It's just after 11 p.m., and Vladimir Putin is driving down a highway outside Moscow, hugging the inside lane as his advance and chase cars bomb along beside him, keeping the diverted traffic at bay.
The former president, current Prime Minister and presumptive president again – in short, Russia's first 21st-century czar – is on his way to a weekly beer-league hockey game. But how he'll perform alongside his rink buddies, former hockey greats Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexander Yakushev, is not top of mind.
Mr. Putin is fixated on his strategy to transform the game.
“I love this sport,” he says, holding the wheel of his armour-plated, two-door Mercedes-Benz.
Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent who turns 60 this year, has invited me to the late-night game after a dinner for foreign newspaper editors held at his luxurious dacha west of Moscow. He has slipped into jeans and a turtleneck for the outing, and ordered his stretch limo back to the garage so that he can drive himself. A videographer (Mr. Putin rarely goes anywhere without a videographer) is squeezed into the back seat.
“I want to help Russia be great again at this sport,” he says as we whiz by scenes from the new Russia.
Fields that a generation ago were tilled by peasants are now crowded with suburban mansions. Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana shops adorn the roadside, alongside Maserati and Ferrari dealerships. Just 20 years after the fall of communism, the outer suburbs of Moscow are pure Beverly Hills.
Tonight, though, Mr. Putin is headed to an older version of Russia, the land of determined men – and it's all men in the Kremlin – who want to restore their nation's pride of place in the world. It's a theme that has dominated his election campaign, and a theme that may shape Russia for the decade to come, a decade many now call Putin 3.
Whether it's hockey or missiles or natural gas exports, Putin 3 will be about Russia trying once again to shape the world.
Can a country with a rapidly aging population do that, especially one so reliant on depleted oil fields and an antiquated military? Can a renaissance be led by a billionaire strongman whose world view seems shaped by Cold War paranoia? And can Mr. Putin, having secured vast wealth while in power, ultimately do anything more than preserve that wealth and power?
Tonight, he will start with hockey, next to the very place where the notorious tyrant, Joseph Stalin, died.
The history is more chilling than the rink. Stalin is the country's longest-serving ruler. Should Mr. Putin win a six-year term tomorrow, and should he be re-elected in 2018, he would overtake the dreaded, yet lionized, figure.
As we arrive at a suburban sports club, Mr. Putin enters the rink through a side door and receives a stick-slapping ovation from the 10 men already on the ice.
“Hockey has been on the decline for 20 years,” says Mr. Fetisov, a former NHLer whom Mr. Putin summoned back to Moscow to be his sports minister and is now a senator. “We're going to change that.”
That Mr. Putin is playing hockey three nights before a historic election probably says two things about him.
First, he presumes he's going to win on Sunday and avoid a runoff. His main opponents – a frightening nationalist, a three-times-defeated Communist and an uncritical oligarch whose business interests depend on the Kremlin – barely register in opinion polls. Even if they did, the democratic process is so flawed that it would shock even the opposition for the sitting Prime Minister, a man with sway over every aspect of Russian life, not to win.
Second, he has unflinching resolve – in life as in politics.
Mr. Putin couldn't skate until two years ago, when he decided the future of Russia depended in part on the future of hockey, and he should lead the way. At the age of 58, he felt he had to skate the skate. He asked his friends to help.
This was not known to many Russians, but Mr. Putin had balance problems. He has long favoured the right side of his body – his uneven gait is one giveaway – and Kremlinologists believe he suffers a permanent ailment, perhaps caused by a stroke in utero.
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