Paul Greenberg

Even Russians who promised their parents and grandparents, the generations who knew what Communist rule was like, that they would never cast a ballot for a Communist felt they had to do so now for their protest to count. They found their hand ticking off the box beside the Communist Party as if by some autonomous reflex. Anything but cast a vote for a party that believes in Russian heresies like free markets and free expression.

Apparently, the Russian for liberal is ineffectual. See also dithering, indecisive and unappealing. Even unpatriotic. Un-Russian, if you like. Because if a cause isn't holy and fervent, or a regime not despotic, and democracy is none of those, being only a system and not a promise of utopia, it can't compete with the attractions of tyranny, however cruel the reality turns out to be.

Anyone who's been to Russia can testify to the bleary-eyed nostalgia for Stalin that sets in after a few vodkas. ("He knew how to rule -- with a strong hand. Zdarovye! To your health, tovarisch . . . .") The rest of the speech may be forgotten by dawn's much too early light, but not the sentimental attachment to the tyrant. Any tyrant.

At this juncture, the country's economic stagflation seems to have produced its political equivalent, and Russia now drifts between two unpalatable regimes, that of the Reds and the former Reds. The more things change, the more they don't in Mother Russia.

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If these elections were exceptionally free for Russia (free being only a relative term east of the Dnieper), it wasn't for any shortage of efforts to rig them on behalf of the tenuously ruling party. The usual ballot boxes were found stuffed before the polls opened in Moscow and Rostov-on-Don. A group of Communist poll watchers found that a group of ringers had preceded them at a polling station in Krasnodar, and so the real Communists were denied entrance. Russia takes some getting used to, much like the thought that Communists should be demanding fairer elections.

Rigging the vote goes hand in iron hand with shutting down the press. Independent observers of Russia's elections found their websites sabotaged by hackers. Nosy reporters and such, including an AP photographer, were briefly arrested, the novelty being that they were detained only briefly. And the official results showed the Putinistas doing a lot better, naturally, than unofficial exit polls.

We are all shocked, shocked! But there's no reason Americans should be. It all sounds as familiar as Chicago during the early Daley dynasty. Or in some of the more picturesque precincts of my native Louisiana when the Longs ran that state and fiefdom.

But it is progress when Russia knows only American-style corruption instead of Stalinist/Leninist brutality. Unless, of course, you're some economic oligarch who won't take orders from the party. Then you lose not only your company but your freedom.

What next for Russia? The same as what has been. In a land where everything new is old, we'd bet on this tsar's holding on till the next one rises. But that doesn't mean tsardom will go away.

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.