It is the great fugue of 20th- century political thought and theory: order vs. democracy. In their purest form, each is seen as the antithesis of the other.
In broad principle they represent the choice that will be presented to Russia's electorate on June 16. Eleven candidates are running for the country's presidency, but only two count - Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia's revived Communist Party. If neither wins 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff in mid-July.
Present-day, post-Gorbachev Russia can hardly be called a completely evolved democracy. It is a state of quasi-anarchy that, if better led, might eventually become a democracy.
Nor does Mr. Zyuganov represent a latter-day authoritarian Stalin. He has neither the character, the party apparatus, nor even the supine public willingness to impose order by draconian force.
Yet a vast majority of the Russian public is fed up with the present condition of the country: Crime and corruption are rampant, a few grow outrageously rich at the expense of the many, and goods are plentiful in stores and shops, but most people can't afford them.
"Reform" and "democracy," which came in with the presidency of Mr. Yeltsin, are, therefore, given bad names.
At the same time freedom, the Zeitgeist of democracy, has been unleashed upon Russia. The Communist Zyuganov will have a hard time stuffing it back into the bottle of autocracy if he wins next month's election. This new freedom is prized by millions of Russians, even those disgusted with the new democracy. And there are still vivid memories of the repressive horrors of Stalinism.
What is remarkable is that freedom has become so important so quickly amid the chaos of Russia's political choices. Not since Grand Duke Ivan III became the first czar in the middle of the 15th century has there been a Russian climate that permitted free speech and freedom of the press and religion - except for the brief period of proto-democracy presided over by Alexander Kerensky for nine months in 1917.
EVERY election everywhere is, in part, a referendum on the future. Thus, Russia's choice on June 16 is not one between ideal democracy and Marxist authority. It is a choice between the potential for democracy or authoritarianism.
For those of us who watch Russia choose between two undesirable candidates, there is one consolation: No matter who wins in June (or in the second round in July), Russia's tormented struggle with itself won't be over this year and probably not in this decade.
If Boris Yeltsin seems increasingly incapable of guiding Russia into a stable, democratic future, Gennady Zyuganov cannot yank it completely back to the bleak, brutal past.
Russia's man on horseback is still far away.