In the old days the troika held this vast empire together, its runners gliding over the snow behind three prancing horses. It was the main way to reach Russia's isolated, snowbound cities.

Then came highways and railroads.

No more troikas speeding like the wind," its stout driver murmuring to his steeds, lived on only in poetry and songs and memories of the old ways. The are of managing the sleigh's team -- the lead horse trotting and the two side horses galloping -- was all but lost.

Now it's coming back.

In a budding nostalgia for what was best in old Russian culture, the troika is enjoying a revival in racing and as the centerpiece of national festivals.

This new spirit of looking back has also seen the turn from destruction to renovation of some ancient churches -- preserved as architectural, not religious monuments -- the start of a search for old and forgotten religious icons, and a vogue for old Russian cooking and the collection of samovars and other antiques.

When foreigners in the late 1950s expressed surprise at the disappearance of the troika, a few old masters of troika driving were found working at other jobs. In specially founded stables they began passing on their art to a new generation.

One of these is Pyotr Popov, a tough, soft-spoken man of 3l, the current national champion of troika racing.

The leader of an 11-man group that raises, trains and drives troikas, Popov has the look of a man in love when he talks about his job.

"When I'm away from troikas I feel ill with my desire to drive again," he said one recent day at Moscow's Hippodrome racetrack. "They are nothing like other vehicles. They aren't just for transport, they are for beauty."

At the Hippodrome, troikas with brightly dressed drivers were alternating with harness-racing events, and a crowd of 15,000 was placing ruble bets -- worth about $1.30 -- on the races.

In modern troika-racing, a three-man team manages the three horses. The great drivers of the past handled their troikas alone, whispering the horses to a gallop and whistling them to a stop.

In Czarist days, a coachman with an imposing figure, good voice and the strength to handle the team could raise himself from serfdom to command fame and high fees, according to Vladimir Parfenov, an expert on horses at Moscow's museum of horse breeding.

In those days, the troika was a festive vehicle, used for hunts and drives in the country, for weddings and feast days like the Maslenitsa, or traditional winter-end festival.

The troika, with its bells and brasswork, was never used for funerals or even for an evening at the Bolshoi Theater, Parfenov says. More stately two-horse or four-horse teams took the troika's place on solemn occasions.

Parfenov traced the history of troika driving back to the early 18th century, when it revolved around the traditional arc-shaped Russian harness called the dugovaya.

In their heyday, the troikas skimmed across the frozen steppe among a vast network of post stations 20 to 30 miles apart.

With a fast team, the 400-mile journey from Moscow to Leningrad could be covered in three days. Now it is a six-hour train ride, or less than one hour by airplane.

"On, birdlike troika, who could have invented you? "Nikolai Gogol wrote a century ago in a passage many Russians still know by heart. "Only a people full of life, a people that refuses to be daunted by anything."