MOSCOW — THREE years after the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the citizens of Russia are still far from sure what kind of country they live in.
Their rulers tell them this is a new Russia that has stepped out of the darkness of czarist oppression and Communist dictatorship into the bright light of free thinking, free-market democracy.
But in a country burdened by its momentous history, the shadows of the past are hard to shake off; when the going gets tough, old habits are the easiest to slip into. And rarely has the fragility of Russia's new polity been thrown into such brutal relief as by Moscow's military venture in Chechnya.
President Boris Yeltsin's attempt to force the breakaway republic back into the Russian Federation, a campaign so far dogged by failure, has become a critical test of his leadership. (Ground troops encircle Grozny as air attacks bombard city, Page 6.)
It is like a tightrope that the standard bearer of the ``new'' Russia has chosen to walk: On one side lie the hazy outlines of a more liberal future; on the other is the authoritarian tradition Russians know only too well. Many Russians fear that if their leader trips, he will fall the wrong way.
If he did, it would not be a total surprise. Mr. Yeltsin's critics have long suspected that his democratic credentials, despite displays of remarkable personal courage, might still be little more than paper over his 30 years as a Communist Party aparatchik.
When Yeltsin ordered the Army to bombard a recalcitrant parliament in October 1993, Russian liberals chose to ignore the troubling questions that lay behind such a violent solution, because the president was fighting against their enemies.
The more things change...
But recently, as the battle between liberals and hard-liners for the president's soul reached an urgent pitch, the men such as Yegor Gaidar who used to set the Kremlin tone - and who cared what the West thought - have been kept firmly out of the loop.
The manner in which the dispatch of soldiers to Chechnya was decided bore striking similarities to Soviet practice: Public opinion, roundly opposed to the intervention, was ignored; parliament, which voiced grave reservations, was not consulted; every decision of consequence was taken by the Security Council, a body of officials that behaves disturbingly like the old Politburo.
As the Security Council met behind Kremlin walls, everyone else was left guessing about its deliberations. Foreign diplomats and reporters have been reduced to the old game of Kremlinological coffee-grounds gazing.
Shadowy figures such as Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, the head of Yeltsin's presidential guard and a close confidant of the Russian leader, have emerged as influential figures in both domestic and economic policy.
Even the secrecy surrounding Yeltsin's spell in the hospital, officially for a nose operation, which he timed to coincide with the launch of the Chechnya invasion, recalled how Soviet leaders used reports about the state of their health for political purposes.
And yet the differences between the old days and the new are clear as well, founded principally in the existence of a relatively free Russian press.
Yeltsin may have waited two weeks before addressing the nation on TV to explain his goals in Chechnya, but in the end he did make his speech Tuesday. That showed, at least, that in today's Russia no leader can completely disregard public opinion.
Certainly Yeltsin's direct appeal to the Russian populace contrasts strongly with the way former President Leonid Brezhnev told his people about the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party simply distributed a ``closed letter'' to party cells.
Reports from the front in Afghanistan were rare and doctored. Today independent Russian TV shows footage of wounded Russian soldiers and mutinous officers in Chechnya, and Moscow newspapers have published bitter criticism of government policies.
Four prominent members of parliament's lower house have installed themselves in Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev's palace in the capital of Grozny, simply to bear witness to the assault. Even military officers have been openly insubordinate.
Gen. Boris Gromov, a deputy defense minister who oversaw the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, had no qualms this week about going public with accusations that the intervention in Chechnya was a ``woeful, badly thought out move by leaders ... who placed their political ambitions and peoples' lives on the same level.''
General Gromov is almost certain to get the sack. Such a fate is normal for an officer who dares to be so outspoken.
But as Yeltsin presses ahead with his bid to bring Chechnya to its knees, the question is whether Russia's civilian political life is to be subjected to the same sort of military discipline, or whether democratic diversity will still be allowed to flourish.
That is what is at stake in Moscow's Chechnya policy.