The choice Russian voters face in the presidential runoff is mostly seen as whether to step back toward Soviet communism or not.
But deeper currents than communism - with roots at least as far back as the time of Peter the Great -- separate the two men on the ballot July 3. Boris Yeltsin, the risk-taking leader who ushered in the chaotic post-Communist era, and Gennady Zyuganov, the cautious party ideologist who has resented almost every turn Russia has taken for the past decade, hold two starkly different visions of Russia and how to restore its strength.
The difference is their view of Russia and foreigners.
One view, a consistent feature of Mr. Yeltsin's policy, is to integrate Russia with the world, especially the wealthy West, as much and as fast as possible. Mr. Zyuganov's view, found at the heart of his books and campaign platform, sees the West as a treacherous rival that will overrun his country economically and culturally if Russia doesn't shore up its walls of isolation.
Put another way, this is the struggle that Russians feel between two aspirations -- the desire to develop into a "normal" country and the belief that Russia must forge a "special path" or risk becoming a colony of the West.
The debate between Yeltsin and Zyuganov echoes the 300-year controversy over Peter the Great, a Westernizer who opened up Russia to Europe - a debate that Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called the most important of all Russian controversies.
The debate is whether Peter's reforms modeled on Europe helped to make Russia great or to destroy its distinctively Russian strengths. The debate blends seamlessly into the second-most important debate in Russia, says Alexei Kara-Murza, director of the Center for the Theoretical Study of Russian Reforms at the Russian Academy of Sciences: Did the Bolshevik communists make Russia great or destroy the country?
Lenin and the early Bolsheviks were internationalists, even Westernizers, who sought world revolution across national borders. But Joseph Stalin's call to patriotism in World War II forged a strong popular link between Soviet communism and Russian nationalism.
Zyuganov is a nationalist-communist who shares Stalin's views. He warns that Russia "is exposed to the world market to such an extent that it is imposing on us its model of economic development, its price structure, and a production structure geared to its own interests."
American companies sell cheap frozen chickens from Arkansas, for example, at prices that undermine the far less efficient Russian chicken industry. Western countries buy Russian raw materials, especially oil, but virtually no Russian manufactured goods.
Worse yet, at least as it affects public opinion, Russian television and movie screens are full of the only Western programming it can afford - the worst of Hollywood. Low-quality American films, says cultural critic and commentator Ilya Lepekhin, are the biggest influence on Russians who feel they are witnessing the death of Russian culture.
Zyuganov is especially alarmed at Russia's acceptance of strict fiscal discipline demanded by the International Monetary Fund for the $10 billion it has lent Russia. This loan is imposing the Western model on Russia, he argues.
His aspiration is that Russia will strengthen its own characteristics in isolation and offer a distinctive alternative to the West. "The collectivist values of our people will provide an important counterweight to rationalist-individualist Western world view," his platform declares.
Yeltsin clearly sees the West as more a partner than a threat. Even while he has been giving mixed signals about reform in the past year, he has brought Russia into the Council of Europe, put Russian troops in the former Yugoslavia under de facto NATO command, tried to stretch the G-7 summits of industrialized democracies into a G-8 by joining in, and applied for Russia to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Russians themselves are split almost in half on these questions, Professor Kara-Murza says.
On Zyuganov's side is fear of the West. "Our population has the impression that the Western world is not inclined to let Russia be included, that Russia is more to be feared than befriended in the West," Mr. Lepekhin says.
The clearest signal to Russians that they are still the enemy in Western minds is NATO's proposed expansion eastward into the former Warsaw Pact nations. This makes sense, Russians argue, only when Russia is seen as a threat to the West. This view is nearly universal in Russia.
Wariness is easy to understand. From the Mongol hordes, who ruled Russia for three centuries, to Napoleon Bonaparte, to Adolf Hitler, says playwright Alexander Gelman, "Foreigners have seldom come to Russia with kind intentions. So Russians have grounds to be suspicious."
Periods of chaos give rise to anti-Westerners and always end in dictatorship, he says, because they fall into the Russian trap of searching for scapegoats: who is guilty and who is innocent.
"Zyuganov is not a potential dictator," Kara-Murza says, but he is afraid that Zyuganov would begin a new round of accusations - perhaps over who is unpatriotic and who is not - and would be followed by a national socialist-type dictatorship.
What Russia lacks is an enlightened nationalism, playwright Gelman says, that is self-critical about its national interests, rather than an ignorant nationalism that looks to the villainy of others.