Russians were steeled for momentous change at the turn of the millennium.
On Dec. 31, 1999, many feared the dreaded Y2K computer bug would hit especially hard at Russia's deteriorating military facilities or its Chernobyl-style nuclear power stations.
But the big New Year's Eve surprise was political.
An hour before midnight tolled in Russia's Far East, an ailing Boris Yeltsin went on TV to announce he was resigning and making Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, acting president.
That set in motion an extraordinary era in Russia history, both for how much the country has moved forward and how far it has stepped back.
Many Russians were unsure what to expect from a Putin presidency.
The country was deep in its second war in Chechnya, the ruble had collapsed — and Putin himself had been prime minister less than four months. Putin came across as a dull bureaucrat, especially compared with boisterous, hard-drinking Yeltsin.
The next eight years filled out the picture. As Russians elect a new president Sunday, an Associated Press correspondent who has covered all of Putin's tenure looks back at its high and low points.
'We have looked like pilferers'
An early surprise came six weeks after Putin became acting president. The new leader sat down with TV reporters at a ski lodge in southern Russia and talked about Russia's tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt.
"We have looked like pilferers," he said.
It seemed a remarkable moment of candor. The debt was not only paid off, but paid off early.
Playing wallflower during disaster
A surprise of a much different sort came that August, when the Kursk nuclear submarine exploded and sank, killing all 118 people aboard. Not only did Russian authorities wait two days to announce the accident, but Putin didn't interrupt his summer vacation to take charge of the disaster.
Was he, after all, a Homo Sovieticus, a man stunted by KGB training and conditioned to keep bad news secret?
Putin's explanation was that he was afraid he would interfere with the rescue operations — perhaps the only time he has played the role of wallflower.
Media under Putin's thumb
Putin came in for criticism on Russian TV over the Kursk disaster — but the days of independent-minded television were numbered.
By the following spring, the boldest of the nationwide channels, NTV, had been forced under the thumb of the state natural gas monopoly. Dissident tycoon Boris Berezovsky soon lost control of two channels.
Investigative TV shows disappeared, replaced by movies, game shows and spectacularly tacky variety hours.
Putin and other Russian officials portrayed the state television takeovers as strictly business matters. The same argument was used for the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky — an oil tycoon and Putin critic — on a Siberian airport's runway.
But little of consequence happens in Russia without Kremlin approval, and critics noted that politically compliant moguls weren't under pressure.
Rise of a new Russian royalty
Although some tycoons fell afoul of the Kremlin, Putin's years were rich grazing for the business-savvy. Moscow became home to more billionaires than New York, and Mercedes saloon cars are all over Moscow's increasingly traffic-choked streets.
Huge mansions called "cottages" rose on the city's outskirts, other newly wealthy Russians bought flats in Europe's tallest building.
Putin himself has shown little taste for ostentation. But with no culture of accountability for high officials, Putin is vulnerable to unsubstantiated speculation that he has gotten rich in office, which he denies.
'A man like Putin'
Even before the economy went into its sustained climb, Putin was becoming widely popular. His determination and focus both soothed and inspired Russians who had endured 15 years of bewilderment and anxiety as the Soviet Union fell apart and post-Soviet Russia haphazardly assembled itself. He seemed rather like a czar and a CEO — an amalgamation of what Russia had once been and what it could become.
Nobody had heard of the group "Singing Together" before the summer of 2002 and nobody seems to know what happened to them by the winter. But in between, they were the toast of the airwaves with the song "A Man Like Putin," extolling the president for his disciplined ways.
Radio DJs said they didn't know where the song came from. It wasn't on sale in stores. It had appeared as suddenly as the similarly named pro-Putin youth group "Walking Together." Portraits of the president meanwhile began filling bookstores.
Suspicions of a Kremlin-directed cult of personality took hold — and grew as the years went by with Putin donning military garb and appearing in judo competitions. Last year, he caused a stir in beefcake photos that showed him half-naked on a Siberian wilderness jaunt with Prince Albert of Monaco.
Wallflower no longer
In marked contrast to his handling of the Kursk disaster, Putin was quick to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks — the first world leader to call President Bush and offer support. He also raised no objections to the U.S. establishing air bases in Central Asian countries that the Kremlin historically has jealously regarded as its turf.
But the sympathy of 2001 dissipated, and was replaced by anger and resentment _ over alleged U.S. support of peaceful uprisings in other former Soviet states, over U.S. support of an independent Kosovo and the general sense that Washington wanted to block his attempts to restore Russia's superpower role.
Last year, while praising the Red Army's valor in World War II, Putin appeared to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and the U.S., decrying "disrespect for human life, claims to global exclusiveness ... just as it was in the time of the Third Reich."
The September 2004 school massacre at Beslan was likely the end of illusions Putin would become a Western-style leader. He remained publicly silent for a day and a half as Chechen terrorists held more than a thousand hostages at the Beslan school.
When it ended in hideous carnage that killed 334 people, more than half of them children, Putin seemed unable to comfort the traumatized nation, instead saying: "We showed weakness."
Less than two weeks later, he used Beslan as justification for sweeping electoral-law changes under which governors would no longer be popularly elected and individual candidates couldn't run for parliament. He used weakness to increase his strength, and the system he installed makes the outcome of Sunday's election a virtual certainty: victory for his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and the likely appointment of Putin as prime minister.
Putin delivers chilling effect
When Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who had written scathingly about Beslan and Putin's policies in Chechnya, was gunned down in her apartment building, Putin waited even longer than during the Kursk disaster to go public. When he did, it was chilling for reporters working in a country considered among the most dangerous for journalists.
The killing was disgusting, Putin said, but dismissed her work as "very minor." He appeared most upset that the killing had damaged Russia's image.
Paragon of discipline
If Putin's politics eventually became clear, he has remained opaque as a person. He seldom shows signs of merriment and his rare smiles tend to be thin and vulpine. He's been seen with a beer or vodka in front of him, but whether he quaffs them down is uncertain. Only once has he let down his guard in public — when he affectionately kissed a young boy on the stomach.
"I'll be honest, I felt an urge to squeeze him like a kitten and that led to the gesture that I made. There was nothing behind it really," Putin said, smiling, when asked about this uncharacteristic moment.
Putin denies the charge that he's a man who loves only power. "They say that the worst addiction is to power," he said recently. "I have never felt that. I have never been addicted to anything."
But is Putin, this paragon of discipline, actually an addict in denial? As prime minister, healthy and vigorous at age 55, he would be sure to have a hand on the Russian steering wheel, and that means there are sure to be more surprises ahead.