In more than a thousand years since Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to ancient Rus, Russians have never had a succession from one democratically elected leader to the next. Princes gave way to Mongol khans who gave way to czars, by sword or family ties. The czars then gave way to hand-picked Communist Party general secretaries.
Then came Boris Yeltsin, who in 1991 became the first head of the Russian state to be chosen in a contested election by popular ballot. Now, his term expiring, Russians will vote in coming weeks whether to reelect or replace him.
On June 16, Russian voters choose among 11 candidates listed on their ballots. If one candidate polls an outright majority of votes, he wins. Much more likely, the top two vote-getters face each other again in a runoff to be held either July 7 or 14. Election officials estimate that it will take them seven days to tabulate the official count. The next president is inaugurated 30 days after the Central Election Commission declares a winner.
WHY IT MATTERS
Russians have reached a stark choice between turning inward and stepping back toward Soviet communism - how far no one is certain - or carrying on the jarring journey toward free enterprise and democratic rights.
The next president will have strong powers to set the nation's direction, much stronger than an American president has. He can issue sweeping decrees that have the force of law, so long as they don't contradict existing laws or the Constitution.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov would require banks to invest in industry, protect Russian markets more from foreign goods, bar private ownership of land, and control prices of key commodities. His theme: stronger state control of the economy. The big question: How much would Mr. Zyuganov renationalize? He vows loyalty to multiparty democracy, and the way he runs his campaign is indeed highly democratic. He says he will not revert back to the Soviet flag. And little will come of his plan to invite former Soviet republics back to the USSR: Russia can't afford them.
Up to now, President Yeltsin has leaned West, then back toward nationalism; toward open markets, then back toward protectionism; toward anti-inflation discipline, then back to popular spending; to democratic freedoms, then stern crackdowns. But his basic vision seems to be of a strong Russia with political and economic ties to the West. If he wins, he is expected to bring some liberal democrats back into his Cabinet and to crack down hard on tax cheats and corrupt officials.
IF ZYUGANOV WINS
Zyuganov has the consistent support of 25 to 30 percent of voters, so he's certain to be one of the candidates if a runoff is needed. Most polls have shown Yeltsin catching up with him, but few analysts believe the polls. Yeltsin is considered unlikely to win outright in the first round. In two long-shot possibilities, he could be bumped from the second round if...
* ... pro-West candidate Grigory Yavlinsky could put together a last-minute coalition of other candidates that could attract the voters - numbering in the millions - who are deeply unhappy about electing either Yeltsin or Zyuganov.
* ... polls have underestimated more wildly than usual the support for ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Most likely, Yeltsin and Zyuganov will make the runoff. Some strategists say most voters outside Zyuganov's base will go for Yeltsin in the second round.
IF YELTSIN WINS
Yeltsin could postpone the vote, but his legitimacy would suffer. Ballot falsification is expected but would be difficult to orchestrate. High turnouts and a huge Communist drive to recruit observers should prevent large-scale cheating.
HOW VOTING WILL WORK
The growing anti-Western sentiment in Russia does not in itself threaten American interests, though the West would like to sustain Russia's cooperation on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation. But eventually, when and if Russia emerges strong again, it will matter a great deal whether Russia is an ally with shared political values and a healthy economy integrated with the rest of the industrialized world - or a suspicious, rival civilization.
THE MAIN CONTENDERS
President Boris YELTSIN'S image as a democratic reformer has been in decline since 1993. Crime, corruption, and the war in Chechnya have tarnished his image. But he dominates the field as the only credible alternative to the Communist candidate.
Communist Gennady ZYUGANOV (pronounced zoo-GAH-nof) has united leftists of all stripes and many nationalists. For foreign audiences, he is a mild social democrat. On the campaign trail, he is a Soviet and partial Stalin apologist, as well as a nationalist deeply skeptical of foreign influence.
Grigory YAVLINSKY has the most democratic, market-friendly platform. But with poor political skills and a prickly persona, he runs a distant third.
"Bad-boy" nationalist Vladimir ZHIRINOVSKY, who once said he wanted Alaska back, hasn't faded away, but he hasn't widened his appeal either.
What of Mikhail GORBACHEV? Americans remember him as a man who changed the world. But Russians see him as the man who shattered their country. He registers 1 percent in polls.
... for Zyuganov: Soviet life was stable, with jobs held steady by endless subsidies to factories and farms. Since 1991, wages have fallen on a scale that has not been seen in the US since the Great Depression. Russians are disturbed by rising crime and corruption.
... for Yeltsin: Inflation is down. Many Russians own apartments and cars. There is a free press. Political dissent and religious conviction, once career-stoppers or worse, now are just choices. Yeltsin's vigorous campaign has convinced Russians that he is personally in command.