MOSCOW - Boris Yeltsin, deep into a re-election campaign against resurgent Communists, has reached for the mantle of one of Russia's most courageous Soviet-era dissidents.
Andrei Sakharov "was my teacher of democracy, the teacher of democracy for all Russia," Yeltsin said, laying flowers at the Nobel Peace Prize winner's tomb yesterday.
Yet, for the dissidents and idealistic reformers who stood up to Soviet tyranny and gathered this week to honor Sakharov, there is heavy disappointment in Russia's imperfect democracy - and dismay at the choices in next month's presidential election.
Many - including Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner - reject Yeltsin's suggestion that he is democracy's torchbearer. But they also fear that the alternative to him in June 16 elections could well be Communism's return.
While many Sakharov disciples have moved into Yeltsin's camp, Bonner said yesterday she cannot because of her opposition to the war in the separatist region of Chechnya.
Bonner is backing rival reformer Grigory Yavlinsky.
Unlike many of their East Bloc counterparts, Russia's Soviet-era dissidents have largely avoided post-Soviet politics. They have stuck to moral issues, such as promoting human rights or opposing war.
After lending Yeltsin their moral authority in the early days of
his presidency, many have since accused him of backtracking on reforms, tolerating corruption, relying on authoritarian methods, and - worst of all - waging war in Chechnya.
Under the Communists, however, they could lose what gains have been made. There could be new controls on free speech and religion, for instance, and on private property and freedom of movement.
"Of two evils, we have to choose the lesser," said Valery Ginzburg, 71, an old friend of Sakharov. He intends to vote for Yeltsin.
Tatyana Velikanova, a Moscow dissident from the 1970s and '80s, disagreed. "It's a bad choice. The honorable choice is to vote against both" Yeltsin and the Communists, Velikanova said.
The difficult choice has created bitter splits. Sergei Kovalyov, a former dissident and Russia's best-known human-rights advocate, won't vote for either Yeltsin or the Communists. He is "deeply upset" that his party backs Yeltsin.
"Alas, I've become a splitter in my party," said Kovalyov, insisting, "You can't live in a country where the top man has his arms in blood up to his elbows."
Yeltsin was always regarded somewhat apprehensively by Sakharov and Bonner because of his background as a Communist Party boss. But they did work together as leaders of the influential Interregional Group of Deputies, a coalition of pro-democracy lawmakers in the old Soviet legislature. Yeltsin has listed Sakharov among his heroes.
Sakharov died in 1989, shortly before the Soviet collapse. Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Sakharov's birth.
A physicist who helped build the Soviet atomic bomb, Sakharov was persecuted and exiled for criticism of the communist regime. Internationally known as an advocate of human rights, he entered parliament in the dying days of Soviet power and remains a hero whose stature only grows in comparison with the confusion that has followed.
Bonner told guests at a new Sakharov human-rights museum Monday that her late husband's struggle for democracy was more important than any political battle and "should not be perceived as dessert or dressing to the political events now under way."
"We have yet to say farewell to our totalitarian psyche, even though we now live in a different state," she said.