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A seller demonstrates a traditional Matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting dolls, bearing the faces of presidential candidate and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev in St. Petersburg March 3, 2012. Russians will go to the polls for their presidential election on Sunday.


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.

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"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?

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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.

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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.

During the drive to the rink, he explains that he was never able to keep his balance on blades, even as a child; he does not know the reason.

Mr. Putin disappears into a private dressing room, and then graces the ice, his 5-foot-7 frame marked by a national team jersey with "V.V. Putin" on the back and the number 11.

Before the three-on-three match begins, Mr. Fetisov leads the Prime Minister through skating, passing and shooting drills – and is probably the only Russian allowed to bark at the man, as he implores him to carve harder on his turns.

On their mission to stanch the decline of Russian hockey, the two men masterminded the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia's professional league that aims to challenge the NHL. "It was my idea," Mr. Putin says before launching into an economic argument about the monopolistic behaviour of single-league sports and how they weaken a game by limiting external competition.

It's a curious argument for a man who has centralized parts of Russia's economy, and can direct entire sectors of the economy.

But those who want a two-dimensional view of Mr. Putin tend to be disappointed, just as those are who view Russia as a single place.

In hockey, as in economics and politics, he favours managed competition, with state actors and private enterprise, all under the direction of a benevolent leader, which of course happens to be him.

Using state support and private money, he and Mr. Fetisov have orchestrated the construction of 300 arenas across Russia, and aim to build 300 more in the next half-decade.

"You know how many rinks we had in Soviet times?" Mr. Fetisov asks me on the bench, where players drink tea between periods. "Thirty – and we kicked your ass!"

He jabs my shoulder, as the Prime Minister laughs inside his caged helmet. The great Canadian-Soviet hockey series of the 1970s are seared in their minds, moments that reassured them of their supremacy.

Mr. Putin hands his teacup to an aide, and returns to the ice to practise more turns before the next period begins. (He clearly prefers offence to defence, whether it's the fact that he takes every face-off when on the ice or hovers around centre when the play is in his own end, waiting for a stretch pass.)

"He's remarkable," Mr. Fetisov says of his pupil. "Look at the determination."

I was among a group of six newspaper editors invited to Russia this week to interview Mr. Putin – all of us from Group of Eight countries, the international club he seems to respect most. The public-relations motive was apparent. Russia will be widely criticized after Sunday's vote, especially by its rival, the United States. Mr. Putin wants to get ahead of the story.

We were bused to Mr. Putin's state-owned dacha in Novo Ogarevo, a wooded property set back from the main road and protected by a towering iron gate on one side and open field on the other. Armed guards are stationed along a forest drive that leads past a helipad to the conference house, a two-storey, neo-classical mansion where he entertained U.S. President Barack Obama.

Down a hill, there is a more modern house, with indoor pool and gym, where Mr. Putin lives and starts most days with a vigorous swim (preferred stroke: butterfly) and a judo workout. (It is believed to be one of 25 homes he has access to, including a palace on the Black Sea.)

To no one's surprise, Mr. Putin is late, by two hours. He is notoriously so, even keeping the Queen waiting once for nearly an hour. While waiting, we are plied with hors d'oeuvre served by an abundance of liveried staff.

We are free to ask him about anything, knowing our three-hour dinner was being taped for state TV and would be posted on the Internet.

There are questions about corruption, his own staggering wealth, the troubled state of democracy in Russia and his marriage (his wife is rarely seen in public). He also expounds on the state of affairs in Syria, the European debt crisis and Arctic sovereignty, as well as his cool relationship with the Obama administration.

"Ask any question," Mr. Putin declares. "I will answer anything."

He entered the room at a brisk clip, masking any physical impairment he may have. After shaking hands, he is in full monologue even before settling into his seat. He does not do small talk.

He also comes prepared, fiercely so.

Before any meeting, Mr. Putin demands a written briefing on every person he will encounter, including personal interests, as well as any topics of conversation. When he travels, as he did this week on the campaign trail, his aides tote up to six suitcases of documents for him to read.

