traditions from the older generation because younger people can only see it on television and not in real life," she says.
When the Soviet Union broke apart nearly a decade ago, many regions began to explore their separateness. Regional leaders reached for independence from a severely weakened federal center that they felt could no longer help them. Since then, Moscow has been losing its grip on Russia's far-flung regions.
"All of the republics are separate, and they still want more separation from within," says Eric Rahkmatullin, a sociology professor at Kazan State University.
"This happens while all of Europe unites and even develops a single currency. And we are splitting. And to my mind, Moscow just doesn't care because it thinks, `The worse, the better.'
While Russian troops continue to pound Chechnya, the Republic of Tatarstan is quietly going about its own affairs, peacefully reviving the culture, language and religion that had nearly disappeared.
In 1992, Tatarstan became the only other republic to join Chechnya in refusing to sign the treaty forming the Russian Federation after the Soviet Union dissolved.
Instead, these 3.7 million people spread along the Volga River, 500 miles east of Moscow, waged a political battle with the Kremlin to establish their largely Muslim territory as a separate state united with the Russian Federation.
The region is home to more than 100 ethnic groups, the largest of which are Tatars, who make up nearly half of the population.
Tatars are descended from Turkic tribes that migrated to the region 1,000 years ago. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible sent his Muscovite troops to sack the city in a bloody battle that even toppled the Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan's Kremlin. Down with the mosque's minarets fell Tatarstan's history.
"Without its culture, history, national studies and education, a nation cannot exist," says Robert Minnullin, chairman of the Tatarstan parliament's Committee on Issues of Culture and Nations. "This mosque is a symbol of the Tatar people and we had a dream to rebuild this mosque."
Four and a half centuries later, cranes are swinging over the Kremlin and crews of mostly Turkish laborers work in the snow to rebuild the Kul Sharif mosque, a towering Turkish design. Mr. Minnullin says the rebuilding of the mosque marks a new beginning for the region's history and the acceptance of a difficult task.
"The only state for Tatars is Tatarstan," Mr. Minnullin says. "And it is the historical mission of Tatars here to help …