The last five years of democratic reforms in Russia - changes that have transformed the world - are on the line Sunday, as voters go to the polls in presidential elections that a Communist could well win.
Pledging to restore a socialist Russia, and to cooperate less with the West, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has attracted broad support from voters shocked by Russia's transition to capitalism under President Boris Yeltsin.
Around the world, leaders are preparing to ditch all their old assumptions about post-Communist Moscow.
In a rough campaign marred by two recent and unexplained bomb blasts in Moscow, Mr. Yeltsin's team - relying more on younger voters - has framed the battle as one between the Soviet past and a free, prosperous future. Mr. Zyuganov sees the choice as one between security and the chaos of recent years.
Polls put Yeltsin ahead by up to 10 points, but even his aides say the surveys exaggerate. As far as can be judged in this vast, diverse, and enigmatic country, the president and his chief rival are neck and neck.
Neither of the top contenders, however, is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote, as required for outright victory. That means they will likely face each other in a two-man runoff in early July.
Yeltsin, who lagged way behind in the polls earlier in the year, has surged in recent weeks, winning support with a vigorous campaign that has taken him the length and breadth of the country. Signing decrees, arguing with hecklers, dancing with pop groups, he has bolstered his image as an energetic, can-do president and shown once again that he performs best when when cornered. After health problems last year, the president seems to have recovered.
Yeltsin's new image
His high activity level has paid off, aides say. A few months ago, Yeltsin's image "was not an image you would want to campaign on," says top adviser Georgy Satarov. Focus groups perceived him as untrustworthy, ill, and without any clear direction.
Today, Mr. Satarov says, things are better on one front at any rate. "He is no longer seen as in ill health."
But the president's strategists are aware that too few Russians have yet benefited materially from economic reforms for voter arithmetic to favor Yeltsin. So instead of presenting him in a bright glow of positive acclamation, they have offered him to the electorate as little more than the best of a bad bunch.
"New people would start stealing ... at least many of these people have stolen enough," argues former political prisoner Georgy Zhyzhyonov in one of Yeltsin's TV campaign spots.
Zyuganov, meanwhile, is being portrayed in a negative light by the media, which have thrown their influence unashamedly behind the president. News shows, on both government-owned and nominally independent TV stations, are saturated with images of Yeltsin looking good, while his Communist rival is invariably shown in unflattering ways, his utterances subjected to sarcastic commentary.
Zyuganov is not the only victim of this tactic. Grigory Yavlinsky, a young economist and Yeltsin's only reformist rival, has been almost entirely blacked out by the media, to ensure that he does not take too much of the pro-reform vote.
Turning the campaign into a two-horse race between the president and the Communists, leaving behind not only Mr. Yavlinsky but also radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, law-and-order advocate Gen. Alexander Lebed, and a clutch of weaker candidates including former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, has been one of the Yeltsin team's major successes.
Russia as normal?
The president has cast his message in starkly black-and-white terms: Glossing over his own personal history as a top Soviet Communist Party functionary, he has been hitting the theme that he represents Russia's future as a "normal" country in the community of nations. If Russians will just stay the course, Yeltsin says, his policies will bear fruit for all of them.
Electing the Communists, on the other hand, would bring a radical shift in course that would not only lead the country backward, but also into serious political turbulence, warn his campaign organizers.
"Boris Yeltsin is the only national figure who can guarantee civil peace, no redistribution of property, and the continuity and predictability of domestic and foreign policies," declared a statement from the president's electoral support movement.
The stability sword cuts two ways, though, and Zyuganov is playing on the fact that stability is the last thing most Russians have enjoyed during the last five years of a roller-coaster ride towards some sort of democracy and capitalism.
Hyperinflation, the destruction of the Soviet Union, a 50 percent drop in industrial output and massive layoffs, and endemic wage delays for state workers are the only memories that millions of Russians associate with Yeltsin's rule.
In large measure, the race has boiled down to one between disaffected Russians who are often older and concentrated mainly in small towns and the countryside, and those with more confidence in the future - born of greater opportunities and ability to adapt, who tend to be younger people in the big cities.
And they are all aware, in the words of one Western diplomat, that "they are not just choosing a personality for their president; they are choosing the future direction of their country."