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Putin's Russia: better and worse

The mysterious poisoning of an ex-KGB spy has heightened debate over the nation's direction.

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Hearing Yevgeny Butovsky and Antonina Vallik describe the state of their nation, one would think they live in two different countries. In fact, they share a home.

"We are eating our future, and we are being too quiet about it," complains Mr. Butovsky, a successful private farm manager increasingly concerned by the autocratic political system built since President Vladimir Putin was elected in 2000.

But for his homemaker wife, Ms. Vallik, those years have yielded a rise in living standards that has enabled her to widen the scope of her passion – taking in homeless pets. "Any regime is OK for me," she says.

They're not the only ones having this discussion. The debate is rising in Russia, and around the world, over what kind of a state Putin has built, whether it's bearable for its population, and if it is safe to invest in, or be friends with. A recent spate of apparently political killings that some have blamed on the Kremlin – the victims include ex-KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko and investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya – imparts urgency to these questions.

But depending on whom you talk to, the answers often seem to apply to two completely different countries. In the Russia described by one set of observers, democracy has been extinguished and the media straitjacketed; civil society is gasping for breath and a Soviet-style Kremlin dictatorship is utilizing the country's oil wealth to restore its old superpower status. In the other Russia, people have never been freer, more secure, or more prosperous. That second Russia is building democracy according to its own historical traditions and stepping out as a responsible member of the international community.

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