-- An atmosphere of fear has returned to Russia's political world faster than anyone could have imagined. Yet it is not true -- or at least not yet true -- that Russia's political opposition is in jail, whatever John Kerry may have said during the election campaign. Critical voices and outlets for free speech remain. It is important to understand what they can and cannot achieve.

As to the fear, it is real enough. You need only ask President Vladimir Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who said in an interview last month with the Russian daily Kommersant that "the atmosphere of fear . . . that wasn't here only a few years ago . . . is the biggest risk for [Russia's] development and even survival."

And while business owners may be concerned about greedy and corrupt state bureaucrats and the deplorable decline of the rule of law -- so concerned that capital outflow from Russia has grown fourfold since last year -- they will not talk about these concerns in public. The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the government campaign to destroy his oil business, Yukos, have had a powerful intimidating effect.

Regional governors are so afraid of the Kremlin that, except for one or two, they failed to challenge Putin's recent legislative initiative to end election of regional governor by popular vote. Those in government who once had a reputation as liberals keep mum as Putin cracks down on rights and freedoms. The authoritarian trend was intensified after the tragedy in Beslan, as Putin launched a political reform aimed at curtailing democracy. A top Kremlin aide, Vladislav Surkov, chillingly labeled all who dared oppose the Kremlin line as "the fifth column . . . in a besieged country."

But not all voices have been silenced. In fact, the crackdown and the increasingly authoritarian rhetoric have created a strong urge among liberals to express their frustration and fury. And they still find outlets that have not given in to fear. Liberal Moscow dailies and weeklies continue to portray a Russia that does not appear on the Kremlin-controlled national TV networks. You will not learn from government TV, for example, about the campaign against Yukos or the discord in the cabinet or the grief of Beslan or the incompetence in law enforcement. But you can read about all these things in liberal print media, and even see glimpses of these subjects on the formerly privately owned network NTV.

The print runs of liberal publications rarely exceed 100,000 copies, but criticism is not confined to small dailies. There are political Web sites that offer news, insightful analysis and independent opinion. Moskovsky Komsomolets, a peculiar daily whose otherwise tabloid-type content is often mixed with critical political coverage, has been running a series of highly critical "letters to the president" written by a prominent journalist of the perestroika years. This daily's circulation exceeds 1 million. Echo of Moscow, a liberal, highly interactive radio station, offers live, unrestrained political discussions of the kind that have been banished from national TV networks. There is even a liberal television station: REN TV. It draws on limited resources and has a much smaller audience than state-controlled national networks, but, unlike them, it is no propaganda mouthpiece.

The lower house of parliament has evolved into a rubber stamp for Kremlin policies, but it still has a minority who dare to speak out against them. Outside the parliament, dissident political groups have undertaken timid attempts to unite against Putin's anti-democratic initiatives.

These outlets and pockets may be small, but it is critical to each of them -- and to their audiences -- that others are also unafraid and around. No one outside Russia should forget that they still exist.

Of course, no one should be deluded about their influence, either. They make essentially no difference in policy formulation. The Kremlin dominates the political scene, and official media control the airwaves. The pro-Kremlin majority in the Duma easily overwhelms the few stubborn deputies and ignores opponents outside parliament. Moreover, the outlets of dissent are at the Kremlin's mercy. The editor of the privately owned daily Izvestia was fired over "inappropriate" coverage of Beslan. Print editors may go on doing their jobs, pretending not to think about tomorrow, yet each knows that pressure or change of ownership -- followed by a forced change of editorial policy -- is likely. As long as most Russian people are vaguely supportive of or indifferent to the rising authoritarianism, the Kremlin may silence the remaining free outlets one by one.

So why does Putin tolerate them? One theory has it that they are so small, and liberal attitudes are so unpopular among Russians, that the Kremlin figures it might as well maintain some appearance of freedom. Another may be that some in the Kremlin still see value in allowing at least a bit of space for alternative opinions. Though there is not much evidence that they harbor any freedom-lovers among them, the Kremlin aides are far from cohesive and may need these outlets to pursue their intrigues. Speculation about the maverick Illarionov's imminent resignation from the Kremlin staff has so far proved to be wrong.

But whatever the reason for the measure of tolerance, the Kremlin could at any time shift to toughness and move against the remaining outlets of independent political debate. Then the transformation of opposition into dissent would be complete, and the fear of the state that Illarionov warned about would become pervasive.

The writer, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.