If the KGB failed him in any way, it may have been on technology. Mr. Putin declines the use of a computer and does not carry one of the smartphones that pretty much every urban Russian now owns.

He prefers personal interaction. As he once told a biographer, his specialty in the KGB was "human relations."

Trained as a lawyer and economist as well as a spy, Mr. Putin exhibits a nimble and analytical mind, jumping from one subject to the next, from macroeconomics to the Middle East, speaking in paragraphs on each and then listening to questions as if nothing else in the world is on his mind.

He does not challenge the premise or motive of a question so much as he searches for inconsistencies in logic. Same facts. Different conclusions.

Asked why he won't join in TV debates, he says he knows his opponents' positions and the country knows his record.

Asked why his United Russia is called "the party of crooks and thieves," he says most of his opponents have been in power or close to it, and therefore also must be crooks and thieves.

For a man prone to analysis, he can move in a flash. When I push him on Arctic borders, he begins to explain the history of Norwegian-Russian relations, and then suddenly declares that Canada and Russia need a scientific commission. He announces Moscow's commitment on the spot, turning to an aide to ensure his view is noted.

For a man from the shadows, he can also be quick to show irritation. His ice-blue eyes – the ones that George W. Bush infamously said were a window on his soul – are more like lasers aimed at the questioner's soul.

Late in the evening, after Mr. Putin raises a topic I was about to get to, I suggest that he must have the ability to read minds. "It's something I can do," he says firmly, glaring at me. "Be careful."

He appears most defensive about his secret pact with the current President, Dmitri Medvedev, to essentially swap jobs, an agreement that sparked mass protests.

Mr. Medvedev, an unassuming one-time law professor from St. Petersburg, became President when Mr. Putin was required to step down at the end of his second term in 2008. They appeared to have agreed all along that Mr. Putin would sit out a term and return to the Kremlin – and, thanks to a constitutional change, for six years instead of four. Mr. Medvedev is then likely to slide back into the Prime Minister's seat.

Mr. Putin's explanation: The people want me, so I will return.

"Would I do something differently if I had the chance?" he says toward the end of the evening, when challenged to name a regret. "Not on serious things."

The enormous wealth and power are a long journey from the drab apartment blocks of Leningrad where Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was raised.

His was a classic Cold War story. His father, Vladimir, a disabled war veteran, worked at a factory that produced rail cars while his mother, Maria, juggled a series of menial jobs to make ends meet. The Putins had lost two boys already, one infant to disease, the other to the privations suffered during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, when Maria was among the masses trapped in the city and starved by Nazi forces.

They did not have Vladimir until they were both 41, and Maria was in poor health, having never recovered from the war.

The three of them struggled in a rat-infested, state-issued apartment, 12 feet by 15 feet., with no heat and a stove shared by three families. Left alone for long stretches while his parents worked, the young Putin became a street fighter, first taking up boxing (until his nose was broken) and then a Russian form of martial arts known as "sambo" that earned him a black-belt and city title.

He was a loner, never excelling at academics or joining in the Communist Party youth programs that were all but mandatory.

Unlike many struggling Soviets, though, the Putins had a dacha, telephone and car that they won in a lottery. In a new biography, The Man Without a Face, Russian journalist Masha Gessen says the elder Vladimir was likely a KGB informant, which added to their income and perks.

The younger Vladimir was also obsessed with espionage and landed in the security services after graduating from Leningrad State University – just as the KGB was settling into a funk that would presage the collapse of communism. The spy service had become a leviathan of paperwork. Moreover, the state was so paranoid that the KGB had become Orwellian, focusing largely on domestic affairs, turning Russians against Russians.

No matter. As Mr. Putin remarked much later, he had found his calling, the ideal role for a loner with a desire to influence. "I was most amazed by how a small force, a single person, really, can accomplish something an entire army cannot," he told his official biographers when he became president in 2000.

The stories of his bare-knuckle youth serve the grown Mr. Putin well on a campaign trail, where he is projected as the tough nationalist who will protect Mother Russia and win back her glory.

