The temperature dropped to 20 degrees below zero in Moscow last week, yet in many blocks of apartments and offices the central heating was turned down.
It was a chilling indicator of a positive process: that the market economy is really starting to function. The old tradition of overheating buildings in midwinter seems to have been abandoned. Electricity and gas may still be absurdly cheap in Russia by international standards but the price is inexorably rising and consumers are starting to respond by cutting their bills.
The emergence of the market economy in Russia has been a long and painful process. More than a decade after it began to emerge from the wreckage of state ownership, control of vast swaths of the economy - including most of the oil industry - remains in the hands of absurdly wealthy oligarchs who exploited their connections faster than anyone else.
The same slow, faltering process is true of Russian democracy. If anything, it is in an even more fragile state than the market economy. But at least it exists. An indomitable woman called Elena Nemerovskaya, who handed out soup on the barricades when Boris Yeltsin was trapped by Soviet tanks in the Russian parliament, founded the Moscow School of Political Studies 10 years ago. It is dedicated to "provide support to the new generation of politicians and public leaders who share values of democracy and civil society in their efforts to establish a new political culture in Russia". It has organised schools and seminars for would-be democrats from every corner of the new Russia, eager to hear how democracy works in the west — and exchange experiences.
Some are members of the State Duma in Moscow, others in regional parliaments and city councils, in the media and non-government organisations. Most of them are in opposition, rather than in power, struggling against an establishment that is no longer overtly communist but is still a bureaucracy.
Attending three days of their debates last week was both an exhilarating and depressing experience. It was inspiring, because these are people discovering for themselves what makes democracy tick; they take nothing for granted. It was depressing, because democracy already has a bad name in Russia, so soon after the collapse of communism. It is struggling to survive.
Take the debate on local government. "In the west, local government is a product of grassroots development," according to one city councillor from Siberia. "In Russia there are no grassroots. There is a very low level of support at local level. After 80 years of state rule, people don't want to do things for themselves".
Then there is the fact that the media are usually for sale to the highest bidder. Indeed, the very concept of "independent media" strikes some as an oxymoron. "Every media outlet depends on some business group or other," says Vadim Ryabov from the Leningrad region. "They cannot be independent of money".
These are politicians who emerged in those exhilarating days of glasnost and perestroika, when the Soviet Union was collapsing. "In those days, I was prepared to move mountains," says Boris Pashtov from Kabardino-Balkaria in the far south. "I went to vote because I was sure it made a difference. Now I don't bother any more".
Today they are fighting a rearguard action for their principles. But the most immediate crisis they face is the political plight of the liberal and conservative parties, such as Yabloko, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, and the Union of Right Forces, led by Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais. What ordinary Russians see as failed economic reforms, and the misery of daily life in the provinces, have tarnished their reputation.
They are up against three potentially powerful forces. The old communists have an ideology but no charismatic leader; the Unity movement is little more than a vehicle for the support of President Vladimir Putin; and a motley but successful selection of far-right populists is exploiting growing xenophobic sentiment.
Mr Putin's own role is equivocal. He combines the instincts of a bureaucrat trained in the KGB with the more liberal, western focus of St Petersburg, his home town. His own supporters see him as a "moderniser" who is establishing the institutions, and the rule of law, without which democracy cannot survive. Yet he owes his own election to a cynical exploitation of the war in Chechnya and the desire for order after the chaos of the Yeltsin era.
"Our country is not completely God-forsaken but it depends too much on the president," says Andrei Ilnitsky, a publisher. "People don't trust the others representing state authorities. There is no sense of effective reforms. The state exists as a patriarchal state, hiding its ideas and plans".
This brings one back to Russia's top-down dilemma. That seems to be the only way to make anything work in the country. Yet real democracy will flourish only if it grows from the bottom up. There are still terribly few ordinary people who believe in it. When they at last succeed, they will have much to teach the rest of us who take democracy for granted.
Quentin Peel is international affairs editor of the Financial Times. He is also an associate editor, responsible for leader and feature writing, and has a foreign affairs column, which appears every Wednesday.
Quentin has worked at the FT since 1975, when he joined the foreign desk after training as a journalist on the Newcastle Journal, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Between 1976 and 1994 he served successively as southern Africa correspondent, Africa editor, European Community correspondent and Brussels bureau chief, Moscow correspondent, and chief correspondent in Germany. On his return to London he became foreign editor, running the international reporting operations of the FT. He took up his present position in September 1998.
He was born in July 1948 and educated at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he studied economics, with French and German. He is married, with five children.