Ten years ago this week Vladimir Putin, a diminutive former KGB agent with an enigmatic smile, made his first appearance on Russia's political stage. He was Russia's fifth prime minister in barely a year, a virtual unknown plucked from bureaucratic obscurity. He was appointed to a thankless job by an ailing and increasingly out-of-touch President Boris Yeltsin, whose stumbling, corruption-plagued regime appeared to be swiftly falling apart.
The press at the time was filled with surprise and widespread derision at Mr. Yeltsin's "latest mistake." No one expected the new guy to last more than a couple of months. "Everybody thought Putin was a nobody, with zero chances," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist for the liberal daily Kommersant. "The Yeltsin regime was seen as a sinking ship that had been abandoned by everyone with ability."
What a difference the hindsight of a decade makes. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, making Mr. Putin the acting president. He won a convincing electoral victory a few months later and has never looked back.
Putin, back in the prime minister's job after two successful terms in the Kremlin, is now regarded as Russia's indispensable leader. He has consistently higher public approval ratings – averaging a celestial 74 percent over the past 10 years – than his handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev. Many experts believe it is Putin who actually rules Russia and, thanks to constitutional amendments rushed through parliament last year, he might well be back for a much longer presidential term in 2012.
Beloved KGB tough guy
Retrospectives in the Russian press have pointed to Putin's blend of KGB-style tough-talking; his patriotic commitment to rebuilding Russian state power; and his often engaging, undeniably articulate public personality as the secrets to his success.
When he came to power, Putin brought good health, sobriety, and an active lifestyle – he is a black belt in judo – that proved a political tonic for Russians weary of the doddering and sometimes incoherent Yeltsin. Putin's action-man image still serves him well. Last week Russian newspapers featured full-page photos of a vacationing Putin fishing bare-chested in a rushing Siberian stream, riding horseback up a steep mountain path, and preparing to dive to the bottom of Lake Baikal aboard a Mir-2 submarine.
He also had a clearly articulated vision of where he wanted Russia to go. Early in his Kremlin tenure, Putin posted a statement of goals online, in which he declared himself a "statist" who aimed to modernize Russia by harmonizing its national traditions with European democratic values. A lot has since fallen between the cracks of that promise, say experts.
"Putin's main idea was to create a strong, united Russian state, and to do this through a strict, top-down system of power staffed by people loyal to himself," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "He tried to position himself in the public mind as a 'good czar,' according to Russian tradition, and he's been pretty successful at that. But his objective of making the state an effective instrument to promote national development has not turned out at all as advertised."
Mr. Strokan of the Kommersant daily says Putin was the "proverbial man on horseback." He says Putin "came at a time when democracy seemed to be failing, and he had the image of a soldier with clean hands and a firm heart, and that appealed to people ... but it was all a PR operation, of course. Once he had power, he took control of the major media to ensure that no one could use that method against him."
Within a few years, the Kremlin effectively controlled all national TV outlets and the owners of some of those stations that had dared oppose him – tycoons like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky – had fled the country.
But as the space for public dissent contracted under Putin, the economy expanded – rapidly. That was in large part due to skyrocketing oil prices. But prosperity trickled down and many Russians appeared content to set aside demands for political freedoms as living standards swiftly rose.
Political opponents? Crushed
Not everyone, of course, has a rosy view of his leadership. Putin's years in power have been punctuated by wars and terrorist strikes, which he used to crush political opponents and ratchet up Kremlin control.
Just weeks after Putin became prime minister, Russia was rocked by a series of still-unexplained apartment bombings that killed 300 people, panicked the country, and led the Kremlin to launch a new war against rebels in the separatist republic of Chechnya. In that atmosphere, voters stampeded to support the pro-Putin party in December 1999 parliamentary elections.
The ongoing war in Chechnya, as well as a harrowing attack that led to the poison-gas deaths of 120 people at a theater in the heart of Moscow and another that killed hundreds of schoolchildren in the southern town of Beslan, led to dramatic political shake-ups from which the Kremlin and security services emerged with more power than ever.
"To every crisis, Putin responded with consolidating his control," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Pro et Contra journal published by the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Public politics in Russia are now 100 percent controlled from the top. No other figure can emerge, in any political capacity, without the approval of the Kremlin," she contends.
Putin also stacked the Kremlin with KGB veterans and arrested Russia's wealthiest man – oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement to enforce his new order. Critics say that the "new men" Putin brought with him from the security services to clean up the country have actually spawned more corruption than ever.
"Putin brought these security people in, because it was thought they were the only ones who could be trusted," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, a website that reports on the security services. "But in fact Putin created a state where there is a convergence between big business and the state. The secret services now work more on behalf of corporations than they do for the interests of the country," he says.
As Russia's oil-fueled prosperity fades amid the global economic crisis, Putin may be trapped in the system he created, says Ms. Lipman.
"He stepped down from the presidency last year, while staying on as prime minister, because he cannot afford to leave," she says. "He is essential to the working of the system. If he disappeared, it would quickly become unstable."
Follow us on Twitter.