THE Russian Orthodox cemetery in the Sydney suburb of Flemmington is a thoroughly moving place. Thousands of exiled Russians rest there under marble tombstones, engraved with their titles of nobility and military ranks. The inscription in the little graceful chapel reads: ''In memory of all those Russians who lived and died in the countries of dispersion.'' This was, and still is, a hard century for the Russian spirit, transformed almost beyond recognition by wars, revolutions, dictators and poverty. The turmoils of life have turned millions of traditionally homely Russians into wanderers seeking refuge in Germany, France, the United States, Australia, Argentina and Paraguay. The price of survival was high - assimilation. Cemeteries, crosses and nursing homes have become the most distinctive features of the White Russian diaspora. But there is one sizeable group of people who have managed to preserve their Russian spirit absolutely intact - the so-called Chinese Russians. I first met them in Australia three years ago and was deeply impressed by their firm allegiance to their roots. Adults and children alike ardently observed old religious traditions. They conducted scout meetings, club gatherings and balls, including the annual Natasha Rostova Ball in Sydney, where young Russian women were introduced into adult society just as they did a century year ago. They spoke the most amazing kind of Russian, the language of Tolstoy and Turgenev, free of foreign borrowings, clumsy modern abbreviations and ''Sovietisms''. Their speech was totally different from the language spoken in modern Moscow, which is so full of new words, phrases and bureaucratic cliches. Their language, lifestyle and customs were literally frozen in 1917-20, when their grandparents under cover of darkness, crossed the Russian-Chinese border into Manchuria to settle mainly in Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai, where they lived for almost 50 years before moving over to Australia and America in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. Vassily Yakimov, a thick-set bearded man, was born in China in 1953, in the village of Kliuchevo founded by his grandfather, a former Baikal cossack. He now works as a senior migration officer at the Australian High Commission in London. Visiting his house in Surrey is like going back 80 years in time. Vassily and his wife Liudmila, also born in China, speak the unspoilt Russian language of the beginning of this century, though neither they, nor their parents have been to Russia. They use the old Russian orthography, with some of the alphabet abolished by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Of course, they also speak Chinese and English. The house is full of old books, icons and other religious objects. It was largely Russian Orthodox faith that helped them to preserve their roots. ''Whenever we went, we carried our icons with us,'' says Vassily. ''The first thing our grandparents would do after settling down was to build a church.'' In the 1930s, Harbin alone had 24 Russian Orthodox cathedrals, countless churches, two monasteries and the Theological Institute. It also had the Russian University, Russian newspapers, theatres, grammar schools and orphanages. ''We didn't have to assimilate in China and remained totally Russian,'' says Vassily. Chinese Russians are unique because, in a Jurassic Park-like manner, they still carry the turn-of-the-century Russian culture, destroyed by the Bolsheviks and no longer to be found in Russia itself; the culture of Tolstoy and Rakhmaninov, of Bunin and Chagal, a peculiar mixture of language, religion and democratic traditions sometimes called the Russian spirit.