By Allan Little
BBC News, Moscow
On the banks of the Moscow River, facing the Kremlin, there is a long squat grey-faced apartment block known as the House on the Embankment. It has a special place in Russia's history.
It was built by the early Bolsheviks when they moved the Russian capital back to Moscow from St Petersburg.
It housed the families - more than 500 of them - of high-ranking Kremlin officials. They were the bureaucratic elite of the world's first attempt at a socialist state. It was, in its day, the only house in all Russia to have hot running water.
A decade ago, when I lived here as the BBC's Moscow correspondent, I went to visit one of its residents. She'd lived there since 1931. More than anything she remembered the Red Terror of 1937.
President Yeltsin was, for many, a westernising tsar and it is a truism of Russian history that westernising tsars come to grief
Four-fifths of the families in the house lost at least one member to Stalin's infamous purges, victims of the paranoia that seized the Kremlin that winter.
She told me she remembered listening at her door to the nightly raids by Stalin's feared secret police, hearing the boots on the wooden stairs, the tramp along the corridors and the knock at the door, trying to guess from the sound which of her neighbours was being taken in the night.
Everywhere you look in Moscow there is a physical reminder of the grandeur and cruelty of this country's history.
The Bolsheviks despised the tsarist capital St Petersburg - Russia's elegant bay window on the Baltic, its gateway to the western world.
They saw its construction in the 18th Century as a flawed and doomed attempt to westernise Russia.
Moscow better suited their temperament - the impenetrable, defensive walls of the Kremlin sealed them off, isolated and defended them from the hostile world which they believed surrounded them.
It is foolish and unfair to push the analogy too far, because Vladimir Putin is not Stalin and Russia is a far happier place today, and far more free.
But Moscow - with its architecture of defensive seclusion from the world, its remoteness from the European mainstream - makes it better suited to today's Russia, too.
Mr Putin's hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is a direct beneficiary of Mr Putin's own astounding popularity. What is it that he has articulated that has connected so successfully with so many Russians?
The Putin circle calls the new Russia a sovereign democracy - a democracy defended against hostile foreign meddling
Many Russians have come to regret the 1990s. President Boris Yeltsin was, for many, a westernising tsar, and it is a truism of Russian history that westernising tsars come to grief.
Mr Putin has been the corrective - Russia reverting to type.
The Putin circle who now govern here regret the years of weakness, not just because they plunged Russian society into chaos and criminality but because, during Russia's temporary absence on the international stage, the United States made huge strides forward.
The Putin circle believes the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and countless other popular revolts on its borders, were not the result of popular uprisings at all but orchestrated by America and its allies to subvert real democracy among Russia's former allies.
If there has been, under Mr Putin, a retreat from the democratic changes of the 1990s in Russia it reflects, in part at least, a determination not to allow - as one Putin ally put it - "orange events" sponsored by forces hostile to Russia.
Very Russian paradox
The Putin circle calls the new Russia a sovereign democracy - a democracy defended against hostile foreign meddling.
But the odd - and very Russian - paradox is this: that this retreat from the democratic experiment in the 1990s seems genuinely popular.
Russians have voted to endorse it, and so it carries a democratic - or at least a popular - legitimacy of its own. And so the big question "Is Russia a democracy?" remains open.
More than half a century ago, America's greatest Soviet analyst, George Kennan, wrote a letter to the US state department from Moscow.
In it, he said that ever since the Bolshevik revolution, American diplomats had been trying to answer the question: "How has Bolshevism changed Russia?"
It was, he had concluded, the wrong question. It was more important to consider how Russia had changed Bolshevism.
Perhaps we should similarly invert today's question and ask not how democracy has changed Russia, but how Russia - eternal, enduring, long-suffering - is changing democracy.
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