IT is not often these days that Russia stands as a beacon for the rest of the world. Certainly not in politics or economics, and even in cultural spheres, its stature has diminished.
There the litany of woes seems endless: from the Bolshoi loosing its luster, to the chronic financial problems of museums, to top artists leaving the country.
But one place in Moscow retains its distinction as the ''Mecca of Theater,'' drawing students from abroad to the school created to perpetuate the world-renowned ''Stanislavsky method.''
Some 20 American and European actors - currently graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh - are now on pilgrimage to this ''holy of holies'' in the theater world: the Moscow Art Theatre School.
The school was founded in 1943 by disciples of Konstantin Sergeivich Stanislavsky (1863-1938) - Russian actor, director, and the 19th-century's best-known theorist of acting. His method, polished throughout the 1920s and 30s, has become perhaps the most widely followed acting technique in the world.
''The Method'' is a philosophy as well as a grammar. Through exercises and training, actors learn how to recreate onstage the emotions that sustain a character.
''The theater schools in the English-speaking world are all based on Stanislavsky's teachings, but it is important for us to come to the source,'' explains Tony McKay, head of the acting program at Carnegie.
The school has trained generations of actors and directors while navigating through the shoals of the Soviet system.
More recently, the school has had to find alternatives to the once-generous, now drying-up flow of government subsidies. Donors have helped ease the burden, as has a bank that rents the first floor of the school's pistachio-green building in central Moscow and also sponsors both the school and the theatre.
Over the years, the essence of Stanislavsky's teaching has been preserved, says Oleg Tobakov, a graduate of the school and its current director. ''We are like a small monastery behind high walls. Despite the political changes, we have managed to keep the secret and the faith,'' he says.
Stanislavsky's method was revealed to the Western world in the 1920s when he visited and performed in the United States. It had tremendous impact on the theater community, inspiring American teachers such as Lee Strasberg, who in the 1950s based his directing at the ''Actor's Studio'' on Stanislavsky's method.
''An enduring myth was born, which was reinforced by the Iron Curtain for half a century,'' says Anatoly Smeliansky, the undisputed Stanislavsky specialist at the Moscow Art Theatre School.
'AN Actor Prepares,'' which first came out in the US in 1936, has been in constant reprint and has become a basic textbook for American drama schools. Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert de Niro learned their trade from it. And disputes have raged for years in US theater circles over which school was most faithful to the method, Mr. McKay says. But direct contact between Western and Russian pupils was rare.
Now, a large group of foreign actors are formally studying at the source. ''Even though we didn't come here in search of orthodoxy, we certainly want to find out for ourselves,'' McKay says.
The students are given a chance to immerse themselves in the Russian theater.
''This is a key to a better understanding of Stanislavsky, because you cannot dissociate one from the other,'' Mr. Smeliansky adds.
Plays by Anton Chekov and other Russian classics figure heavily in the program, as well as numerous encounters with contemporary Russian actors and directors. But what the foreign students discover and value above all is the unique place theater occupies in Russian culture.
Eric Bohus, a New York actor who has appeared on Broadway, finds that ''it is refreshing to come to a society that still holds theater amid its top events.''
''The actors here have a different focus than ours,'' adds Alison Muir, another student. ''In the US we are geared to finding a place in the market; here they focus on being an artist.''
Smeliansky explains to his foreign students that the different ways the actors project themselves is linked to differences between how theater is perceived in the two cultures.
''In the US,'' explains Smeliansky, ''theater is mostly part of the entertainment industry. Here, in this country of bloodshed and slavery, if we have come up with some of the best theater in the world, it is because theater for a long time has replaced many things.
''There were no churches, no philosophy left, not even what you would call television. Theater then became a super-theater. The artist had to bear his responsibility, but he could also measure his power. Because we have to remember that theater is always a metaphor of freedom.''
The visiting actors relish these words, though they lament that the actor's role and his responsibility to society - themes as old as Greek theater - don't seem to be valued or debated any more in the contemporary American theater world.
But they also know that the essence of theater lies within the actor himself, in his capacity to ''recreate the process of life'' as Stanislavsky put it. They came here to get closer to this process, to catch more of the magic of theater. More than an academic experience, they have found it a remarkable adventure.
*'The Grapes of Wrath' will be performed each Friday through May at the Moscow Art Theatre. 'The Three Sisters' will be performed April 4 through May.