But that picture is false. Russians will today go to the polls to decide between a hugely powerful president, with a marked authoritarian streak, and a man nurtured in the unpromising soil of Russian nationalism and loyal party service. A vote for either is no guarantee of safe passage through the years ahead.
It is rumoured that these days Boris Yeltsin has turned to mulling over his place in history. He cannot but conclude that the verdict so far will be mixed, although he deserves credit for negotiating a path through a minefield of problems. Some were caused by switching to a market economy, in a country demoralised by a huge loss of territory and a sense of cultural and military humiliation following the Cold War. Yet others were of his own making. Launching the Chechen war, in which at least 30,000 died, was a particularly ghastly mistake.
If Mr Yeltsin wins today's first round (and first place is not assured), and goes on to be re-elected in a run-off in July, it will not be because the country is wildly enthusiastic about his leadership. He is less loved than tolerated. His greatest achievement - to preserve, more or less, basic freedom - is largely overshadowed by a slump that was, at least on paper, worse than the Great Depression.
Factories across the country, deprived of subsidies, have come to a standstill. Workers still clock on, but have nothing to do; some are no longer even paid. Agriculture is inefficient, still largely collectivised, and decades out of date. Household consumption has dropped by nearly a third since the reforms began; so, too, has gross national product, not least because of the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union's disproportionately high military spending. Foreign investment in the Yeltsin years has been a meagre $5bn (pounds 3.25bn), a sixth of that attracted by Hungary.
Yes, Russians will repeatedly tell you, there is a far greater choice of goods and services than in Soviet times, and there are no longer food queues. But what is worse: being able to see a pair of Italian shoes you cannot afford, or not seeing them at all? Consumer items regarded as utterly mundane in the West are the zenith of luxury.
The temptation to take revenge on the one who presided over all this unpleasantness will be strong as voters go to Russia's 95,000 polling booths from the Baltic to the Bering Sea to choose among 10 candidates. It is part of the reason that the Communists came first in December's parliamentary elections, with nearly 23 per cent. It would also, according to Western analysts, be premature, nipping an economic revival in the bud. Mr Yeltsin's administration can boast some achievements, most in their infancy. After a crash which wiped out the life savings of millions of Russians, the rouble is stable; inflation is down to 1.6 per cent a month, although the impact of Mr Yeltsin's extraordinary pre-election spending spree has yet to be felt.
"A great deal of suffering has been needed to create the opportunity that now exists," said Professor Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, "It would be a tragedy not to take advantage of that opportunity now." An expert on Russian economics, Prof Layard believes Russia is about to start a period of rapid economic growth, so long as the current policies are maintained, and it does not fall victim to the Communists' protectionist plans. "The rebuilding of the Russian economy will be one of the greatest stories of the end of this century," he predicts.
With its massive oil and gas reserves, he points out, Russia has greater natural resources per head than any other major nation in the world; the number of people with poverty-level incomes has fallen from 30 per cent a year ago, to 22 per cent in April; there is a large positive balance of trade in goods and services; exports have grown this year by some 12 per cent in dollar terms. Bear in mind, though, that even if it matches Poland's 6 per cent annual growth, Russia will not reach 1990's output levels until 2004.
But the economy is not the only measure of Mr Yeltsin's performance. He must also be judged on what kind of society post-Soviet Russia has become. Most Russians despair of rising crime, the near daily assassination of businessmen, the collapse of social services and once proud educational institutions. But what offends them above all else is the spectacle of the "haves", the unappealing class of nouveaux riches created by the proceeds of privatisation, whose capacity to acquire wealth is matched only by their fondness for its vulgar trappings.
Mr Zyuganov's election campaign has made much of this yawning gap between the rich and the poor. They have not needed to resort to the glossy TV ads or posters of the Yeltsin campaign. Their message is powerfully conveyed by the long, silent lines of old women standing outside every railway station trying to sell vodka, loaves of bread, potatoes, kittens, tortoises or any other item that will generate a profit of a few pennies.
And yet Mr Yeltsin can make one overwhelmingly strong claim. Whatever else you say about Russia, the country is more or less free. His human rights record has been horribly marred by the shelling of parliament in 1993 and the Chechen war, but Russians can now say what they like. They can travel abroad freely (although most cannot afford to).
They can publish more or less what they wish, although the Yeltsin administration has muddied its record by using the national media as an electoral platform. There is not one, but at least 40 political parties, albeit mostly small and shambolic. Mr Yeltsin, a former Communist, may not have been much of a ground-breaker on civil rights, but he did not drag the country back to blind censorship and repression - despite his authoritarian temperament.
So what of the future? A Yeltsin victory will certainly be greeted with relief in the West, which did much to engineer his re-election. It will be widely said, with some justification, that Russia has avoided falling into the grip of a regressive, economically suspect group of Communists and nationalists.
Mr Zyuganov has fought for months to present himself as a moderate to the West. Last week he issued more assurances that he wanted a mixed economy, with private property, glasnost, a free press and "a dynamic relationship" with Western investors. But the coalition behind him includes extreme Communists and nationalists who will expect some return for supporting his candidacy. This is why Anders Aslund, author of How Russia Became a Market Economy, calls today's events "the most important elections the world has seen since the German parliamentary elections in 1932, which prepared the road for Nazi dictatorship".
That may be a little strong, but it is indeed hard to feel confident that Mr Zyuganov, who has no experience of senior office, could control the unsavoury elements in his entourage. As it has done before over the centuries, a Communist-run Russia could easily draw in on itself and turn away from the West, which it believes is only interested in keeping the country on its knees. The nationalist determination to restore "great power status", and to rebuild the Soviet Union, will produce pressure to strengthen Russia's dilapidated military and keep its vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.
But what if Mr Yeltsin wins? Do not uncork the champagne. Boris Yeltsin looks like a caring, sharing democrat after his whirlwind tour around the country, dispensing money to the hard done by and dispossessed. Perhaps he will maintain his rediscovered liberalism, mindful that it has resurrected his popularity. But this is his last election; even if his heart condition allowed him to run again, the constitution limits him to two terms. His natural impulses are more tsarist than democratic: he is already openly talking about finding a successor.
Only five months have elapsed since the chairman of his human rights commission, Sergei Kovalyev, quit in disgust, accusing him of giving "exceptional extra-legal authority" to the security services, blocking all military reforms, signing secret decrees, creating closed institutions and becoming increasingly dependent on spies for his information. Even Sergei Filatov, Mr Yeltsin's former chief of staff - and now his top campaign organiser - warned about the dangerous rise of the security services.
Mr Yeltsin's constitution accorded his office more powers than any other elected leader in the world. He can rule directly by decree, oblivious of the will of parliament. Every key job is within his gift. The temptation to go into hibernation again, surrounded by his cronies, who include such unlovely types as his bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, and security services chief, General Mikhail Barsukov - will be great. Russian is indeed at a crossroads, with both forks pointing into fog.
Runners, riders and fall guys: the at-a-glance guide to form
president. Fights best when down.
Sweet unreason in a yellow suit.
Liberal economist. Nakedly ambitious.
He'll make a
man of you.
Can't see him
Political scientist. Cures insomnia.
Ex-Olympic weightlifter. Brawn but no brains.