There is something about a system that allows a world leader to go away for just a few years while his lackey takes over and then come back to power that makes any lover of democracy itch; it is simply wrong. Such is the Russian system.
KGB officer Putin Became Russian premier in 1999. Following the sudden resignation of Yeltsin, Putin first became acting President, then President elect, serving two terms. That was his lot, apparently. He wasn't allowed to do a third. So, for four years he became Premier once again and then in 2012 became president once again.
So he has now been in power for fifteen years which means he has seen a couple of presidents, three UK PMs, goodness knows who in Italy and a selection of trade-offs around the world. In the meantime, he has continuously consolidated his power.
After his predecessor, Yeltsin, "retired," he was little seen in public, but he made a one off return to the limelight which was to protest at Putin's change to the way regional governors where elected to bring the process under his personal control. Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev warned that he was beginning to move away from the hard fought for democracy that was the new Russia. Since 2004 we have seen Putin slowly and very precisely, carve away at freedom of speech and political opposition. His most notable success was the removal of the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was gaining public popularity with his criticism of corruption in the Kremlin. Unlike previous soviet administrations that simply vanished people from the streets, he took the legal route of putting the matter in the hands of the judges - Khordorkovsky was "legally" charged, found guilty and imprisoned.
The methods of oppression may not be those of Grandpa Joe, but the result is looking achingly familiar. Companies have gone back into public ownership - Khordorkovsky's company Yukos was swallowed up at auction by an instantly formed front company which it self was bought the day after by government controlled Rosneft. Newspapers who are guaranteed freedom under Russian Federation law are in reality subject to frequent criminal investigations and bureaucratic red tape that has broken them to the will of Putin. Buying up the media means that Putin's government owns more than half of all newspapers and all national broadcasters.
Where does all this lead? Control of the masses my one means or another has been a theme in Russia's long and turbulent history and the Russian people have seemed themselves swept from revolution to compliance and back again. But the game changer has been Crimea and the continuing issues with the Ukraine. It is clear that Putin laments the land loss from the breakup of the Soviet block, but perhaps not the Soviet state itself. He appears to have other ideas than just returning to a Stalin style state.
Putin likes the world stage. It is for him a place of influence and a market place. He wants to be in control of his former Soviet neighbours but he also wants to have influence around the world. He can't do that by force any longer he has to work with the new rules. China is the new way of dominance. From absolute communism, China has moved just enough towards capitalism to allow it's companies to wheel and deal openly around the world and that has given it both political and capital influence far beyond anything it had previously. Putin wants some of that, but in a Russian way. He wants to sit at the table of the G8 and have the other countries come begging to him. He wants to control energy using Russia's vast potential resources and huge geographical size in a way that the US, despite accusations, has never achieved or perhaps even wanted.
Putin is a Dangerous man. He seems to be cold and calculating, perhaps devious in the manner of his previous soviet KGB bosses. And he is supremely ambitious and in politics, the highest ambition is only appropriate in the hands of the despot; in the democratic west, we stay democratic because even our most eccentric of leaders become bland moderates when gaining office. Putin wants land, he wants his beloved Soviet to be king of the room and he wants the supreme of Russia to have ultimate power.
But there is a problem and it is the same problem that has plagued Russia for decades - the economy. Russia is huge and a potential Soviet version two is that much bigger again. It is unwieldy and under productive, it is costly and inconsistent and Putin has banked much of his plan on the state ownership of energy, of oil. And the price of oil has collapsed.
If you are not going to fight a cold war with armed threats, then you have to fight it with buying power. If your currency has just become a joke (again), then you have just had your plastic sword taken from the playpen. Worse still, people might stop inviting you to the party.
But there is a warning in the middle of this financial disaster that has hit the Russian economy - Putin is still in power and still powerful domestically. Alexei Navalny of the Russian opposition has been charged and foudn guitly of fraud and has just been re-arrested for breaking the terms of his house arrest. Putin may not have transported him off to Siberia, but he has realised that you don't need to do that to break someone's power - you just need to shame them in the eyes of the public, with a little help from compliant judges and a frightened press.
The oil price is a fickle beast and though the Russian economy is currently bouncing along a very low and rocky path, the resources, the riches are still there. When the oil price recovers, so will Russian financial clout and Putin will STILL be there. Because, unlike the soviet leaders, Putin does not have to force people to like him, they DO like him and even as the Ruble fell, Putin won the Man of the Year in Russia for the fifteenth year in a row.
With Soviet 2.0 now people can VOTE for their despot. And that is really scary.