NONE of the major polling firms in the world (at least in the last 50 years when scientific surveys have been the norm) were as humiliated as Russian experts at the end of 1993. Their attempts to predict the outcome of the first free Russian parliamentary elections in December of that year were woefully inaccurate. The Russian pollsters grossly overestimated the chances of the democrats, headed by Yegor Gaidar, and underestimated the prospects for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's party of rabid nationalists. Also
surprising, and contrary to the predictions of most pollsters, was the high level of support for the Communists, led by Gennady Zyuganov.
The task of Russian pollsters in predicting the next parliamentary election in December 1995 is much more difficult than it was two years ago. Of course, the spectacular increase in the number of parties and alliances that entered the election campaign (50 parties are already registered) has deeply complicated the task of accurate forecasting.
However, the unpredictability of the Russian election has more serious roots. Indeed, a real drama is evolving: Russians are obsessed with two opposite passions - hatred of the existing regime and fear of a new upheaval in their country.
All surveys conducted in the last year point to one conclusion - the masses have lost confidence in the political institutions that emerged after the anti-Communist revolution of 1991. According to the data of the All-Russian Center of Public Opinion Studies, no more than 5 to 10 percent of those surveyed trust Boris Yeltsin. Viktor Chernomyrdin's government and parliament enjoy no more support than does the president. The majority of people depict their politicians as corrupt individuals who pursue onl y their private goals - wealth and power - and are completely indifferent to public interests. Very few Russians express doubt that the highest dignitaries in the country - Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and his first deputy Oleg Soskovets, or the head of the Federal Council, Vladimir Shumeiko - are guilty of the blatant corruption with which they have been charged. Most accept that collusion between criminals and politicians at all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy is pervasive in society. This prevailin g attitude helps explain why the Russian police could not find in this past year the murderers of several dozen prominent businessmen and journalists.
However, nowhere was the hatred of the Kremlin revealed so evidently as it was during the Chechen war. It could be expected that Russians, who nurture extremely negative attitudes toward Chechens living in Russian cities, would have enthusiastically supported the war that the Kremlin launched against Chechnya. Just the opposite occurred. Surveys indicate that one-half to two-thirds of all Russians condemned the Kremlin for this travesty. Chernomyrdin himself, in a recent interview with Izvestia, lamente d the hatred of those in power in Russia, even as he tried to suggest that it was a permanent trait of the Russian mind.
Although they distrust their ruling elite, at the same time most Russians are terribly afraid of any significant changes. So far, a majority of Russians have found some niches for themselves in their new, post-Communist lives. They miraculously avoided starvation in 1992-93 by cultivating more in their private vegetable plots. These gardens are now a guarantor of their survival, even if they are fired from their jobs. Many Russians changed their occupations, and even if their standard of living deterior ated significantly, they are able to earn enough money to avoid becoming beggars or burdens to their children.
With such a precarious sort of stability, which the Russian people have achieved with great effort in the last three years, Russians are extremely fearful of politicians who vow to alter their lives again with plans of returning to the past. Most Russians do not express any desire to reunify with their Slavic brethren - Belarussians and Ukrainians - because they are afraid that inflation, a major concern of Russian society (according to various polls), would accelerate. The Russians do not want to pay s uch a price for the restoration of the Soviet Union in any form, though evidence suggests that a majority of them have nostalgic feelings for the former superpower.
The political parties that seek power are devising their election strategies. Each group is seeking to capitalize on one of these two major sentiments. The extreme opposition groups, of course, hope to exploit the accumulated sufferings and disappointment of the last three years. Communists and nationalists describe the current regime as deeply antinational and as absorbed only with personal enrichment and maintaining its power. Without having the ability of offering a realistic program for the improvem ent of the country's standard of living, they do promise to do one thing. These parties would exact their revenge by imprisoning hundreds of people belonging to the current administration as well as ''new Russians.'' The ability to accuse these people of corruption (and the opposition believes such a strategy would be welcomed by most Russians) will serve as a pretext to give short shrift to their political enemies. During one political show in August, a representative of the Communist Party, in the presenc e of its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, bet that several participants of the show (he singled out Konstantin Borovoi, head of the Economic Freedom Party) would find themselves behind bars after victory of the opposition.
THE governmental party, ''Our home - Russia,'' headed by Chernomyrdin, has plainly staked its future on stability as the main asset of its program. It attempts to scare the people with the perturbations (particularly the redistribution of property) they will experience if the ''red browns'' - the alliance of Communists and nationalists - come to power. Nikita Mikhalkov, the second-most-important candidate of the governmental party, depicted the opposition on TV this month as yearning for ''blood, rev enge, and repressions.''
Some Russian politicians, like Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Fyodorov, try to take the middle road. They are promising they will install new people in the Kremlin but not make too many changes in society. The same claims, with a more aggressive stance toward the corrupt administration and greater focus on Russian nationalism, are made by Gen. Alexander Lebed and his party, ''the Congress of Russian communities.''
At this time, it is extremely difficult to guess which emotions will prevail in the Russian mind. Will the deep dissatisfaction with the current regime cause Russians to vote for the opposition, or will they stick with what is familiar? This situation is not alien to Americans who, in a very different context and with different political forces, also contemplate similar options. Should they keep a Democratic president with many flaws who represents the existing order, or replace him with a Republican on e who promises radical changes in many spheres of American life?
In any case, Russian pollsters, in the aftermath of their fiasco two years ago, will be cautious with their new predictions. They must be very prudent indeed, because most Russians themselves do not know what they prefer - to deliver a lethal blow to the hated regime and open the gate for Communists and nationalist revolutionaries, or to stay the course with a corrupt bureaucracy and follow the advice of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, ''It is better to deal with thieves than with murderers .''
Most Russian social scientists are inclined to consider the chances of Communists and their allies as quite good, especially in the provinces. The prospects for a victory of the ''pure democrats'' like Gaidar's party are quite low. The strong defeat of Yevgeny Strakhov in the election for governor in Ekaterinburg, even though he was actively supported by the Kremlin, is considered by Moscow a very bad omen for Chernomyrdin's future.
It is impossible to exclude an overwhelming victory of the extreme opposition, even if it promises a wave of repressions in the country combined with the re-nationalization of several private companies. However, it is more likely that with numerous parties on the ballot and with conflicting feelings tearing away at ''the mysterious Russian soul,'' even the most successful party or election bloc will be not able to garner more than 20 to 25 percent of the vote at best. In this case, it can also be predic ted with high certainty that the Russian parliament will remain as fragmented as it is now, with numerous factions having very little in common and unable to work constructively with one another. This indicates the upcoming election will barely change the political landscape in Moscow. The deep political instability will remain as long as leading parties are unable to form a consensus on main values. Russia seemingly needs many years for political stability to emerge.