Raisa Ulianova filled in her ballot, held it high above the ballot box, then crossed herself, kissed her fingers, and finally dropped it into the slot.
"To win! For victory!" Ms. Ulianova exclaimed.
She later said she had voted for the United Russia party favored by President Vladimir Putin. "United Russia is better than any other force," she said. "All the rest are weak."
Tens of millions of Russians voted Sunday to elect a new 450-seat State Duma, or lower house of parliament, in an election seen as a test of power for the popular Mr. Putin.
But as Russians exercised their democratic right Sunday - despite recognition by many that a pro-Kremlin result was inevitable - analysts say this campaign points to a paradox in Putin's Russia: the use of democratic means to achieve authoritarian ends.
"The Kremlin is never serious about democracy," says Michael McFaul, a Stanford University veteran Russia expert who is now in Moscow. "They use these quasi-democratic mechanisms to achieve their political objectives, which are, first and foremost, to eliminate pluralism."
"They are not building open dictatorship - they don't want that," says Mr. McFaul. "They are using elections as part of the process for consolidating power [and] building this party, United Russia, that will serve as an instrument of power for them in the future."
Under the watchful eyes of 350,000 policemen, Russians spread across 11 time zones in 94,500 polling stations. At stake besides the State Duma are a host of regional governor and local posts.
Just three months before a fresh presidential vote, Putin has made no secret of his wish to secure the loyalty of a two-thirds majority in the Duma - enough to change the Constitution, possibly to allow him a third term in office.
He has made clear that he sees United Russia as the engine to achieve that. Amid charges that the party is blatantly using its influence to ensure a victory, critics liken United Russia's dominance to that of the Soviet Communist party.
Following Western rules of democratic fair play has never been the standard in Russia - and it was not expected by many of those voting Sunday at Secondary School No. 192, in southwest Moscow.
"For me [voting] is very important, because it is my life, your life, and about the future," says Dr. Leonid Roshal, after casting his ballot. Dr. Roshal, who became well known by entering the Dubrovka theater to treat hostages during a siege last year by Chechen militants, says that Russia is "close to anarchy, and that's why society has to cut out some extremists, fascists, and any other ideas that harm a person."
Igor Tsiganov, a banker, takes a dimmer view of the vote.
"I don't think elections solve anything, but I had to express my opinion to give them less chance of falsifying the result." United Russia will win "no matter what," he says, adding that current leaders have "done nothing" to improve lives, while riding on a bubble of prosperity caused by high prices for Russian energy exports. "Once the prices of oil and gas go down, the economy will collapse with it," he says.
But that prospect has barely been mentioned, even in the campaigns of opposition parties. Polls show that support for the Communist Party, once the strongest opposition group, especially against Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, is eroding. There is a chance that two liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, might not meet the 5 percent minimum threshold to win any Duma seats.
Meanwhile, news about candidates of United Russia has swamped state- controlled television coverage. One of the largest banners ever seen in Moscow - six stories high, at least 150-feet long - is a United Russia ad with Putin's call for unity, draped in front of a building directly across the street from the State Duma.
"We already have experience of the Duma acting like a rubber stamp. They joke that it is the 'Legislative Department of the Kremlin,'" says Yevgeny Kiselyov, editor of the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, and former head of NTV television, one of the last independent TV stations in Russia that was brought under Kremlin control in 2001.
"How can people be interested in a political process that is all fake, artificial, and a imitation of real debate-while understanding that nothing matters?" asks Mr. Kiselyov.
Russia is witnessing a "creeping coup d'état," he says: "The party they are building is just a mold of the former Communist Party - minus the ideology." Former KGB officials like Putin are tightening their hold, Kiselyov adds, and have the "same ambitions of rebuilding imperial power."
The Kremlin has tightened control over the nation's media. Critics also say that United Russia has bolstered its chances by forcing out opponents through court and election commission challenges. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is monitoring the election, last week criticized the Kremlin for helping United Russia with "administrative resources." It also noted a "clear bias" in state-owned media for pro-Kremlin parties, and cases of "selective" application of candidate registration criteria.
Concerns about Russia's slide toward more authoritarian rule grew in October, with the arrest on fraud charges of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire head of Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, who had spoken of entering politics and has funded two opposition parties. Many observers say it was Khordorkovsky's political aspirations rather than his economic activities that put him afoul of the Kremlin.
"We have a mixture of authoritarian and democratic methods," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst. "When they can solve a problem using democratic methods, [the Kremlin] tries to do it. But if they have to keep stability [by shutting out oligarchs], they will use non-democratic ways."
Security for Sunday's election was tightened across much of the country after the bombing of a commuter train in southern Russia Friday that killed 41 people and injured 200. Putin said the attack was an attempt to destabilize the country before the vote.