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(RICHARDSON) In a few days, Russia goes to the polls to elect a new Duma - the lower house of parliament. There has been wild speculation that President Vladimir Putin will rig the elections as part of his plan - "Operation Successor" - to cling to power.
Tired of theories and conjecture, I decided to get the inside scoop. So I put in a call to my old friend Boris in Moscow, who has a job that allows him to keep an eye on things.
After we dispensed with the usual small talk, I cut to the chase. "So what's going to happen, Boris?"
"How do you mean?" he replies.
"The election. What's going to happen in December?" I ask.
"Oh, that." He suddenly sounds profoundly bored. "You Americans, you are always focusing on wrong things, then act surprised when later you are run over by train or hit by - how do you call it - sucker punch."
"What are you talking about, Boris?"
"What are two most important things for modern society?"
I sense a rhetorical question.
"Oil and water," he says. "Oil and water, and Russia has world's biggest supply of both. Land and wood are also very important, and we have plenty of these too."
"What are you driving at, Boris? What does this have to do with the election?"
"Election in Russia - it is always more than just election," Boris says. "Duma election, and presidential one in March, they are not about democracy. That is American idea. Here, elections are about who will be controlling Russia's wealth - oil, water, forests, land."
"And who will that be?"
"Same people as now, of course," Boris laughs. "You think Russians give up such things without fight?"
"And what about Putin?" I ask.
"Putin?" There's a long pause. "This is not yet decided. But I believe they will make him tsar - Tsar Vladimir the second."
"Tsar?!" I say, incredulous.
"Yes, after United Russia party wins Duma landslide, they will announce national referendum. And then they make Putin president for life - tsar, same thing."
"I have to say, Boris," I reply. "That sounds very unlikely."
"Oh, and you, being American, understand Russia better than Russians?"
"What does this have to do with understanding Russia?"
"Because, my American friend, Russia needs a tsar. Deep down, Russians hate media, distrust politicians and businessmen and, thanks to communists, have little need for priests. So we need tsar - someone to trust, a strong man who is not criticized, who has final say on all things."
"Ok, so if Putin is to be tsar, who will be the next president?"
"Does not matter."
"What do you mean it doesn't matter?"
"Not matter, because you have forgotten main thing with tsars."
"What is that, Boris?"
"You cannot have more than one."
Paul Richardson is publisher of Russian Life, a national magazine published from Vermont since 1995.