MOSCOW - When a collection of well-heeled political and arts celebrities filed into a downtown theater this month for a production of "The Inspector," few expected to be surprised by the 19th century tale.
But they were. Because this time, Nikolai Gogol's classic story of a lowly civil servant from St. Petersburg who is mistaken for a high-ranking government inspector - and quickly transforms himself into a pompous and predatory caricature of a bureaucrat - seemed strangely familiar.
The short stature and balding pate. The colorless eyes. The well-turned German phrase sprinkled into the Russian. When the house lights went up, the crowd erupted into a 10-minute standing ovation.
"There's no doubt about it. It is not about 19th century Russia," Sergei Ivanenko, a leader of the opposition Yabloko party, said during intermission. "It's about our Russia. It is about Putin. We are going back to the times when we need to go to a theater to hear the truth in biting satire - like in the '70s or '80s, back in the Soviet days."
Today, President Vladimir V. Putin - the once unassuming deputy mayor of St. Petersburg whose meteoric rise to the presidency ushered in a new era of assertive state power - is almost certain to be reelected to a second four-year term. The day will mark an important turning point for Russia and for much of the world, whose security rests, in part, on decisions made by the world's second major nuclear power.
In just four years, the enigmatic former KGB spy has quietly established himself as arguably the most powerful Russian leader since Josef Stalin. He has struck forcefully at the wealthy oligarchs who helped put him in power, eviscerated the once-critical broadcast media, gained a majority in parliament and aggressively reasserted Russia's claim to geopolitical dominance up to the steel toes of NATO's boots.
What happens in Putin's second term may be decisive for this nation of 145 million people still grappling with poverty; a heating and water infrastructure on the verge of collapse; deep public health problems with AIDS, tuberculosis and alcoholism; and an economy perilously dependent on oil.
Putin appears determined to pull Russia away from the brink by opening up to the global economy, developing high technology and attacking the bureaucratic corruption that has smothered small business.
But many observers have grave doubts that Putin can achieve these goals, and his administration's secretiveness leaves wide uncertainty about the president's real intentions.
Almost equally plausible is a scenario in which Putin reasserts broad state control over the economy, pays only lip service to attacking corruption and presides over an increasingly belligerent foreign policy.
Putin's unexpectedly forceful leadership has been greeted enthusiastically by much of the public, which credits him with rescuing the country from the ruins of Boris N. Yeltsin's presidency and reasserting Russia's status as a power to be reckoned with.
Putin, 51, assumed power in Russia a little more than a year after a 1998 economic collapse had bankrupted the banks and wiped out many Russians' savings. When it was all over, a third of the country was in poverty.
A handful of oligarchs had seized control of Russia's huge state-owned oil, nickel and aluminum companies and used their money to establish a circle of power around Yeltsin. They proceeded to dispatch most of the $250 billion that the government estimates was funneled out of the country.
Since Putin's election in 2000, the gross domestic product has grown a healthy 29.9%, according to the government and international financial institutions. Last year it grew 7.3%, mostly thanks to high oil prices. Wages and pensions have risen and are paid on time. The minimum wage has quadrupled in three years, and unemployment is down by a third.
Putin didn't achieve these gains by giving Russia's brazen new capitalists free rein, as Yeltsin and his advisors clearly expected he would.
Instead, Putin moved to neutralize the most politically ambitious of the oligarchs and aggressively imposed the power of the state - bringing Russia's powerful regional governors to heel, threatening the natural resources industry with a $3-billion tax increase, pouring new money into the faltering army.
The central question for Putin's second term is whether he will be willing to let go of the vast store of personal power he has accumulated in the name of guaranteeing the country's stability.
Now that federal prosecutors have arrested Russia's richest man, former Yukos Oil Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky - who used some of his $15-billion fortune to finance the Kremlin's political challengers - will Putin be willing to bring Khodorkovsky to trial and let him go if a jury acquits him?
Will Russia's last remaining pro-democracy opposition parties, wiped out of parliament in a tightly controlled December campaign, be allowed to reestablish themselves?
Will television news be permitted to carry anything meatier than the nightly diet of Putin dedicating a new highway, Putin surveying military exercises, Putin giving away his dog's new puppies to grateful children?
Across Russia, no one has a sure answer to these questions, least of all Putin, who talks of freedom and force with equal frequency and passion.
"As a citizen . I at least allow him the possibility of being a transformer," said Lilia Shevtsova, who has written a political biography of the Russian president. "But as a coldblooded analyst, I'd have to say, no way. He believes that the only way to modernize Russia is to keep all power in one fist."
