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.
"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?