Nearly three-quarters of a century after the last czar was overthrown and replaced by Communists whose power proved equally absolute, Russians will vote today to choose their country's first popularly elected leader. Boris Yeltsin, 60, who has led Russia for the past year as chairman of its Parliament, is likely to win election to the new executive presidency.
But Nikolai Ryzhkov, 61, the former Soviet prime minister, and Vadim Bakatin, 53, an adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev, may along with three minor candidates receive enough votes to deprive Yeltsin of the first-ballot victory he seeks and force him into a runoff election.
Yeltsin's victory nonetheless appears assured, and that victory will be taken as a mandate for a faster and broader transformation of the Russian Federation, the Soviet Union's largest republic.
The election is doubly important _ first, as a historic step by Russia, the largest and traditionally one of the most totalitarian nations of Europe, toward democracy and, secondly, in the impact Yeltsin's probable victory will have on the Soviet Union's reform process.
His election would bring a new balance of power in the Kremlin that would affect every decision Gorbachev makes.