A guest hovering around the doorway of an elegant restaurant last fall glimpsed a ritual worthy of a czar.
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin stopped in his tracks, eyes ahead, arms hovering at his sides. An aide materialized, silently whisked away Mr. Putin’s parka, and vanished. A second aide appeared with a sport jacket and slipped it over his shoulders. Then Mr. Putin resumed walking without a word or a look, “almost as if he had never stopped,” noted the guest, Clifford G. Gaddy, an American scholar.
Mr. Putin, who grew up in a hardscrabble Soviet housing block, has spent more than a decade in a byzantine world of petitioners and servants. Now, in the year he turns 60, he will face his biggest challenge: coming to grips with a society that has greatly changed under his watch, while he has remained essentially the same.
Mr. Putin now seems assured of a convincing victory in the first round of the presidential election on March 4, making a runoff unnecessary. The emerging threat to his rule has slid beneath the surface. But it will follow him across the six years of his third presidential term, as he will be forced to respond to a populace beginning to demand more of a stake in the governing of Russia.
With his once phenomenal popularity gradually waning, Mr. Putin will have to find other ways to guarantee his legitimacy.
Olga V. Kryshtanovskaya, a member of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party who is assisting his campaign, said Mr. Putin risked upheaval in the coming years if he did not return as a more democratic leader. His reflexes, she said, are authoritarian; if he chooses a liberal path, it will be “with his intellect, and not with his heart, and under pressure, because he is afraid.”
“In the end he will decide alone and that’s it,” she said. “Alone. And we are all waiting.”
On Thursday, Mr. Putin made a surprise appearance at a campaign rally. According to police estimates, 130,000 people jammed into Luzhniki Stadium, waving signs with messages like “Putin, the path to the future” and “We don’t want revolution” and “There is no alternative.” When Mr. Putin stepped onto the stage — a small figure in a black parka — the atmosphere in the stadium seemed to twitch, and he was met with a sustained roar of approval.
The pomp cannot obscure the fact that Mr. Putin, who served eight years as president and four as prime minister, is embarking on his final act as Russia’s leader. A banker close to Mr. Putin advised him in a recent article not to extend his rule after this six-year term, commenting that “in the opinion of many people, it is not simply a very long time, it is too long.” In 2008, the Constitution was amended to lengthen the presidential term to six years from four.
New tasks are at hand, like searching for a trusted person to whom Mr. Putin can eventually transfer his authority, just as Boris N. Yeltsin did with Mr. Putin 12 years ago.
“He understands that if he can make it through now — to become president in the first round — that it will be an event, a feat,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, who covers Mr. Putin for the newspaper Kommersant. “And that he cannot repeat this feat in six years. As far as politics are concerned, those six years will be spent on his project of creating a second party and in a search for a new successor.”
Others say openly that Mr. Putin may not be able to hold on to power for the full six years. Among them is the television host Kseniya Sobchak, who has had a warm relationship with Mr. Putin since she was 11 and he worked for her father, then the mayor of St. Petersburg.
“My forecast is the following: The regime we have now cannot last six years,” said Ms. Sobchak, who has joined the protest movement. If Mr. Putin ignores complaints from the opposition, she said, “this movement will pick up force and eventually it may lead to quite tragic events, like revolution or a coup.”
“I want you to understand that I don’t want it to happen,” she added. “I just realize that this Titanic will hit an iceberg if it doesn’t change course.”
It is difficult, now, to recall Mr. Putin as he was in 1999 — a 47-year-old former K.G.B. officer so unremarkable that journalists sent to interview his old friends in St. Petersburg returned with notebooks full of adjectives like “reserved” and “polite.” He could barely muster a smile when the news broke that Mr. Yeltsin had chosen him as his successor, murmuring in a television interview that “it would be impolite to disagree if the president said this.”
The Yeltsin team was facing a political train wreck: “Czar Boris” was miserably unpopular, his approval ratings had been in single digits for a year and he feared he would face corruption charges when he stepped down. Exhausted and sick, Mr. Yeltsin, 68, left office six months early, hoping to give his protégé a leg up ahead of the election.
What happened then was a kind of magic. Mr. Putin dislikes political campaigns — he recently described them as a “very disgusting process” — but he had an uncanny ability to channel the thoughts of ordinary Russians, beaten down by economic stagnation and a grinding, bloody standoff with separatists in Chechnya. Natalia Gevorkyan, who interviewed him at that time for the book “First Person,” said he could “take on the form of the person he is speaking to,” perhaps a legacy from his days as a K.G.B. officer trained to recruit informants.
