Of course he arrives late. He always does. Since the early morning hours, hundreds of people have been waiting in this drafty factory building owned by Rosvertol, an aircraft manufacturer that has been producing helicopters for 73 years in the southeastern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The bleachers set up for the audience look as though they were built to surround a boxing ring. Television cameras stand ready to roll and a bevy of bodyguards has been dispatched. Then the guest walks in, nearly an hour behind schedule: Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is wearing a dark blue suit, a white shirt and a red tie -- and his thin hair has been carefully combed over his head. The applause is thunderous.
Putin is putting in an appearance at the first conference held by the All-Russia People's Front, a movement he founded in 2011. The audience includes workers from the Urals, teachers from the Volga region, artists from Moscow and government officials from the Pacific island of Sakhalin -- plus government ministers, military officers and men in colorful Cossack uniforms. He is happy to be here, says the president, adding that the People's Front has a special mission: "It aims to bring together people with a wide range of views to draw up a strategy for the new Russia." The topic on today's agenda: social justice.
The people in the factory hall have prepared for this moment by meeting in working groups prior to delivering their reports on what's wrong in Russia: That teachers in Moscow earn 48,000 rubles a month, the equivalent of €1,170 or $1,530, while their colleagues in rural areas only earn one-third as much; that there is no standardized history textbook and no one knows how precisely to assess Stalin's role in the Soviet Union, that the head of state-run Rostelecom was recently showered with 233 million rubles, the largest severance payment in Russian history, while workers' wages are falling in a number of regions. They talk about child poverty, opportunities for social advancement and social security contributions paid by small entrepreneurs.
As always, the Kremlin's presentation is impeccable. The backdrop behind the seating area is a radiant, modern blue, and an attractive young woman has been placed next to Putin. It's all designed to reflect the new Russia that is the day's focus -- even if the old Soviet Union makes the occasional appearance. Speakers, for example, call for the reintroduction of honorary titles for meritorious workers, including the "Mother Heroine" award for raising large families, and they call for the use of school uniforms.
His Favorite Role
The president nods in agreement. He sees no reason to object. He lets the people speak and listens attentively to even the most long-winded speaker. He asks questions, praises, debates, takes the appropriate minister to task and knows almost every important statistic by heart.
"How do you do that, Vladimir Vladimirovich?" asks a doctor in the audience, who is absolutely amazed. Putin has just completed a 12-hour flight from South Africa, but it doesn't show.
Putin was playing his favorite role at Rostov-on-Don at the end of March: that of the dedicated father of the nation. No one asked about rumors of liaisons with young women or troublesome political issues. Nobody wanted to know about the Russian feminist band Pussy Riot, about raids on non-governmental organizations or the ban on the adoption of Russian children by American citizens. Unlike during his state visits in the West, he didn't have to justify the things that he thinks are right. No one challenged his authority.
It has now been exactly 12 months since he was reelected president and is beginning his 10th year as the head of the Kremlin -- and looking more confident and self-assured than ever. It appears to have been forgotten that just over one year ago tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the Kremlin. Putin can still count on the uncritical support of half the population and he has regained the aura of the apparently invulnerable ruler.
And yet the man who appeared in Rostov-on-Don was no longer the Putin who entered the Kremlin for the third time on May 7, 2012. Rather, Putin this year has radically changed course and changed his leadership style.
To find out who this new Putin is, and what he wants, it helps to meet three men: Gennady Gudkov, the sidelined former KGB man who joined the opposition, Dmitry Badovski, the Kremlin ideologue and Alexander Prokhanov, a Stalinist whom Putin brought back to the political stage.
"Putin has finally seen the signs of the times," says Prokhanov, 75. "For years, he talked about the need for giving the country a jolt, but nothing happened. Now, that is apparently changing and I will use my modest powers to help him achieve this."
Stalinist by Nature
Prokhanov is a prolific author of considerable renown and he has been compared to Dostoyevsky. Over a period of 40 years, he has written some 50 books: novels, short stories, works of non-fiction and volumes of poems. He worked as a correspondent in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, resisted Gorbachev and his perestroika -- and, later on, antagonized former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's oligarchs and the nouveau riche elite. Prokhanov describes himself as a left-wing patriot, an "orthodox socialist," someone who is fighting for the reestablishment of the old Russian state. He says that the Russian people are by nature Stalinist: "They will always place greater importance on the state than on the small happiness of the individual," he argues.
