Putin: Russia's post-Soviet tsar
Vladimir Putin pulled Russia from the quicksands of post-Soviet chaos in over a decade of dominant rule but also emasculated civil society and nettled the West with confrontational foreign policy.
Putin now appears set for a third mandate in the Kremlin after being proposed by incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev to stand in 2012 polls and could in theory serve two six-year terms as head of state until 2024.
A former KGB agent, Putin has maintained Soviet traditions of powerful security forces and centralised authoritarian rule that liberals hoped would disappear in the new independent Russia after the collapse of the USSR.
He retains a genuine popularity among the bulk of the population, however, for returning a degree of self-confidence to a nation that had seemed on the verge of disintegration at times in the 1990s.
For his supporters Putin is no less than the saviour of modern Russia and for his sharpest critics the latest in a line of dangerously authoritarian leaders that led from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.
Just one thing is indisputable -- that the 58-year old is a figure of historic importance.
Perhaps the essence of Putin's philosophy was revealed when he addressed Russians in the aftermath of the 2004 siege of a school in Beslan which ended in the deaths of at least 334 people, more than half of them children, and the nation in shock.
He described the Soviet Union as the "great state... unfortunately not compatible with the modern world" and said the new Russia had showed weakness in dealing with the challenges posed after its collapse.
"And the weak get beat," Putin said.
Putin began his career in the ranks of the KGB intelligence service, serving in the former East Germany, and never lost the aura of a secret service officer.
Helped by the shadowy "siloviki", security figures who also came from the KGB, Putin ruled Russia at the top of a "power vertical" in a system described by his top political strategist Vladislav Surkov as a "sovereign democracy".
He consolidated his power with the help of a second war against Chechen separatists which critics noted was marked by horrific rights violations and was prompted by bomb attacks on apartment blocks that were never properly explained.
Russia's first democratically-elected president Boris Yeltsin took Putin from the shadowy post of head of the KGB's successor, the FSB, to become his prime minister.
When the Kremlin chief sensationally resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, Putin was appointed president.
Addressing Russians that night, he seemed eerily confident for a man suddenly put in charge of the world's largest country and made clear the stern rules of his game that have not shifted since.
"There will not for a minute be a power vacuum in this country. I want to warn that any attempts to go beyond the law will be decisively thwarted," he said.
But he also assured Russians that "freedom of speech, of conscience and of the press" would be protected, a pledge some would say has been violated time and time again.
Even while serving as Yeltsin's prime minister, Putin set the tone for the earthy street-talk that would be his trademark, famously vowing to "waste the terrorists in the outhouse".
He was unperturbed by the Western furore over the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, declaring even before the verdict was delivered in the anti-Kremlin oil tycoon's second trial that a "thief must be in prison".
The expiry of the maximum two consecutive Kremlin terms Putin was allowed to serve under the constitution posed no obstacle to his grip on power as his hand-picked successor and fellow Saint Petersburger Dmitry Medvedev immediately appointed him prime minister.
Putin kept the highest of profiles while head of government, not the least through strongman antics unimaginable for any other world leader and which Medvedev could not hope to match.
He fished and rode on horseback on summer expeditions, proudly showing off a muscle-bound naked torso.
He posed with pretty much every wild predator which could be found in Russia, including a tiger, snow leopard and polar bear. He dived to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-submarine and drove a Formula 1 car.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich, why such extreme? You understand that this is dangerous?" asked a concerned journalist when Putin returned from a scientific whale-tagging expedition on choppy seas in 2010.
"Living in general is dangerous," Putin quipped back.
Putin is rarely seen in public with his wife Lyudmila, with whom he has two daughters. He once famously told reporters to keep their "snotty noses" out of his business.
A small Russian newspaper that alleged in 2008 he had an affair with an Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion ended up refuting its own report and then shutting itself down.
© 2011 AFP