In decades past, those who presented themselves as Soviet experts would watch the parades in Red Square and, from the seating plan of the party dignitaries, try to divine what was going on inside the ruling clique. It was always obvious that the guy sitting next to the Supreme Leader was clearly headed for higher things, while the man who was unexpectedly absent because he had been sent on an urgent assignment to run a power station in the Urals was on the way out.
On one level things have changed since the Wall came down, the Soviet Union disintegrated and Russia became democratic. Russia still has (just about) the rump of a free press and it is no longer entirely impossible for foreigners to talk to politicians, officials and businessmen. But in other respects we are just as clueless about what goes on inside the Kremlin as we were 20 years ago. The streets of Moscow and St Petersburg are lined with shops selling familiar brand names. Russians travel freely, splashing their newfound cash liberally around the world. Those who have benefited mightily from the chaotic privatisation of Soviet state assets have bought up property around London, Florida and the Gulf.
Russians have embraced the materialism that comes with sudden political freedom and the spoils of a newly liberalised petro-economy. Yet at the same time they have an acute, melancholic fondness for their past. This state of mind is reflected from the top to the bottom of Russian society. "Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart," Vladimir Putin once said. "Anyone who wants it restored has no brains." That is classic Putin - having his cake, and eating it. Respect what was, honour those conservatives in the rural areas who still hanker after the certainties of the Soviet era, yet make no concessions to those who would take the country back to that dark past. The political genius of Vladimir Putin is that he has convinced the Russian people that he alone can straddle those two worlds of Russia's history and her uncertain future.
President Barack Obama, who travels to Moscow next week for his first formal meeting with Putin, spoke this week in unusually blunt, indeed undiplomatic, terms about his Russian interlocutor. The old Cold War-era approach to bilateral relation was "outdated", Mr Obama said. "Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new." You could say that again. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952, shortly before Stalin's death, a much-treasured son of parents who were in their 40s and who had already lost two baby boys. As was the rather ghastly communist practice of the time, the Putins lived in a communal flat with two other families.
The family was a paragon of stolid Soviet values, proletarian with strong patriotic credentials for having acted in defence of the motherland and the Soviet revolution. Putin's father was a factory toolmaker who had been badly wounded during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. His mother, Maria, barely survived the blockade and lost her mother and her older brothers during the war. Putin's suspicion of the West was learnt on his mother's knee as she told him stories of the war and the atrocities of the German-imperialist, anti-Soviet forces that attacked Mother Russia. He was a mischievous little boy who hunted rats and became an expert in the art of Sambo, which was developed as a Soviet version of judo and wrestling in the 1930s. In 1974 he became Sambo champion of Leningrad State University despite his slight stature. "I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education," he recalled later. Like many small boys, he had to try hard and though his height is not officially available, he is thought to be a very modest 5ft 5in (1.65m).
As a boy, Putin loved to watch spy films and he followed that calling by joining the KGB immediately after he graduated with a law degree in 1975. His principal function was to recruit foreigners to join the spy agency. To this end he learnt German and some English and was posted to Dresden, at that time in East Germany, where he lived under a comically transparent cover as "Mr Adamov", the head of the Soviet-German House of Friendship. In fact he was recruiting agents with expertise in Germany's engineering and financial expertise.
Though the precise details of his KGB career are murky - it has been reported that he in effect ran the East German secret agency, the Stasi - there is no doubt that he was a highly effective spy. In the late 1980s colleagues began to refer to him as the "Grey Cardinal", an admiring nod at his immense influence and his ability to retain a very low profile. Boris Yeltsin spotted his potential and plucked him out of obscurity in 1996 to be his enforcer in the Kremlin. Putin was so immediately adept in transferring from the dark arts of espionage to the equally shady world of Moscow politics that just three years later Yeltsin hand-picked him as his prime minister.
He was the natural choice to succeed Yeltsin in the presidency in 2000, a job he held for two terms, achieving enormous levels of popular approval by acting in the manner of a tsarist authoritarian. He restored Russian stability and a new level of prosperity, particularly for his close circle who grew very rich indeed. He had to leave the presidency in 2008 only because of constitutionally mandated term limits, not because he had become unpopular. As his successor he hand-picked Dmitry Medvedev, a colourless political hack without any power base of his own and who was therefore no threat to Putin. Medvedev then obediently appointed Putin as his prime minister, but everyone in Moscow knows where the true power resides.
The interest in next week's summit lies in which version of Putin emerges as Washington and Moscow try to repair their fraught relationship. Obama needs Putin's help in curtailing Iran's nuclear programme, dealing with North Korea and will have to be seen to speak out robustly against Russia's overbearing behaviour in Georgia and other states that Moscow still treats as though they remain part of its old Soviet empire.
The intriguing question is how much Putin now feels he needs Obama and requires a dialogue with Washington. A year ago, the Russian economy seemed in dire straits as the credit crunch bit and the oil price collapsed. Crude prices have since rallied, but there are still endemic financial problems. Many of the biggest Russian banks are wobbling and the economy, by the Kremlin's own forecasts, will contract by an astonishing 8.5 per cent this year. Many foreign businesses have been frightened off by Moscow's increasingly hostile attitudes to inward investment.
The key to Putin's success thus far has been his direct appeal to Russian machismo. He brushes aside allegations that he has acquired vast personal stakes in the state oil companies and placed hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore accounts. He will not deign to answer questions about how, as Russian GQ magazine noted, he owns a Patek Philippe watch estimated to cost some $60,000, considerably more than his nominal annual salary.
Those who raise such questions are dismissed, as they would have been in the old Soviet era, as opportunists. "There is a growing influx of foreign cash used directly to meddle in our domestic affairs," Putin told a political rally. "Some want to return to the past to rob the people and the state, to plunder natural resources, and deprive our country of its political and economic independence." That is the macho image Putin has chosen for himself, as defender of Russian self-esteem. Two years ago, as he prepared to step down from the presidency while retaining full control of the levers of power, he allowed himself to be photographed naked from the waist up, fishing in macho style in Siberia and riding horses across impossibly romantic landscapes.
The drooling Russian media cooed at his impressively tight stomach, though as the rather less deferential British media put it, Putin had established himself as a gay icon with such homoerotic images. One of the pictures of him on horseback somehow conjured up Brokeback Mountain, the Hollywood film about homosexual cowboys. Putin is untroubled by such considerations. Nor did he seem unduly distressed when the Russian media focused on his friendship with an exceptionally voluptuous 26-year-old "rhythmic dancer" by the name of Alina Kabaeva.
Given how much pressure Putin can put on the Russian press, it was odd how much of this was reported as he appeared to like the idea of his consorting with such a beauty, rather than his wife Lyudmila who, in the cruellest tradition of Soviet and Russian spouses, has been compared to the back end of a Lada. Next week, Putin will no doubt try to match the theatrical appeal of Obama and show the world his country, too, has changed. The inscrutable Russian leader, his mind honed by his years living in the KGB shadows, will give nothing away unless he has to.
"The thing to remember about Putin," says one western official, "is that he has a lot of enemies in Russia. To survive he needs to stay in power." Obama will understand this imperative and, because he plays a long game, will be happy to yield in public at least if it serves his ultimate interests. After all, the American president is manifestly at ease in his own skin, nine inches taller than Putin at 6ft 2in and perfectly comfortable wearing a wrist watch that retails for $300.
* The National