For a long time, Prokhanov and his ideas were banished to the political wilderness, but more recently he has been invited every few days to take part in talk shows on the quasi-state-owned television networks. But why does someone like Putin need the support of a Stalinist who talks about a new Russian empire that he says is currently emerging? Someone who never tires of warning of a "geopolitical disaster" that is encroaching upon Russia's borders -- and whose newspaper Zavtra is notoriously anti-Semitic?
Prokhanov receives visitors in the shabby offices of his small newspaper in Moscow. But one shouldn't gauge his political influence by these surroundings. The rooms are located on the premises of the general staff of the armed forces and he maintains close friends among the generals. He recently received two North Korean embassy staff members and the photo showing Prokhanov next to Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad is only a few weeks old.
Putin is a "very dynamic" politician, says Prokhanov: "He began his career in the entourage of the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who tried to use him as a puppet after Yeltsin left office," he contends. "But Putin was not the man people thought he was."
He says that Putin got rid of Berezovsky, seized control of his media empire, stopped former Soviet republics from seceding from the Russian Federation and enticed Europe to become dependent on Gazprom. It was "a powerful geopolitical operation," says Prokhanov, who adds that in 2008 Putin regrettably strictly adhered to the constitution, which forbids presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Instead of continuing in office, he chose Dmitry Medvedev to serve as a nominal head of state. "That was a huge mistake," Prokhanov notes, "because he wasted four valuable years and weakened himself in the process."
During this interim period, the liberals rallied behind Medvedev, Prokhanov says, and tens of thousands of them took to the streets when Putin announced his intention to return to the presidency. It was only this pressure, he contends, that pushed the president to move.
Putin is not a strategist, but rather a man with political instincts. He very quickly realized that the interregnum with Medvedev was a mistake. In order to halt any developments that could become unmanageable, he set a new political course last May. Since then, he has curtailed the right to demonstrate and limited freedom on the Internet. Non-governmental organizations that receive money from the West now have to register as "foreign agents." "Insulting words or behavior" have again become a criminal offense, and opposition leaders like blogger Alexei Navalny are being tried on charges of fraud and embezzlement. In other words, all criticism of the regime has been criminalized.
It has worked. The argument that everything pernicious in this world comes from the West still triggers a visceral patriotic response in many Russians. And it is a reflex that Putin uses to his advantage.
Patriotism and the duty to defend the fatherland are more important than any other political inclination, the president recently wrote -- a message that is vaguely reminiscent of the rhetoric espoused by the German Kaiser in the run-up to World War I. According to Putin, what is at stake is nothing less than "preserving Russia's national character, its traditions and roots, along with its spiritual and cultural heritage."
Putin himself showed the way by announcing that he would replace his official car, a Mercedes, with a Russian-made presidential vehicle. Members of parliament and cabinet members are no longer allowed to maintain bank accounts abroad, and Russian oligarchs are being pressured to bring their capital back to the fatherland. Furthermore, parliament is debating whether to forbid the children of government employees from studying abroad. There is even a proposal to ban Russian women from marrying Western men.
"The president has remembered the national forces in this country," says Prokhanov, the author. He says that Putin is again investing in defense and pursuing genuine Russian foreign policy. "Anyone who can't see the encroaching disaster, the Americans' gradual occupation of the world, including Russia, need only look at Syria and the role of the West there," he argues.
The new nationalist course is threatening the political elite that Putin has traditionally relied upon for support: financial magnates, entrepreneurs and civil servants. If Russia cuts itself off from the rest of the world again, it will spell the end of their business model, which is based on globalization. But Putin has also distanced himself from his own fraud-tainted ruling United Russia party.
"'We have rigged the elections for you and gagged the opposition, which was all done on your orders. What will happen to us now?' That's what his party members will ask," says former parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov, 56. Recently, his own party, A Just Russia, which was founded by the Kremlin as a pseudo opposition group, chased him out of parliament under circumstances that appeared dubious even to the Russian Constitutional Court.
His crime: In a speech delivered shortly before parliamentary elections, he warned of the Kremlin's intention to fix the election results. Later, he put in an appearance at the mass demonstrations against Putin, and he is now a member of the protest movement's Opposition Coordination Council.
This step cost him parts of his business, as the Kremlin promptly withdrew the operating licenses for a number of his subsidiaries, after which he was stripped of his parliamentary mandate and, in March, expelled from his party. His son Dmitry, who is also a member of the Duma, was kicked out of the party as well.