But Sergei Markov, a political operative with close ties to the Kremlin, said Putin's critics forget that he and even the secretive ex-KGB men who are his closest advisors grew up feeling a kinship with the West.
"All of these people are my generation, and I know them quite well," Markov said. "In high school, they listened not to revolutionary songs, not to folk songs, but the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd." When Paul McCartney performed in Red Square last year, he said, it was the fulfillment of one of Putin's dreams.
Putin was a career KGB officer who was posted in East Germany for five years before joining the office of reformist Mayor Anatoly Sobchak of St. Petersburg in 1990. When Sobchak failed to win reelection six years later, Putin went to work for Yeltsin's administration in Moscow.
From there, his rise was swift. He was appointed to head the FSB, the domestic successor agency to the KGB, in 1998. In August 1999 he was appointed prime minister, and on New Year's Eve of that year, Yeltsin resigned and appointed Putin to replace him. He won election to his first full term the following March.
Putin has a reputation for pushing himself mercilessly. He is a master at judo. When he took up alpine skiing, said his instructor, Leonid Tyagachyov, Putin wasn't content with whizzing down the regular slopes. In 2002, he insisted on taking a helicopter to a remote peak in the Caucasus and skied 2? miles down the side of a steep mountain.
"It was an extreme situation, even for myself. It takes a huge amount of struggle to learn new techniques as you go," said Tyagachyov, head of Russia's Olympic ski team, who was terrified that the president would be injured on his watch.
"He fell, and he got up, and he fell again, and when the difficult part was over, I said, 'Is that enough?' And he said: 'No. Let's go again.' "
Although he is said to have a brilliant mind for remembering figures and details, Putin has forced himself to grow intellectually into the job, Kremlin observers say.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a member of the select group of Kremlin journalists who often speak with the president, said Putin embarked on a reading program after he became president to expand his knowledge of history. "In the past, if you asked him who among the historic figures of Russia appeals to him the most, he would always say Peter the Great," he said. "Today, he can talk for hours on the subject.
"He feels that he is already a historic figure. To him, the great figures of history are now like colleagues, rather than characters from the past."
When President Bush met Putin in 2001, he said he looked into the Russian leader's eyes and got "a sense of his soul." But the kinship has eroded since then amid increasingly pointed U.S. criticism of Russia's handling of Yukos, its brutal campaign in separatist Chechnya and its treatment of the broadcast media.
Nor has Washington been comfortable with Putin's increasingly sharp-edged foreign policy. Over the last year, the Kremlin has confronted the U.S. on its invasion of Iraq, refused to speed up the withdrawal of Russia's provocative troop deployments in Georgia and Moldova and announced the development of a new generation of strategic nuclear missiles - a stern warning to NATO nations that might be interested in challenging Moscow's hegemony in the former Soviet republics.
"I was surprised to learn what a majority of Russians [said] when asked, 'What do you expect from your government?' I thought they would say, 'First of all, we need an improvement of our life. More security, more jobs, better payment, better social services,' " said Yevgeny Kiselev, a former television broadcaster who is editor of the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti. "No. They want Great Mother Russia. They want the government to turn Russia back into a great power."
Some current polls show Putin's popularity as high as 80%.
"Now, the people at least have felt stability in their own purses. We're at least crawling somewhere. That's a big improvement," said Alexander Shaposhnikov, a biology professor in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Shaposhnikov earns only $200 a month, but at least now, he said, he can depend on his small salary being paid on time.
"What is democracy, really?" he asked. "I think in this country, democracy has been successfully superseded by the fear of a notion called anarchy. You have to remember, freedom is worth something only if you've got something. If your only thought is how to support yourself and feed your kids, why do I need freedom like that?"
Valentin Danilov lost his job as head of the Thermo-Physics Center at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University in May 2000, when he was arrested outside his apartment by FSB agents.
"Putin became president in March 2000. They initiated criminal charges against me in May. So I've been fighting for survival during the entire term of his presidency," Danilov said one recent morning.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Danilov had been unable to get "a single penny" of government funding for his research in the physics of space plasma. So in 2000, he began a joint venture with a Chinese company to research weather in space. The project called for equipping satellites with primitive measurement devices, using a simple technology that had been widely published.
When the FSB accused him of selling secrets to the Chinese, Danilov became one of half a dozen Russian scientists imprisoned for espionage since Putin became president. Most of the charges against the group were regarded as dubious by human rights organizations.
