Paul Greenberg

"Don't you forget what's divine in the Russian soul, and that's resignation."

-- Joseph Conrad

There are some wonderful oxymorons in history -- like the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor much of an empire. Our own times can offer more than a few such grandiose monickers, like the People's Republic of China, which is neither the people's nor a republic nor representative of all of China. Not so long as Taiwan stays free of Beijing's grasp, anyway.

In this country, we've had one economic stimulus after another that failed to stimulate the economy very much. And now Russia, which has always been a rich source of such terminological ironies, has come through again. This week it held "free elections" that -- surprise! -- weren't very free.

The real surprise was the extent to which Russia's parliamentary elections were indeed free -- or Vladimir Putin's party and juggernaut would have done much better. Instead it polled a little less than a majority -- 49.7 percent at last report. That means it could lose up to 75 of its 315 seats in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

For the ruling party not to dictate the election results along with everything else in Russia represents change, if not very much. A command economy used to imply command election results, too. But you just can't count on anything these days.

Never fear, freedom remains as suspect as ever in autocratic Russia. The autocracies may change their personnel and parties but remain just as autocratic. This time Tsar Vlad's well-oiled machine gave ground to the Communists, the default option of Russian voters when they want to cast a protest vote, mainly against the economic slump that Comrade/Citizen/Boss Putin has presided over in recent years.

The result of this week's very Russian elections: The Communists increased their share of the vote from 12 percent four years ago to 20 percent. The essence of a Russian election remains a choice between different dictatorial tendencies.

The liberal parties, such as they are in Russia, ran a distant third, if that well. Something there is about democracy that seems to offend Russian voters, perhaps the plethora of choices. Like any other fauna of the plains and steppes, Russians lend themselves to being herded. And when one autocratic party falls out of favor, another rises in popular esteem.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.