Mr. Putin, who grew up brawling with bullies in postwar Leningrad, came across as tough and crude and efficient, vowing that his forces would chase down the Chechen rebels and “wipe them out in the outhouse.” His approval rating rose to 27 percent from 2 percent in a single month, with 70 percent of Russians saying they trusted him.
Mr. Putin says he sees those months as the time that made him the common people’s leader. Meeting with ironworkers last summer, he shared a rare expression of regret, saying he was initially ashamed of using gutter language. But then a friend passed on the approval of an anonymous taxi driver — a kind of Russian Joe Six-pack — and that approval, Mr. Putin said, meant more to him than the gasps of globe-trotting elites.
“What I blurted out was probably wrong in form, but in essence it was right,” he said. “And I think we should act on this basis — on the basis of decency, above all.”
In 2010, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings were hovering around 80 percent, and Kremlin insiders began to see his popularity as the ballast of the entire political system. Mr. Putin’s public persona — salty language, tiger-stalking, shirtless fly-fishing — was his own creation, said his press spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, in a recent interview, adding that Mr. Putin’s “instincts are much stronger than any possible advice from any adviser.”
Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political consultant who lost his government contract in a dispute with the Kremlin last year, said advisers had become afraid to warn Mr. Putin away from missteps.
“There are many things you cannot even speak to Putin about these days,” Mr. Pavlovsky said. “These are absurd things they would have discussed, and advised him not to do, and now clearly no one can talk that way.”
The mistakes accumulated, underlining the gap that had opened between the leader and his country’s growing urban middle class.
There was his dismissal of online political activism in 2010 — just as Russia was overtaking Germany as Europe’s largest Internet market — on the grounds that the Internet was “50 percent pornographic material.” There was a staged retrieval of ancient amphorae from six feet of water, which met with widespread ridicule. The September announcement of his intention to return to the presidency, now held by his ally Dmitri A. Medvedev, backfired, and after huge crowds protested parliamentary election violations in December, chanting, “Putin, go away,” there was his odd, derisive remark that the white ribbons demonstrators wore looked like limp condoms.
Aleksandr Baunov, in a recent essay for the magazine Slon, said even Mr. Putin’s extraordinary public speaking — he called him the “Cicero of the people” — had lost the power to make Russians listen.
“He polemicizes well, but silently avoids the main point: why he seized the rostrum and considered it his own,” he wrote. “The seizure of the rostrum may be interesting, from a historical point of view, but certainly not the speech itself. It is not interesting to listen to an orator who has seized the rostrum.”
At Thursday’s rally, Mr. Putin held the crowd in thrall one more time, enunciating the words of a lyric poem with such ferocity that they bounced off the bleachers a football field away. He walked off the stage, head bowed, between columns of shouting admirers. Mr. Peskov, his press secretary, said that Mr. Putin was confident that he had “overwhelming support” in Russia, and had come to terms with the rise in dissent among “the city bourgeoisie.”
“I wouldn’t say he was surprised,” Mr. Peskov said. “He’s the one who feels the country, he’s the one who knows the country from inside. He is the one who knows, let’s say, different parts of the society. He knows the problems of those who are poor. He knows the rich. He knows the middle class. And he was interested from the beginning to get it clear.”
Mr. Peskov said Mr. Putin was seeking to understand the rumbles of dissatisfaction, largely through contact with the ordinary Russians he meets on his official travels. But he added that much of what Mr. Putin found out there was full-throated support.
“Regularly he looks at people, he listens, he watches,” he said. “The problem is when people are shouting, ‘Return our voices’ — we have never stolen their voices. When they cry, ‘Putin, go away,’ he feels the support of millions of people in this country who shout, ‘Putin, stay! Putin, help! Putin, be with us!’ ”
As Mr. Putin tries to understand what has changed, old instincts are at work. He reaches out to Russians who have drifted to the opposition but cannot help casting them as dumb instruments of a shadowy foe. He accepts the need for political competition but resists giving up his power. And he is surrounding himself with unquestioningly loyal aides, as if building a defensive wall against some advancing army.
A decade ago, Mr. Putin seemed to sense that this moment was coming, telling a German biographer that he would be the man to break Russia’s thousand-year autocratic tradition.
“Putin asked me to come and see him then,” the biographer, Alexander Rahr, recently told the newspaper Argumenty Nedeli. “It was then and there that he told me the following phrase: ‘Presidents of Russia are like czars of old. The Byzantine traditions are quite strong, and it is up to me to do everything to make the presidency a democratic institution. That’s why I’ll be gone when my term of office expires. You tell it to everyone over there in the West.’ ”