ON Sunday, Russia will hold the first fully constitutional parliamentary elections since before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The current Duma, or lower house of parliament, has served for two years under elections held by presidential decree. The new Duma will serve four years, elected under a democratically enacted election law.
Only one Russian Duma in history - in 1912 under Czar Nicholas II - has peacefully and legally handed power to a successor Duma.
Many Russian voters are unhappy about fallen income and worthless pensions, as well as the sense of lawlessness in Russia. They are expected to shift the Duma toward stronger state controls and a stronger social safety net. The main beneficiary: the Communist Party.
The issues where the Communists will want to make a difference: Slowing down privatization of state enterprises and beefing up social payments to pensioners.
But Kremlin aides to President Boris Yeltsin have become relaxed about the Duma elections. The Communists may have few, if any, leftist allies in the Duma, and may thus be denied working control of parliament even if they make their projected gains.
The real import of this election, however, is as a sort of primary for the Rus-sian presidential election next June. Under the Russian Constitution, the president holds the real power. It takes the vote of two-thirds of the Duma to overturn a presidential decree.
If Mr. Yeltsin loses or does not run in this presidential election, the vote would represent the first democratic leadership succession in Russian history. The Duma results will help show who the strong presidential contenders may be.
The Duma seats 450 deputies. Half are elected from districts, much like the US House of Representatives. Half are divided in proportion to votes received by those parties that win at least 5 percent of the vote. Current estimates are that as few as four and as many as nine parties may break the 5 percent threshold.
But all projections are slippery. As one Kremlin analyst puts it: ''Any voter could vote for almost anyone from anarchists to monarchists.''
Successor to the party that ran the Soviet Union, the Communist Party is set for a strong comeback. The party is expected to win as much as 35 percent of the Duma seats - far more than any other party but also far short of a majority.
The Communist voters are concentrated among older Russians, who have seen their pensions and life savings become worthless in a few short years of runaway inflation. To them, the Soviet years were times of superpower status, safe streets, and affordable sausage - even if lines were long and quality was poor.
Today's Communist Party is not quite the old breed. Leader Gennady Zyuganov quotes from the Bible and accepts private property. But the party platform makes clear that the Communists want the state to own and control the national distribution of goods and many key industries, and to restore subsidy levels to many large, failing enterprises.
Zyuganov on recent history: ''The Soviet Union collapsed because the Communist Party claimed a monopoly on truth, a monopoly on power, and a monopoly on property. We don't.''
The leading bloc (political alliance) among market-oriented democrats, Yabloko is led by reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky. (Yabloko means ''apple'' in Russian, based on the initials of its founders.) He has grown more popular than the more radical reformer Yegor Gaidar who brought Russia ''shock therapy'' and the rough first rounds of reform.
Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko regards itself as the democratic opposition to the Yeltsin administration, which Yavlinsky accuses of creating a new ruling elite that replaces the old Communists.
Yavlinsky condemned the military assault on the rebel republic of Chechnya for its brutality and incompetence. He did not support Yeltsin's use of force in 1993 against a rebellious, antidemocratic parliament. He would like to prune back the strong presidential powers that Yeltsin wrote into the Constitution.
Yabloko is expected to run a distant second or third behind the Communists.
Yavlinsky on his priorities: ''First, it is necessary to correctly share powers between the president, the government, and the parliament.... But the main task is to cure the economy. This can be done.''
Our Home is Russia
This bloc, sometimes called the ''party of power,'' was created last April at the prompting of Yeltsin advisers and is headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Its appeal is stability. The bloc's leaders hope that after years of suffering economic free fall, Russians will appreciate that the economy is stabilizing. But at the same time, the bloc faces deep Russian frustration with the status quo and the current political leadership.
Our Home is Russia is expected to overcome the 5 percent barrier to enter parliament, but it is unlikely to finish better than third among the blocs.
Chernomyrdin speaking to Russian enterprises: ''There is no free money and there will be no free money. You have to learn new ways, look for creditors and investors, and sign contracts.''
Congress of Russian Communities
This movement sprung to the forefront of Russian politics when retired Gen. Alexander Lebed joined its leadership last summer. A beefy former paratrooper with a voice like an idling diesel locomotive, General Lebed is one of the few Russian figures with a reputation for incorruptibility. He speaks in simple, colloquial Russian with brutal clarity. In many polls, he is the most popular political figure in Russia today.
Lebed and his fellow partisans would like to see a stronger state in Russia. He sees current foreign investment as Westerners ripping off Russian raw materials. Lebed's strongest promise is to clean corruption out of Russia's bureaucracies.
Lebed on Chechnya, where Moscow is trying to end its battle against rebel independence fighters: ''Only today there were 23 instances of combat, and some idiots are trying to hold elections there?''
Liberal Democratic Party Of Russia
Ultranationalist and media mischief-maker Vladimir Zhirinovsky is perhaps the most colorful character in Russian politics, but his party also won more votes than any other in the 1993 elections. This year, they are expected to do less well. Both the Communists and the party of Gen. Alexander Lebed are competing for disgruntled nationalists who voted for Zhirinovsky in 1993.
Zhirinovsky is a militant nationalist who promotes extending Russia's borders into Kazakstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. He was the only parliamentary leader to support the invasion of Chechnya. He also is harshly anti-Western, anti-Semitic (although part Jewish), and anti-Caucasian.
Zhirinovsky on Yeltsin: ''He is like Brezhnev at the end of 1982. He's a puppet. They bring him in and bring him out.''
Women of Russia
One of the strongest parties in Russian politics, Women of Russia is a very pragmatic, centrist party that backs women's rights (although not in the Western feminist sense), social safety nets, and moderation in reforms. It strongly opposed the military intervention in Chechnya.
The higher the turnout on election day, the better Women of Russia are likely to do. Many of Russia's less-committed voters are women, who are expected to vote for this least political of parties. It should easily surpass the 5 percent barrier. Some forecasts have it finishing second only to the Communists.
Chairwoman Yekaterina Lakhova on their agenda: ''We try to support reforms which are not extreme.''