He spent a year and a half in prison awaiting trial, during which he lived almost exclusively on the porridge his wife brought him, he said. He lost 33 pounds. When his case finally came to trial, Danilov was acquitted by a jury. But his job is gone.
"What's wrong in this country? I can tell you that right now: 40 million pensioners live below the poverty line in this nation. They are basically on the edge of starvation," he said. "When the older generation is allowed to die like this, I can tell you, it will backfire with their grandchildren."
On Oct. 13, 1999, NTV television broadcast a program that may have been the beginning of the end for the independent media under Putin. The program centered on the bombing of four apartment buildings a month earlier. More than 300 people died in the attacks, which authorities blamed on terrorists from Chechnya.
Putin's response to the bombings was swift and severe. On Sept. 30, he launched Russia's second war in Chechnya, alleging that the republic had become a hotbed of international Islamic terrorism. Putin's popularity rating surged from 2% to 70% in less than six months.
From the beginning, there were troubling questions about what some observers thought was the possible role of the security services in the bombings. For one thing, FSB agents had been caught six days after the last bombing planting what appeared to be explosives in the basement of another apartment building. The FSB director said it was only an exercise.
But the fact that some Russians were prepared to believe that elements of the government could have been involved opened a Pandora's box, especially when the issue was aired on national television.
In December, the FSB seized 4,400 copies of a book documenting circumstantial evidence against the agency in the bombing case, titled "The FSB Blows Up Russia." Lawyer Mikhail Trepashkin, a former FSB agent who had looked into the bombings, was arrested Oct. 22 - a week before he was scheduled to present his findings to a Moscow court - and accused of working with the British secret services.
From the beginning, Putin had made it clear that a free press was not an institution that held great appeal for him.
A year after he became president, Putin called in all of Moscow's senior editors and tried to enlist their support, said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of the upstart Echo of Moscow radio station, probably the last bastion of free broadcast journalism in Russia.
"He said, 'We are in a difficult situation, both economically and politically. I ask you editors to help me restore Russia. We are all patriots. We all love our country, and this is why I beg you to help me.'
"The way I see it, he thinks the media is an instrument, but not an institution. He thinks it is a tool in the hands of the owner. If the owner is the state, the mass media should act in the interests of the authorities. If the owner is a private person, the media can be expected to act in [his] interests."
Certainly, that is what was happening in the 1990s, when media oligarchs Vladimir A. Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky - now living in exile - used their broadcast outlets to savage political opponents and promote politicians, including Yeltsin, who helped protect their substantial fortunes.
Yet Gusinsky's NTV station evolved into a lively and respected news and entertainment outlet that provided some of the first objective coverage of the war in Chechnya and ridiculed Putin and other officials in a weekly satire program.
In a meeting with the NTV journalists, recalled Kiselev, who headed the network, Putin at first was friendly, saying he understood that the station's owner, Gusinsky, was at fault, not his employees.
"It looked like he was expecting us to say, 'Oh, Vladimir Vladimirovich, thank you so much, excuse us for worrying.' But it didn't happen. We started to say, 'Look, you are wrong. You have to understand, we are not just employed by Mr. Gusinsky.. He gave us the money, and we created the best private television network in the country.'
"The moment he saw we were arguing with him, he immediately became very hostile. You just felt it. He dropped the mask, no smile on his face, and he started to say very tough things. 'I know all about your high salaries, I know all about your tax evasion.. I know all about your hourlong conversations with Gusinsky.' I said, Vladimir Vladimirovich, are you tapping my phone?' He just looked at me in a very angry way and said, 'Next question.' "
The state-owned gas company, Gazprom, which had obtained 46% of NTV's shares, took control of the station on April 3, 2001. The next two stations Kiselev worked at suffered similar fates, with the last one, TVS, closing down last June. "It happened in mid-program," he said. "The signal just disappeared."
So how far, exactly, up to the edge of fear - to the nation's totalitarian past - will Putin take Russia? Many Russians wish the answer did not depend so heavily on one man's inclinations.
"I'm trying to show the people that Vladimir Putin is not a god, he's not a czar. He's an ordinary human being," said Irina Khakamada, a member of the Union of Right Forces party who is challenging the president in today's election.
Putin's strength, Khakamada said, is his ability to make various sectors of the population believe he is working to their benefit. "Putin has got the amazing quality of being able to tell people exactly what they want to hear," she said. "But he's got no political course. No one has a clue about exactly what Putin aspires to build.
"The elites don't like this, but the people do. Because they all believe it is something they invented themselves."
Presidential elections 2004