MOSCOW When Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000, Russian television was a rough-and-tumble place, broadcasting fierce debates and biting satire. One by one, those programs were taken off the air.
Today's presidential election marks a symbolic end to Russia's tortured post-Soviet odyssey from poverty and despair to economic might. But along the way, the country has embraced a rigid political orthodoxy call it "Putinism" that the Kremlin has used to crush the independence of political parties, civil society and the media.
"Everything today is being seen through the eyes of the Putin presidency," said Savik Shuster, the former host of "Freedom of Speech," one of the last of the no-holds-barred talk shows when it was yanked in 2004.
Now, he said, Russia's TV fare suggests "that everything that is democratic is actually stale and bitter and useless."
The president's stature is such that the election is expected to be little more than a ratification of his choice of a successor: his longtime friend and first deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin, meanwhile, plans to become prime minister when his presidential term ends in May and many suspect he will continue to run Russia from behind the scenes.
Voters seem reluctant to see the Putin era end.
"Before Putin, Russia was a mess, I was offended by seeing how Russia was humiliated by the West," said Ella Luschenko, 45, who moved to Moscow with her two sons in the late 1990s after divorcing an alcoholic husband.
"Now, you don't have to go to bed thinking, 'What am I going to do tomorrow to feed myself?"'
What about democracy?
"Russia never knew democracy, and attempts to introduce it always ended in a bad way," she said.
Indeed, that view is shared by millions of Russians who equate democracy with the chaos, corruption and economic meltdown of the years under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin was, in a sense, a demolition expert who brought the remnants of the Soviet Union crashing down around the heads of the Russian people. What followed were wars, financial shocks and beggary. The low point came in 1998, when the ruble collapsed and Russia was forced to accept a humiliating bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
After Putin was elected in March 2000, it was his job essentially to build a replacement for the socialist utopia.
His experience as a spy and his career as a bureaucrat in the 1990s in St. Petersburg and Moscow may not have made him the ideal national architect. But eight years ago he was the only one Russia had.
Today, Russians seem to have many reasons to be content with the status quo.
Fueled by a boom in the price of oil, gross domestic product has grown by 70 percent from 2000 to 2007, real incomes have doubled, and the poverty rate has been cut almost in half. Russia today has more billionaires than any nation except the United States and Germany. Perhaps one-fifth of Russians belong to a fledgling middle class.
Medvedev has pledged to strengthen Russian democracy. But democratic reform may come slowly to Russia, if it comes at all.
While he is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term as president, Putin whose approval ratings in February hit 85 percent is likely to be regarded as Russia's national leader for months to come.
President Bush suggested Thursday that one clue about who's in charge will be which of the two Putin or Medvedev shows up at the next Group of Eight gathering of world leaders in July. Asked at a news conference if Medvedev would be Putin's puppet, Bush said he would not reach that conclusion.
As president, Medvedev could one day eclipse Putin. And he may be genuinely seek to reduce the role of the state in the lives of Russians.
But Lev Ponomarev, a Russian human rights activist, argued that it would be illogical for Putin to have labored for eight years as president only to hand-pick a successor who would reverse his policies. "In my opinion, Medvedev tomorrow is just Putin today," he said.
In part, the appeal of Putinism may be rooted in Russia's history of autocratic and authoritarian leaders. In part, it may reflect the trauma of the early years of the post-Soviet era.
Along with many of his countrymen, Putin watched in anguish as the Soviet empire broke up and its constituent states declared independence. He later called the Soviet collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."
His first project begun even before becoming president was to halt this process, by ending the insurgency in the North Caucasus region of Chechnya.
He launched a war that left the capital, Grozny, in ruins. Today, major fighting in Chechnya is largely over: but the victory came at a cost, critics say, of widespread human rights abuses and thousands of deaths.
Putin had watched the Soviet Union stagger to collapse under the weight of its command economy. Initially at least, he had ambitious plans for developing Russia's markets.
He pushed through landmark reforms to the tax system and land codes, helping to lay the groundwork for transferring property almost all of it in government hands to private control.
But his drive for economic modernization stalled in the midst of his battles with the so-called "oligarchs," financiers who made billions in questionable privatization deals under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Putin made a pact: the oligarchs could keep their money if they didn't challenge him politically.
Those who refused were imprisoned like the former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 or fled, like the business magnate Boris Berezovsky. Assets of these pariah businessmen, meanwhile, were acquired by state corporations or cooperative tycoons, often at bargain prices.
But Putin's most important legacy may be the extinction of political pluralism.
Under electoral laws adopted in 2006, more than half of political parties were disbanded and liberal democratic opposition figures lost their seats in parliament. Political movements that challenge the Kremlin have been harassed, their activists arrested, their rallies dispersed by club-wielding riot police.
As he engineered the retreat from European-style democracy, Putin looked to resuscitate symbols from the country's autocratic past. At Kremlin ceremonies, guards in uniforms reminiscent of the czarist court stand at attention. Dignitaries are greeted by the strains of the Soviet anthem, the original lyrics of which praised the dictator Josef Stalin.
Now Russia faces the ultimate test of a democracy, nationwide elections. All of the nominally independent institutions needed to keep the elections honest the courts, the legislature, the media, civic groups, political parties and regional governments are to one degree or another under the sway of the Kremlin.
Shuster, meanwhile, now hosts television talk shows in Ukraine. When his Russian show was canceled in 2004, he wondered initially whether authorities had a personal grudge against him, but then concluded otherwise: "It was basically the system."
Putin's Kremlin, he said, "could not permit open discussions."