Such was the mission of the KGB, but there is no evidence of Mr. Putin excelling in his early years. He held a series of desk jobs, having to wait until 1984 – at the age of 32 – for his first big assignment abroad. Unfortunately, it was to Dresden, a backwater of espionage.

Newly married, he got to East Germany just in time to watch the final chapter of an empire play out as Mikhail Gorbachev entered the Kremlin and put glasnost on everyone's mind.

Ms. Gessen describes a period of frustration and decline in which Mr. Putin – the martial-arts master – drank beer and put on 20 pounds, while dipping into third-rate espionage cases and collecting consumer products – a car radio and washing machine – to take home.

He later referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

With the Soviet Union in free fall, Mr. Putin retreated to Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) where he assumed a post at his alma mater, overseeing foreign students, a handy position if one were trying to recruit spies.

A former campus colleague remembers something clearly about Mr. Putin: "He was paranoid of the United States. ...

"Putin is first and foremost obsessed with the West and particularly the U.S."

Back then, he had good reason – the nation was collapsing, and America was cheering. Today, the insecurity remains. "If you listen to him, the unity and integrity of the federation is constantly under threat," the former colleague says.

The man saw something else in the Putin of St. Petersburg – a classic KGB agent who spotted problems, analyzed them and searched for solutions that others could execute. "Never leave fingerprints" seemed to be his modus operandi.

Mr. Putin quickly moved to the city administration, where as vice-mayor he became the city's main fixer. As crime and corruption erupted in post-communist Russia, he also became known as Mr. Clean.

Jeremy Kinsman, who was Canada's ambassador at the time, met Mr. Putin while trying to open a consulate in St Petersburg, and was impressed with how he stood out from the emerging kleptocrats of Boris Yeltsin's Russia.

"He built his reputation up by sheer competence," Mr. Kinsman remembers. "He worked hard. He cut to the chase. He made people he worked for look good."

Perhaps it was hard not to look good as this was the Russia that Agent Putin had returned home to: A president who was mocked globally as a drunken buffoon. A liberalized economy that was looted by a gang of instant billionaires, known as the oligarchs. Elections that were rigged. An economy on a downward spiral. A nuclear arsenal up for grabs.

History would, at last, favour Mr. Putin.

When Russia defaulted on its debt, and the ruble collapsed, Mr. Yeltsin had to find a fresh face as prime minister – someone who would both fend off his rivals and give the Kremlin a new look. He reached into shadows for a regional bureaucrat he'd heard might make him look good.

Few outside the KGB knew about the newcomer, who in short order was named to run the security services and then designated as the president's heir. If they thought he was a caretaker, they were in for a shock.

Soon after taking over from Mr. Yeltsin, Mr. Putin nationalized key sectors, dismissed regional governors who had sold off vital, locally owned assets (usually for kickbacks) and told the oligarchs to stay out of his way.

When oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky decided to stand up to the new president, he was smacked down. Although one of the world's richest men, he was arrested and the assets of his company, Yukos, were nationalized.

During those years, Oleg Orlov, chairman of the human-rights group Memorial, sat on one of Mr. Putin's "public councils," and says he was taken aback at what could make the former spy lose his cool.

"There were three topics that could explode him – freedom of speech, the North Caucasus and Khodorkovsky."

Mr. Putin is often described as suffering an inferiority complex, which if true, he shares with the nationalists who are always on the hunt for power.

In his two terms as president, he developed a formidable network of allies – largely through the spy service and the Orthodox Church. The KGB's successor agency, the Federal Security Bureau, grew to employ as many as 200,000 Russians who have been placed in every office of influence, from state-controlled boardrooms to newspapers to regional governors.

If the so-called siloviki – "men of the security services" – control Russia's brain, the priests control its soul, and seem only too happy to project Mr. Putin as a God-fearing nationalist while also enjoying a surge of government funding.

Mr. Putin's advisers call it "vertical power."

How deep that vertical power runs is illustrated by Gazprom, the energy giant that has become the world's most politically powerful company and Mr. Putin's state within a state.

