One ought to be pleased, of course. When previously in Russian history did anything serious depend on the outcome of an election? But all the same, the widespread view of the election as an abyss, with absolute triumph on one side and total disaster on the other, reveals the extent to which Russian democracy has failed to settle down. Businessmen warn morosely that a Communist victory would plunge Russia into chaos and Yeltsin's closest adviser, General Korzhakov, even talks daily of civil war. No one expects the kind of peaceful transfer of power from government to opposition that marks a stable democracy.
How far is this alarm justified? For all the upheavals of the past few years Russia has not outgrown one basic characteristic of the old system, which is that politics was organised by cliques. The life-chances of a politician depended on the clique to which he attached himself, and especially on the fortunes of its leader. If the leader advanced, so did the rest of the clique, like mountaineers roped together.
Yeltsin did not challenge this pattern. He has never managed to create a political party to keep open his contacts with a wider public but instead has surrounded himself with people he could trust. At times, as a result, he has seemed to be receiving limited or distorted information, as when he invaded Chechnya in December 1994, a decision he has himself called the "greatest mistake" of his presidency.
A change of regime would mean a complete reshuffle of these cliques, bringing in fresh people, eager for revenge after years of frustration. One might view the elections as a struggle between the successful Communists (those who made the leap in good time from the old system to the new one) and the unsuccessful ones (those who failed to and so got elbowed aside). Ironically, the latter bear the Communist label. They have let it be known that they regard Yeltsin and his followers as "criminals" and would bring them to trial for having illegally destroyed the Soviet Union and sold off the national heritage. So the change of personnel could be disastrous for the losers.
In terms of policy, though, the two main contenders, Yeltsin and Zyuganov, may be closer than most people think. The Communists were very shy about revealing their economic programme, but when a newspaper leaked the programme last week, it turned out not to envisage a return to the state-owned planned economy. Instead, it recommended some price controls, higher social spending and a more relaxed monetary policy, combined with stricter currency controls to curb the flight of capital abroad, higher import tariffs to protect Russian producers, and a certain amount of re-nationalisation, where it can be shown that firms have been privatised illegally.
Apart from the last, these are all directions in which Yeltsin will probably have to move too. During the campaign he has been raising pensions and minimum wages, and trying to ensure that workers are paid on time. He has also been under great pressure from businessmen to make credit easier to obtain, at reasonable interest rates, both for themselves and their customers, so that manufacturing can take off from the miserable trough to which it has sunk.
Communist newspapers have been full of the rhetoric of Russia as a great power and proposals for the "voluntary" re-creation of the Soviet Union. But here too Yeltsin is not far behind. He recently signed a treaty with Belarus that stops barely short of the full union of the two countries, and he has dismantled customs barriers with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Almost any conceivable Russian president would probably move in this direction. Russians are used to running their neighbours' affairs and their economic power gives them strong leverage.
In terms of policies, then, there may not be as much difference as appears between Yeltsin and Zyuganov. All the same, in recent weeks Yeltsin has been doing what he can to put "blue water" between himself and Zyuganov. He has announced that he plans to professionalise the armed forces, which should mean that after 1999 no more conscripts are called up. This would end some three centuries of pressing young adult males into military service for which they were often ill-prepared. No Communist would dream of doing any such thing, and most of the generals have been pretty tight-lipped in their reaction to the move.
Even more important is the Chechen peace settlement. This is not just a matter of ending the war, which the Russian government has been trying to do for months. Yeltsin's Nationalities Minister has suggested that Chechen rebels might join a coalition government, and that a power-sharing treaty might be drawn up, which would define Chechnya as a sovereign state within the Russian Federation, running its own domestic affairs. This is a real divergence from the imperial view of the Russian state which Zyuganov holds.
However one rates Yeltsin's chances, the most important thing is that everybody I have spoken to in Russia recently seems to assume that these elections will go ahead. Their glazed eyes and their indecision indicate that they are taking democracy seriously. They are right to do so. The actual policies of Yeltsin and Zyuganov may differ less than both of them claim, but it really does matter who is in charge, and not only to their respective cliques. Yeltsin will reassure businessmen and foreigners that the country is stable and safe to invest in; Zyuganov will arouse fears of instability as well as the shadow of the Communist past. In Russia, personality is everything.
The writer is Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London University.