MOSCOW -- When Boris N. Yeltsin majestically anointed him as prime minister and presidential successor in August, few Russians had ever heard of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and most doubted he would ever become president.
In the ensuing four months, with the help of a steely visage and skillful Kremlin manipulation, Putin has emerged on television screens across Russia as the man who can bring decision and order to an uncertain and uneasy nation. Today he is the country's most popular politician, and its acting president.
Until that transformation, Putin, 47, had been a man in the shadows. He began his career in the KGB, the much-feared security service now known as the FSB -- the Federal Security Service.
But as perestroika gradually loosened the strict controls over Russian society, Putin developed close relationships with reformers as well.
Where his true convictions lie is unclear, but even as Russians embrace him as the man who can control this unwieldy land and as the person in charge, Putin's past causes anxiety for some.
"I don't trust FSB people," said Alexei Kharevsky, a 39-year-old businessman, "and one episode confirmed my mistrust."
Recently, television news showed Putin presenting new cars to officials of the administration Russia is installing in the rebellious region of Chechnya, Kharevsky said. The passenger side of each windshield bore a large portrait of Vladimir Putin, just as in earlier, more terrible times cars used to bear the portrait of the dictator Josef Stalin.
"I could only associate that with Stalin," said Kharevsky, "and it made me very nervous."
Putin was born Oct. 7, 1952, in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, to a family of workers. He graduated from the law department of Leningrad University, where one of his professors was Anatoly Sobchak, who later became a well-known reformer and the mayor of St. Petersburg.
Putin is married, has two daughters and speaks fluent German. He is a former wrestler and proficient at judo.
Putin went to work for the KGB in 1975, and after nine years as a KGB officer in St. Petersburg was assigned as a spy in Dresden, East Germany, where he operated until 1990. He was recalled under mysterious circumstances, possibly for unreported contacts there.
Perhaps because of such a falling-out, he returned to St. Petersburg and became an aide to the liberal Sobchak. In 1994, he became first deputy head of the city government.
When Sobchak lost a re-election attempt in 1996, Putin took a job as deputy to Kremlin official Pavel Borodin, who manages millions of dollars in property owned by the state.
In July 1998, Yeltsin put Putin in charge of the FSB. In March 1999, Yeltsin made him secretary of his Security Council as well. Then, in a huge surprise to the country, Yeltsin named Putin prime minister, the fifth head of government in just over a year, succeeding Sergei Stepashin.
"I have decided to name the person who, in my opinion, is capable of consolidating society, the person who is capable of ensuring a continuation of reforms in Russia," Yeltsin said in August.
Putin, he told the nation, would rally "great Russia" in the next century.
Russian commentators found that unlikely.
"He has no bright biography," the magazine Profile reported. "He has no nicknames, he offers nothing to help his image-makers."
Despite that, Putin quickly rallied Russians behind an accelerating war in Chechnya, blaming the bombing of two Moscow apartment buildings on Chechen terrorists -- a charge that has never been proved.
Just before the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections, he endorsed the Kremlin-created political party. The party, called Unity, made an unexpectedly strong showing, winning about a quarter of the vote.
Day after day, Putin was shown on television, delivering clipped pronouncements on the day's events, looking decisive, powerful, even presidential.
"I am confident in him," Yeltsin said in August. "But I also want all those who in July 2000 will come to the polling stations and make their choice to have a similar confidence in him. I think Putin will have enough time to show his worth."
That time passed quickly. Yesterday, six months before the scheduled elections, Putin became acting president.