"This approach is basically a return to Stalinist repression," says Gudkov. "The legal system is suspended. The difference is that people are not yet being sent to gulags and shot."
Others, including Navalny and left-wing political activist Sergei Udaltsov, have better established themselves as figureheads of the opposition over the past year. Why, then, was so much energy invested in politically neutralizing Gudkov, who was once seen as a supporter of the government?
"Because I was a real thorn in their side and I didn't fit into the pattern of Kremlin propaganda," says Gudkov. "I don't belong with either the old liberal opposition leaders or the new, wild ones dressed in jeans." Gudkov exhales loudly with indignation, as if he has just managed to get something heavy off his chest. Now, he is leaning back in his not particularly modest office, located in an old mansion east of downtown Moscow.
Relying on Fear
The villa is the headquarters of the Oskord Security Group, which now allegedly belongs to Gudkov's wife Maria. The company has 25 branch offices in the country and employs 7,000 people, most of whom are former military personnel, police officers and intelligence agents. Its customers include IKEA, IBM, Adidas and Lufthansa.
After working as an English teacher, Gudkov shifted gears and attended the KGB Military School. He remained with the intelligence service until 1992. Now, he is a retired KGB colonel, just like Putin. In the Duma, he served most recently as the deputy chairman of the Security Committee.
It is rare in Russia that someone who was on the side of the country's rulers and enjoyed their privileges for decades crosses over to the opposition. As such, the Kremlin saw the former KGB officer as more dangerous than the extra-parliamentary opposition and as one who could accelerate the regime's erosion from within.
And how does he see the new Putin?
"He is exhausted and won't achieve anything new," says Gudkov. "His system is amoral and relies entirely on fear."
The man who is widely seen as Putin's new ideologue and visionary receives guests at his research institute not far from the Moskva River. The premises are spartanly furnished, as if Dmitry Badovski were only here as a guest himself. Actually his real workplace is just a few hundred meters away -- in the domestic policy department of the Kremlin administration.
Badovski, 40, is a political scientist who wears a white shirt embroidered with his initials. His hair is already starting to gray on the sides. He glances at a map of Russia on the wall: "Putin's key mission is to keep the country from going to pieces and to maintain it as a strong and sovereign state," he says.
Return of the 'Hero of Labor'
Badovski chooses his words carefully as he provides a glimpse into the president's innermost thoughts. He says that Putin and his team are "steering Russia at a time of global instability" -- referring to unrest in the Middle East, radical Islam and the financial crisis in the United States and the European Union, which Putin and his advisers see as endemic to the system. "Democracy worked well as long as there were ongoing increases in prosperity -- but those days are over now," Badovski believes.
A television in his office is showing a debate in parliament, but virtually no one outside the Kremlin is interested in the lawmaking body anymore. Traditional party democracy, says Putin's ideologue, is proving to be increasingly incapable "of understanding all social trends and providing answers to today's issues."
Consequently, Putin is relying on new tools: an Internet platform that aims to allow citizens to make proposals for legislation; extended televised question-and-answer sessions with the president; and the People's Front, which has long been seen as Badovski's brainchild. Putin's appearance at Rostov-on-Don, says Badovski, was a successful example "of the government's dialogue with society."
In reality, Putin is undermining the state's institutions with his patriotic populism. He is striving to become a supreme father figure who is independent of parties and parliament, and directly appointed by the people.
In the mid-1990s, Badovski wrote his PhD dissertation on "Russia's ruling elite: tendencies in the transformation of the Soviet model," and he can very eloquently point out the weaknesses of the current system -- for instance, that a "change of government in Russia is always a difficult process and political power is always synonymous with control of the economy." That is a subtle way of saying that Russia's rulers have shamelessly amassed wealth and the elite have learned little aside from how to use their proximity to Putin to make money.
Yet the chief ideologist remains convinced that "Putin is not the cause of the problems, but rather their solution."
On May 1, formerly a holiday dedicated to defending the rights of workers and farmers around the world, the president gave a demonstration of how he intends to solve those problems in the future. Putin invited factory workers, miners and farmers to St. Petersburg and pinned a gold, star-shaped medal on their lapels: the "Hero of Labor" award. This honor was introduced under the Communists, and Yeltsin abolished it as a relic of the Soviet era. He thought it would be gone forever.