WHEN Renara Khusnodynova was ready to enter kindergarten, her parents refused to enroll her in a Russian-language school, afraid she would lose her identity as an ethnic Bashkir.
Now 15, Renara will graduate next year from the Municipal Bashkir Gymnasium, one of two schools in the Russian ethnic republic of Bashkortostan's capital of Ufa where Bashkir is the language of instruction.
No Bashkir-language universities exist, so Renara's dreams of becoming an accountant may be tough going at first. But Mr. and Mrs. Khusnodynov are satisfied their daughter has already mastered what they believe is life's most important lesson: She knows where she comes from and takes pride in her roots.
``I'd like to eventually marry a Bashkir. It's important for me to have a Bashkir family,'' Renara says from her crowded classroom in Ufa, 680 miles east of Moscow.
``I want to continue our race, so there will be more of us in the world. I don't want us to disappear like other minorities have,'' Renara says, echoing widespread worries among ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union that their ranks have been permanently diminished under Communist rule.
Ethnic passions and ambitions run deep in this industrial oil-rich region, home to roughly 70 different nationalities who have lived in relative peace for centuries.
Like many of Russia's 21 ethnic republics, Bashkortostan has taken advantage of the post-Communist political climate to start rebuilding itself ethnically and spiritually, as well as economically and politically.
Bashkortostan has been under Russian rule since 1557, when Czar Ivan the Terrible conquered the area from Mongol invaders five years after he took over neighboring Tatarstan. About 22 percent of Bashkortostan's population are Turkic-speaking Muslim Bashkirs, while 27 percent are Tatar and 39 percent Russian.
``The process of the rebirth of our ethnic roots and ethnic language is a natural one, as everything we had was destroyed under 70 years of Communism. We're not just out to make enemies,'' says Sheikh Ul-Islam Talgat Tadzhuddin, the chief mufti, or Muslim holy man.
An ethnic Tatar, Mr. Tadzhuddin oversees the Muslim communities in European Russia and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, primarily helping to establish religious schools and seminaries and rebuild mosques ransacked under Soviet rule.
``In 1917 there were 7,500 mosques in the region, but by 1980 we had only 84. There were pogroms, and almost all our mosques were destroyed,'' Tadzhuddin says from his office next to Ufa's only working mosque, where he had just presided over an afternoon service.
About 120 mosques have been built in the last three years, and plans exist to construct 250 more. But limited resources are hampering the effort, despite foreign donations from countries such as Turkey, Tadzhuddin says. In fact, construction was halted recently on a second mosque in Ufa because of a lack of funds.
``Many young people want to return to their religion, to their roots. They're trying to rebuild our ethnic and religious customs,'' says Ravil Mamleyev, an aide to Tadzhuddin who received his religious education at a seminary in Istanbul. ``Even in Central Asia there used to be only old people praying, but now 80 percent are youths.''
Traditionally repressed under the Russian empire, ethnic minorities were encouraged briefly to flourish in the 1920s under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's campaign of ethnic revival, or korenizatsiiya. But that policy was quickly scrapped in favor of the traditional policy of Russian domination. The Russian Federation, formally one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, in reality wielded power over the other Soviet republics.
While Soviet rule helped eradicate illiteracy, emancipate women, and reduce incidents of infant mortality among minority groups, Stalin killed millions of ethnic people and deported many ethnic groups from their homelands. Those campaigns have ended, but in the weeks following the Russian parliamentary elections, in which a Russian nationalist party garnered a quarter of the votes, fears have been stoked anew among Bashkir leaders here that Russia will curb the independence they enjoy as an ethnic republic.
Local leaders in Bashkortostan insist they do not seek secession from Moscow, but many have objected to President Boris Yeltsin's new Constitution, which fails to acknowledge the sovereignty of ethnic republics. The Constitution was approved in a nationwide referendum on Dec. 12, the same day as the elections.
Many politicians here see Mr. Yeltsin as an increasingly authoritarian figure who wants to tighten his grip over the far-flung, independence-minded republics.
``If Yeltsin and his team speak out against the ethnic republics with the goal of liquidating them, Russia will never flourish,'' warns Marat Kulsharipov, chairman of the radical Ural-Bashkir People's Center.
``There will be only civil war, bloodshed, and national chaos,'' Mr. Kulsharipov says, proudly displaying the Bashkir tricolor national flag and recently adopted emblem.UT in Ufa, where storefront displays are both in Bashkir and Russian, there are signs that ethnic values have taken root and even flourished - especially in the educational sphere.
Plans are under way to build one Bashkir and Tatar school in each of the city's seven regions. University exams are now offered in Bashkir, Tatar, or Russian. The history and law departments at Bashkir State University now teach some classes in Bashkir.
At the Bashkir Municipal Gymnasium, 550 students learn Bashkir literature and the fundamentals of religion along with their regular subjects. Eight students are from mixed marriages, a fairly common practice here.
``I want to teach at a Bashkir-language school. Every individual should have his own language,'' says Zilya Akhmadeyeva, an ethnic Bashkir who is working as a student teacher at the Gymnasium.
But psychology professor Vadim Safin, who volunteers several days weekly at the school teaching Bashkir history, says that in the past many parents balked at enrolling their children in ethnic schools because they doubted the quality of the education or worried their offspring would find it difficult to gain university entrance.
Speaking down the hall from a multicolored mosaic mural depicting Vladimir Lenin exhorting students in both Bashkir and Russian to ``study, study, and once more, study,'' Mr. Safin says that even now it could take several years for Bashkir children to catch up with their Russian peers.
``If you give I.Q. tests, Bashkirs [in Russian schools] are often two years behind Russians,'' he says. ``Up to the fourth grade they perform the same. But after that, many Bashkirs stop learning because they simply lose the energy to learn in a foreign language.''