LONDON — Forty years ago Thursday, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to go into space. Last month, the decrepit space station Mir plunged back into the atmosphere, incinerating among other things the photograph of a youthful, happy Gagarin (he died in a plane crash in 1968) that had hung on its wall for the past 15 years.

The symbolism was obvious — but is it Russia that has fallen, never to rise again, or only the old Soviet Union?

Almost 10 years after the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of 15 independent successor states, that is still a hard question to answer. For the Baltic republics, the end of Soviet rule was unalloyed good fortune. For places like Moldova and Tajikistan, it led to a decade of war and impoverishment. But for Russia itself, the jury is still out.

Many older Russians are nostalgic for the lost Soviet past, when their country was feared around the planet and there was always another sausage. For the pensioners who populate the regular procommunist demonstrations, Gagarin has become a symbol for all that used to be right in the country and is now wrong.

For most older people, the fall of the Soviet Union really was a tragedy. If it had survived, they would still have decent pensions, adequate medical care and enough heat in the wintertime. The security they worked for all their lives has been snatched away from them.

But security is not the only value any Russian aspires to. There have been huge protests in the past week in both Moscow and St. Petersburg in which many thousands of people, most of them young, came to the defense of the 400 beleaguered journalists of the NTV television network. NTV, which broadcasts all over Russia, is as truthful, brave and independent as the best media anywhere in the world, and the protesters believe it is under attack by the government.

They are probably right. NTV’s major shareholder, the giant natural-gas company Gazprom, carried out a boardroom coup last week and then fired the network’s top managers. Gazprom insists it only wants to sort out the network’s finances, but there are suspicions that it really wants to stop the network’s annoying habit of criticizing the government.

“We are witnessing the final stage of the state monopolization of the media in Russia,” said Pavel Gutionov, head of the Union of Russian Journalists, which organized the Moscow demonstration. That, too, may be true: President Vladimir Putin’s shameful route to power (he was essentially given the job by ex-President Boris Yeltsin in return for a Nixon-style amnesty for past wrongdoings) makes him ultra-sensitive to criticism.

Gazprom is a state-owned company, and most people assume that its goal is to make NTV subservient to Putin. This suspicion is strengthened by the relentless harassment of NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky (now under arrest in Spain awaiting extradition on fraud charges) and the 27 police raids over the past two years on the headquarters of Media-Most, NTV’s holding company.

So there you are: Russians cannot change their spots. Soviet tyranny is only being replaced by a different type of dictatorship. Well, no, actually.

The capitalist Russia of today is a brutal society, akin to the United States of the 1880s, where money gives the orders, the police and the courts do what they are told and the weakest go to the wall. But this is not 1880, and today’s Russia is full of brave, well-educated people who know that they deserve better.

That golden-haloed Soviet Union of the 1960s, when Gagarin soared into space and everybody respected the Russians, was a better place than 30 years before. The prison-camp population had fallen from 20 million in the late ’40s to only a few million by the ’60s, and the state had stopped the mass murder of politically suspect “elements.” There was even economic security for those who kept their heads down and their mouths shut.

But it was still a terrible place. Even when I first visited it in the early ’80s, it remained a society of petty bullies and brazen liars flaunting their little bits of power — easy enough to bear if you were visiting for a month, but perpetual misery and insult if you had to live there. The Soviet Union, down to the day it died, treated its citizens like backward children.

The new Russia ain’t great. The transition to a market economy was run by cynical apparatchiks who privatized the old state industries into their own pockets and cost the country at least a decade of economic growth. The government is still in the hands of people who grew up under the old system. It is ugly, it is poor, and it is about as democratic as Chicago in the ’30s.

I’ll settle for that. This country was the model for George Orwell’s “1984” only half a century ago. Now the big controversy is about whether NTV, a better television network than any of the Big Three in the U.S., can retain its editorial freedom. I hope it does, but I still won’t despair if it doesn’t.

Russia is a democracy. It is a shoddy democracy, where the last presidential election was even more questionable than that in the U.S. Money doesn’t just talk there — it yells. But that is already so much better than what went before that even Gagarin might like it. And it probably will get better, simply because most of its citizens want it to.

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