It's tempting to think that the grand mystique of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet rests largely on its absence, like a memory of long lost youthful love.

We haven't seen the legendary troupe in this country for 22 years, and the aura of its first two visits here -- in 1961 and 1964 -- has never quite been dispelled. Indeed, in the meantime, dancers who became world celebrities left the company's ranks to flee to the West, adding much to the glamor of the legend.

But the Kirov reputation rests on much more solid ground than nostalgia or gossip. In the years since our first acquaintance with the troupe, Americans have become a lot more savvy about ballet in general, and the more we learn about the Kirov's traditions the more reason we have for awe. Many of us have come to regard the Kirov as the fountainhead and purest embodiment of ballet's classical ideals, indeed, the international standardbearer of classicism, even without having seen the company itself in the flesh.

This week, starting tomorrow, the Kirov Ballet returns to Washington for four evenings of performance at Wolf Trap as part of a 16-day, four-city U.S. tour. The company had already been scheduled last year for a visit to Vancouver's "Expo '86" world festival. The ensuing American engagements were the direct result of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting last November and its consequent cultural agreement.

The Wolf Trap programs -- two evenings of "Swan Lake" followed by two evenings of a mixed repertory bill including "Chopiniana," "Paquita," and the "Shades" scene from "La Bayadere" -- will at last give us a chance to match the contemporary reality of the Kirov against memory and the history books.

A generation has passed since its last appearances on this side of the Atlantic, and much has changed, artistically and otherwise. All the same, the likelihood is that the encounter will prove as revelatory as it did before.

To the public, even that part of it with little or no interest in the art, ballet is equated with stellar names. Almost invariably, the ones that pop most readily to mind are Russian: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov, Fokine, Balanchine. All of these came from the Kirov, or from its predecessor companies, in itself an unparalleled testimonial to the stature of the troupe.

But note that we know about these luminaries largely because they left and ventured westward, either as e'migre's or defectors. And this underscores a fundamental fact about the role of Russia in ballet history. The theatrical art we call ballet wasn't born in Russia. It was transplanted there by a conscious effort on the part of national rulers, and cultivated with unprecedented zeal.

The story of ballet in Russia, and at the Kirov, is a saga of continual interchange with the rest of the world, sometimes willed and sometimes reluctant but ever in progress. Russia took, but Russia also gave back, in the meantime raising ballet to peaks of popularity and artistic perfection that may well remain unrivaled for all time.

Significantly, ballet in Russia began with the establishment of a school in 1738 by imperial decree, with a French ballet master, Jean-Baptiste Lande, at its head. It was this school that was to become what's known today as the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the feeder institution for Kirov dancers and the model of dozens of other training organizations globally, including, for instance, the New York City Ballet's renowned School of of American Ballet.

Under Catherine the Great, an Imperial Ballet was also founded, in 1783, again with the aid of foreign ballet masters from France, Italy and Austria. This company was the grandparent, later known by the name of its illustrious architectural home in St. Petersburg -- the Maryinsky Theater -- and later still (in 1935) as the Kirov, in honor of Sergei Mironovich Kirov, a slain hero of the Russian Revolution.

From the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, ballet at St. Petersburg was nourished, taught, created and danced to a considerable extent by artists from outside Russia. Unquestionably, the most important of these imports was Marius Petipa, whom we tend to think of today as the majestic patriarch of Russian choreography. He was, though, born in Marseille and trained in France. As a young dancer, he toured North America (in 1839) long before he ever set foot in Russia.

In the following decade, he spent some time in Spain, where he grew enamored of Spanish dancing and choreographed ballets with titles like "Carmen and her Toreador" and "The Pearl of Seville." It's to this infatuation that we owe the ballet classic "Don Quixote," which Petipa was later to create for Moscow and St. Petersburg in collaboration with the Russian composer Leon Minkus.

When Petipa finally did arrive in Russia and settle in St. Petersburg at the Maryinsky, in 1847, he was to change the face of ballet art on a colossal scale and elevate Russian ballet in particular to a position of international dominance that went unchallenged until recent decades. In Russia, Petipa forged the backbone of classical ballet repertory as we know it today.

In this task, he eventually was joined by two native Russian geniuses -- the choreographer Lev Ivanov, and the composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, his collaborators in the creation of "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker," the bedrock classics of ballet everywhere. Petipa himself not only added such staples as "Bayadere" and "Raymonda" to this roster, but also gave us, in his revisions of ballets choreographed by others, the basis of modern-day versions of such ballets as "Giselle," "Corsaire," "Paquita" and "Coppelia."

Petipa choreographed his last ballet in 1903, seven years before his death. It was after his time that the traffic in ballets, dancers and choreographers began to flow prevailingly in the other direction, from Russia outward. The impresario Serge Diaghilev left for Paris, where he not only revolutionized ballet in Europe with his entourage of gifted artists in every medium, but helped plant the seeds of all subsequent western ballet companies of international consequence, including the Paris Opera Ballet (in its modern manifestations), England's Royal Ballet, and this country's American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.

Another Russian e'migre', Nicholas Sergeyev, who was director general of the Maryinsky at the time of the Bolshevik revolt, took with him a treasury of ballet classics in notated form, including the Petipa masterworks, which he then used to stage these pieces for western companies, thus further abetting the westward dispersal.

Meanwhile, in Russia itself, ballet survived the fall of the imperium and its transformation into the U.S.S.R., clinging steadfastly to its mountainous 19th-century achievements and traditions but also admitting newer artistic trends and impulses. A heavy price was paid, however, in the form of later fugitives like Nureyev (the first, in 1961), Makarova (1970) and Baryshnikov (1974), the cream of more than one generation of Soviet dancers, who abandoned the Kirov in search of the greater artistic scope and liberty they felt they could find only in the West.

All the same, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kirov in Leningrad -- the chief conservators of Russian tradition, and at the same time centers of Soviet innovation -- have retained and reinforced their positions among the handful of top-ranking ballet troupes in the world. Soviet heads of state and their counselors, no less than the czars, have generally esteemed their dance artists as invaluable emblems of national culture, although -- as Valery and Galina Panov can testify -- there are those toward whom this benign attitude does not pertain.

Since the revolution, the Kirov has evolved under a succession of artistic directors who have further extended the company's eminence, including Agrippina Vaganova, the great pedagogue after whom the Kirov's school is named; Fyodor Lopukhov, whose daringly modernized productions of the classics influenced both Soviet and western concepts and practices; and Konstantin Sergeyev, who led the troupe on its first tours to the western world, and whose production of "Swan Lake," for example, was the basis of the version we'll be seeing at Wolf Trap.

The present artistic director of the company, 49-year-old Oleg Vinogradov, who has held this post since 1977, is the first to have invited western choreographers -- including Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart -- to work with the Kirov. The Kirov's touring contingent, including dancers and support personnel, numbers 150, making it the largest such dance touring group in the world. As the Wolf Trap programs testify, however -- with their three ballets by Petipa and one by Fokine -- it's the immense significance of the Kirov's past, as much as its current physical size, that accounts for its enduring fame.