Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party just won a crushing electoral victory, and Russia is again throwing its weight around like a superpower. Is Putin building a new ‘evil empire’?

Just how popular is Putin?
Hugely so, judging from Russia’s Dec. 2 parliamentary elections. Putin’s United Russia party and its allies captured 400 of 450 seats in the Duma, making it highly likely that Putin will remain in power when his term ends next year. With widespread reports of voting irregularities, the election was not exactly a pure measure of Putin’s popularity. Many voters were forced to mark ballots in full view of soldiers, for instance, and United Russia reportedly bought votes with cash and vodka. Still, such tactics were probably not necessary. Pre-election surveys put Putin’s approval rating above 70 percent, and by all accounts, most Russians revere him.

What do the Russians see in him?
Order, prosperity, and a reminder of Russia’s glory days. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russians were thrilled with their new freedoms. But the elation soon gave way to frustration over rampant corruption, soaring crime and poverty, and the dramatic diminishment of Russia’s status as a world power. Putin, elected seven years ago, has presided over a sharp reduction in crime and an economic boom, powered by Russia’s oil and gas industries. He also has aggressively reasserted Russia’s power on the world stage. “Putin has earned his popularity by bringing Russians what they most craved,” said Mary Dejevsky, a British expert on Russia: “a more predictable and comfortable life after two decades of the most extreme social upheaval.”

What is Putin’s background?
The son of a manual laborer and a teacher, Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad (known now by its original name, St. Petersburg). Soon after earning a law degree, he joined the KGB, the notorious secret police. “I was driven by high motives,” he explained. “I thought I would be able to use my skills to the best for society.” He returned to St. Petersburg in 1990, and went to work for the city’s first post-communist mayor. He later joined President Boris Yeltsin’s staff, and in 1998, Yeltsin put him in charge of the Federal Security Service, the KGB’s successor. Putin was elected president in 2000, vowing to get tough with rebels in the restive northern Caucasus region of Chechnya. As the campaign neared its climax, a Moscow apartment building was bombed, killing 200 people. The authorities blamed Chechen rebels, but rumors still circulate that Putin’s forces planted the bomb, to rile up nationalist fervor.

What kind of president has he been?
Ambitious, audacious, and opportunistic. Early in his first term, he moved aggressively against the “oligarchs”—members of Yeltsin’s inner circle who maneuvered to buy state-owned energy, mining, and media enterprises for pennies on the dollar. He jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the giant Yukos Oil, on questionable charges of fraud, and nationalized Yukos’ assets. The move gave the Kremlin direct control over Russia’s oil industry just as oil prices began to climb. (Russia now exports $170 billion of oil a year, second only to Saudi Arabia.) He drove media magnates Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky into exile and put his loyalists in charge of their networks. He has used his economic control to reward friends and punish enemies, and parlayed nonstop television coverage into a cult of personality. With Putin currently barred by law from seeking a third term, various commentators have suggested that he lead as “father of the nation.”

Aren’t Russians sick of dictators?
On the contrary—many are nostalgic for them. Half the country, recent polls found, views Josef Stalin favorably. This affection for a man who presided over purges that killed tens of millions of Russians may seem strange, but many Russians see both Stalin and Putin as leaders who restored national pride after years of humiliation. Volgograd native Valentina Klyushina recently said of Stalin, “He took a backward country with an illiterate population and turned it into a global powerhouse with a nuclear bomb.” Putin’s followers see him in a similar light.

Is he as brutal as Stalin?
His body count certainly is not as high. But Putin, like Stalin, is comfortable with the ruthless exercise of power. Western intelligence agencies suspect he was behind the bizarre 2006 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident former KGB agent killed by radiation poisoning. They also see his hand in the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was found at the bottom of an elevator shaft with a bullet in her head after writing articles critical of Putin. Putin has severely restricted rival politicians’ access to television, and ahead of the Dec. 2 elections, he jailed opposition leader Garry Kasparov for leading an anti-Putin demonstration.

What are Putin’s ambitions?
To restore Russian greatness and enhance his own power, which he sees as inextricably connected. He signaled his expansionist aims last summer, when two Russian mini-subs planted a titanium flag on the ocean bed below the North Pole in a bid to claim the Arctic for Russia. His military has embarked on a $200 billion rearmament program, and official Russian rhetoric increasingly echoes Soviet-era belligerence. Putin has threatened to train Russian nuclear missiles on Poland and the Czech Republic if they permit U.S. missile defenses on their soil. And last February, he assailed the “pernicious” idea of the U.S. as the sole superpower. “It is a world in which there is only one master, one sovereign,” he lamented. “But do we have the means to counter these threats? Certainly, we do.”