From its drab headquarters on the Moscow River, next to the Russian White House, Gazprom controls the world's largest gas fields, heats much of Europe, accounts for up to 8 per cent of the gross domestic product, produces 25 per cent of the government's revenue and employs 300,000 people. It also has sketched out ambitious plans that would see it expand Arctic gas exploration, open liquefied natural-gas ports to fuel the United States, and become China's main source of energy – in short, to ensure Russia is the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century.

A decade ago, one of Mr. Putin's early acts as president was to increase the government's control of Gazprom, and then use its impressive balance sheet to gain influence over other sectors of the economy. For example, in an early show of force, he forced one out-of-favour oligarch to sell his media assets, thus creating a curiously named information conglomerate, Gazprom Media.

To see the impact, I spent an afternoon this week with two of the country's top journalists – one a Putin loyalist, the other a critic, both on the Gazprom payroll.

Sergei Buntman is the acting editor-in-chief of Echo Moscow, the country's most influential radio station and 66-per-cent owned by Gazprom. It was among the first to report on war atrocities in Georgia a few years ago, and was quick to broadcast the street demonstrations last fall.

Mr. Buntman feels he can speak critically of the Prime Minister because of Echo Moscow's own bylaws, which include a stipulation that staff – who own 33 per cent of the shares – elect the editor. He also points to a post-Soviet law that prohibits censorship.

Even with that protection, his predecessor stepped down recently under pressure for the station's coverage of opposition rallies. Two independent directors also were removed from the board.

"It's a very old Soviet and Putin way to disseminate reality, good old ways of propaganda and artificial reality," Mr. Buntman says.

In other words, independent voices are given a leash, and the occasional sharp tug. Some Russian journalists have met a far worse fate.

The contrast: Vladimir Kulistikov is director-general of NTV, the biggest private broadcaster, which is also controlled by Gazprom and therefore the Kremlin.

Unlike Echo Moscow, NTV has shifted from aggressive news programming to less critical coverage and much more entertainment. It was late to the protests.

"Everything done by the media is authorized, directly or indirectly, by the power holders," says Mr. Kulistikov, who displays a picture of himself with Mr. Putin in his office, where he oversees a TV empire that reaches up to a quarter of Russian households in prime time.

Asked if he would ever allow an investigative project on Mr. Putin or his party, he replies bluntly: "Never!"

"I'm a journalist. I'm also head of a business organization and I must take into account my business interests, and my business interests depend on good relations with the government."

Mr. Kulistikov says it's naive to think otherwise. "We have no independent fortunes and no independent political parties. Everything depends on the state. That's our reality."

In other words, he who controls the state controls all.

As it winds down, the campaign has exposed new fissures in Russia, ones that even a man as powerful as Mr. Putin may not be able to close. Demonstrations have grown, and spread from the capital to smaller centres. On Monday, tens to hundreds of thousands are expected to take to the streets around the Kremlin. There is no single, viable opponent they can turn to, no mass leader to hold up as a foil to the presumptive president. They just don't want to be treated, in their words, like cattle.

How Mr. Putin reacts will be watched closely by his friends and his enemies, which he seems to understand.

At a recent press conference, he compared himself to Kaa, the python in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (a favourite among Russians), and vowed to strangle the opposition, after first lulling it into a trance.

Mr. Orlov, the human-rights activist, believes Mr. Putin has matured while in power, and will search for ways to avoid conflict. "He is more in control of his emotions," he says.

Although seeming more open to other points of view, Mr. Orlov says, one thing hasn't changed: "He was and is opposed to democracy. He was and is a KGB man."

In Sunday's vote, Mr. Putin must win a clear majority without looking like he went to extremes to fix the results. Anything else would be a signal to the elites, to the oligarchs who run the economy and the generals who run the military, that he is not so powerful, that he may have been enjoying his dacha-lifestyle a bit too much.

Even with a clean victory, he will face a host of challenges beyond his control. The country has only a few years to break its financial dependence on the great oil and gas fields of Siberia, which will soon begin to run dry. A sudden drop in energy prices would be disastrous, especially since Mr. Putin has promised fatter pensions and pay raises for teachers and doctors.

