Deep in the heart of their national psyche, do Russians really yearn for democracy?
Several surveys appear to show that Russians prefer authoritarian order to democracy. One poll found that 53 percent of Russians opposed democracy, while 22 percent favored it.
But the story behind those numbers, as well as other poll results, complicate that view. While Russians want stability - a condition that President Vladimir Putin is widely credited with restoring - Russians are also attached to democratic values.
"There's a battle of data, and everybody cites their favorite poll," says Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford University, who began canvassing Russian opinions more than a decade ago.
"The big picture is, if you ask Russians about the actual practice of democracy - Should there be a separation of powers? Should people vote for their leaders? Should there be independent media? - a two-thirds majority say yes," says Mr. McFaul. "But when you ask about their experience with democracy, it's been very negative, because folks that called themselves democrats are perceived as having failed in the 1990s."
The contradictory responses from Russians - with their long history of dictatorship and centralized rule - are no more enigmatic than the stance of Mr. Putin, who pays frequent lip service to democracy while acting to tighten his grip on power.
"We've got to critically analyze the state of our democracy," Mr. Putin declared in his state-of-the-nation address Wednesday. "Adherence to democratic values is dictated by the will of our people and strategic interests of the Russian Federation."
Putin concluded that the "most important" - and "most complicated" - national task will be "creation of a free society of free people in Russia."
But beneath the gauzy rhetoric, the Kremlin has stifled political opposition and taken control of key national media. The policy is called "managed democracy."
Qualifying democracy may be necessary, given Russia's recent history. Painful memories persist of the 1990s free-for-all, when state control broke down and self-styled "democrats" grew like mushrooms across the dank political landscape. An analysis by Richard Pipes of Harvard University in the current issue of Foreign Affairs concludes that "no more than one Russian in ten cares about democratic liberties and civil rights."
"Democracy is widely viewed as a fraud," writes Mr. Pipes. "Experience has taught Russians to associate weak government - and democracy is seen as weak - with anarchy and lawlessness."
As one strand of evidence, Pipes cites the 53 percent opposition to democracy. But the analysis published in the newspaper Izvestia last July, the original source cited in the Foreign Affairs article, says the poll results reflect "a society disillusioned not so much with democracy itself, [but] with its own political choice made in the early 1990s."
Another poll last November asked Russians how they wanted their nation to be perceived: 48 percent said "mighty, unbeatable, indestructible, a great world power." One percent said "democratic."
Russia watchers see this as only one piece of Russia's complicated democracy puzzle.
Nearly half of Russians "are more ready than anybody else to move towards much more radical, systemic democratic reform," says Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, citing polls using methodology that she says she trusts. "Only 20 percent of Russian society still has this nostalgia over the past, the empire, the dictatorship."
The argument that Russians are anti-democratic also has political uses for those few who have real wealth and real power. "The elite is different - the elite is against democracy because they don't know how to operate, how to compete, how to survive, when you have to fight politically," says Ms. Shevtsova. "We can't blame Putin for everything, because ... all these hyenas tell him: 'Actually, Vladimir Vladimirovich, you are doing just fine. Look at the polls: Russia is not ready for democracy. You have to collect all the instruments of power in your hands.'"
Still, Putin's speech Wednesday raised eyebrows. "For the first time ever Putin dared speak clearly about democracy, values of a free society and even spiritual rapprochement with Europe," noted an analysis in Izvestia. The president "evidently wanted everybody to understand that the value of freedom [is] the basic principle of his last term."
But the English- language Moscow Times asked if Putin would "practice what he preaches." Roland Nash, chief strategist for Renaissance Capital in Moscow, wrote in the Times. "Liberalism, the rule of law, private property, and a free media sound great from the podium," he wrote, though in practice they can be "an annoying inconvenience."
The disconnect stems partly from different definitions and expectations of democracy - between Russia and the West, and ruler and ruled. Poll results of ROMIR Monitoring published Wednesday found that quality-of-life issues dominated Russians' national priorities; "developing democracy" scored just 1 percent support.
"Lots of people don't understand that almost a majority [of Russians] think [that] what Putin is doing is making democracy more effective," says Stanford's McFaul. His poll, conducted during election cycles, finds that 80 percent of Russians say democracy has not worked well here, though 75 percent agree that rulers should be elected. Some 80 percent also reject military rule.
Confusion starts at the top. "When push comes to shove, Putin does believe that Russia should be a democracy, in large measure because he thinks of Russia as part of the West," says McFaul. "Democracy for him is a proxy for the West. He'snot proposing an alternative project. It's not Hitler; it's not Stalin, who just flat rejected [democracy]."
But Putin, a former KGB agent, "fears independent folks with power, because that's a challenge to his power," adds McFaul. "He frames that as a power struggle, as good guys versus bad guys, as patriots versus traitors. That's the contradiction in his words versus actions."
A Russia-adjusted definition also applies to the term "rule of law," says Carnegie's Shevtsova. Unlike in Western contexts where government figures are confined by laws, "the rule of law has become one of the most crucial instruments of consolidation of executive power - this is the Russia paradox."
"Nothing can move without the endorsement of executive power," she says. "The rule of law is the servant of the executive."