However, he is not always given to the long view, unlike Mr. Medvedev who spent much of his presidency talking about the new economy. Mr. Putin did not appear to foresee the rise of China, and continues to look perplexed by the Internet revolution. As for corruption, it is widely seen to be worse today than when he came to power. And there is little innovation in the economy, little to indicate that the scientific superpower of Soviet times can once more be a new global brain centre.

For now, Mr. Putin's macho image – augmented by pictures of him on horseback or swimming – may be all he needs. Russians have always gravitated to the "strong man" character, especially one who personifies the nation's self-image as a rugged and independent land, imbued with heroes.

"We are a victorious people!" he told a recent rally. "It is in our genes, in our genetic code!"

There is not much else Mr. Putin can fall back on. He has no ideological base, and no durable political party to carry him through bad times, should they come.

Unlike in so many autocratic states, and Russia is surrounded by them, there are no personifications of Putin – no statues or celebratory billboards or schools named for a Great Leader.

His campaign slogan may say it all: "If not Putin, who?"

Back at the suburban sports club, the manager scrounges up enough equipment for me to dress for the second period. It doesn't help my side, as we go down to Mr. Putin's team, 16-9. He is the top scorer, with four goals.

"With linemates like these," he says, pointing to Mr. Yakushev and Mr. Fetisov, "it's hard not to score."

Like many Russians, Mr. Putin embraces strangers only once he gets to know them. The dour exterior flips, almost like early spring weather, to warmth.

We repair to a private bar upstairs where, even though it's 1 a.m., someone has laid out a buffet of crab, shrimp, sardines and salmon, which the two teams wash down with draft beer from St. Petersburg.

Cabinet ministers, businessmen, sports legends – the hockey guys sit in seeming obeisance around Mr. Putin and the table of seafood before parading out a signed jersey and a wood carving, gifts for the Prime Minister to mark a recent national holiday. He nods in appreciation, handing the items to an aide.

Through the window, Mr. Fetisov points to the spot where Stalin died.

"What do Russians think of Stalin today?" I ask Mr. Putin.

He jerks his head back, as if to show awe.

"Stalin is the most popular figure in all of Russia," he says. "There was an opinion poll. He was No 1. No. 2 was Lenin. No. 3 Peter (the Great). I was No. 4."

Over the years, there has been an active debate about Mr. Putin's true feelings toward Stalin. He has expressed respect for the tyrant's management style, and his ability to hold the country (many countries, in fact) together. His tactical skills, too.

In recent years, state-issued textbooks have been rewritten to show Stalin in a more favourable light. But curiously, Mr. Putin says he does not approve of this revision (a claim that is hard to square with his omnipotence).

So, what does he not like about Stalin?

"The mistruths, how he misled the people during the war."

Stalin's ghost would haunt any Russian leader, but none more than the current one, the man raised in the ashes of that horrific war, indoctrinated by the secret police Stalin created, and today, still shadowed by the pressure and temptation to bring a firmer hand to this vast, complex and restless land.

In the coming days, perhaps in the coming years, Mr. Putin will get to speak with his actions, whether he wants to or not. His choice will be the one of history. He can reach back to a Kremlin of old, to command and control a fading empire in the hopes its decline can be arrested. Or he can lean forward into a Kremlin of new, to curtail its powers at his own expense and let Russians shape their own destiny in a way that no tsar, no central party and no autocrat ever imagined.

The forward choice would certainly go against his style, perhaps against his material interests. But deep in his KGB mind, in the mind that identifies problems and seeks solutions, he may see the inevitable, understanding that the tsars who did not move with their people were left with no escape.

Even at the height of his power, he just might fear the question, "If not Putin, who?"

John Stackhouse is editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. He was a foreign correspondent from 1991 to 1999 and foreign editor from 2001 to 2004.

Editor's note: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia is believed by some to suffer from an ailment that may have been caused by a stroke in utero. Incorrect wording appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.

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