Meeting Vladimir Putin was the most exciting moment of Elena Lapshina's life. The 35-year-old textile-factory worker from Rodniki, north of Moscow, was one of three rank-and-file United Russia party members selected to share the platform with Putin as a guest of honor at the party's annual congress earlier this month. "When I saw [Putin], I forgot my own name, every muscle in my body was shaking," recalls Lapshina. "He is more than a father. He is my leader, he is my idol." In front of 2,000 party faithful, Lapshina made an emotional appeal to Putin. "Heed the wishes of millions of Russians," she pleaded. "Continue to lead us to the wonderful future!" Wearing his characteristic shy smile, Putin's reply sent the hall into a storm of applause: after stepping down as president next March, he would consider leading United Russia and continuing in power as Russia's prime minister.
At a stroke, Putin's move made United Russia something far more than just a political party. As the chosen institution by which Putin and his allies plan to cement their hold on power, it's more like The Party of old—something between an organ of the state and a private club for Russia's rulers. "Putin will de facto stay on for a third term in power," boasts Vyacheslav Volodin, secretary of United Russia's presidium. "And since he will be our leader, we will be the real center of power."
For sure, there are some differences between United Russia and the old Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. The old Party, for one, was 20 million strong, had cells in every workplace and controlled appointments to every senior job, from prima ballerina to paint-factory foreman. United Russia, with its 1.6 million members, has nowhere near that reach. The old Party was also intensely doctrinaire, monitoring and instructing citizens in all aspects of their lives, including literature and personal hygiene. United Russia's basic political doctrine doesn't go far beyond the "Putin Plan"—defined by Kremlin-connected political scientist (and, as of two weeks ago, United Russia member) Sergei Markov as "making the country strong, rich and independent."
But these are early days. United Russia plans to remake itself in the image of the old Party, complete with an ideology, a youth wing and, ultimately, a monopoly on power and patronage "Our absolute first priority is to save Russian civilization," says Andrey Vorobyev, head of United Russia's Central Committee. "Not to allow Western influence to corrupt our language, not to allow fashionable theories or other interferences from outside to damage Russian sovereignty." More concretely, Dmitry Orlov from the Kremlin-connected Center of Political Technologies gave deputies at the party congress a list of milestones to achieve in Russia's ascent to greatness. Among them: "a manned mission to the moon by 2012; hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014; attaining the world's fifth largest GDP by 2020; flying to Mars by 2025."
Already, anyone with political ambition is in the United Russia party. More than 60 regional governors (out of 89) are on the party's lists, as are almost all Russia's mayors. And even though three of the four major parties in the Duma support Putin, politicians like Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy from the Fair Russia Party, fear that United Russia will sweep away all other parties. "United Russia will not allow opponents," he says. Gudkov complains that two of his party's activists have lost their jobs in local government for belonging to the "wrong" political party. In Stavropol and Samara, he says, the city mayors who are members of Fair Russia are being "choked" of federal funding as United Russia prepares to take over.
The party's youth wing, known as the Young Guard, sees itself as "a cross between the Komsomol [the old Communist Youth League] and a headhunting agency," says its leader Ivan Demidov, whose office is decorated with posters of Orthodox priests and Che Guevara. Its task: to create a party machine that will attract the brightest and best, and then train them at "political factories" designed to prepare young politicians for office. "In two to three years 20 percent of the Young Guard will be in power," says Demidov.
United Russia appears to be on the brink of complete political dominance. With Putin at the head of its list of candidates, December's parliamentary elections have been transformed into something akin to a vote of confidence in his continued rule. And there's little doubt of the outcome. United Russia has already used its power as the leading party in Parliament to change the way elections are held, excluding independents and small parties from running at all. Now, with the backing of the Kremlin and a candidate list dominated with incumbent regional leaders, United Russia will be sure to sweep the board. These leaders head the local governments that control most media outlets and advertising billboards in Russia's provinces; national television stations are tightly supervised by the state. Many local business barons, such as Viktor Rashnikov, director of the Magnitogorsk Steel Factory (with 69,000 employees), and Vladimir Gruzdev, owner of the Seventh Continent supermarket chain (annual sales: $130 million), are also party members, lending their cash and influence to the cause. In some areas, the party will enjoy a communist-style 100 percent of the vote—at least that's the result Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, told the United Russia congress it could expect from his republic.
The real secret of United Russia's rise is, of course, the magic of the president's endorsement. Putin enjoys approval ratings well over 70 percent, in part because of state influence over most media—but also because most Russians have enjoyed a tangible improvement in their quality of life. That's true for loyalists, as well as for many liberals, who were disgusted by the corruption of the 1990s, and welcomed Putin's strong hand. Democracy, to many Russians, equaled anarchy. "In the 1990s, there were around 100 political clans—that was the mess that United Russia had to take care of," says party youth leader Demidov. "We are constructing a new political system in the country, and that's what makes us popular."
Indeed millions of ordinary Russians love Putin as a savior, and find his leadership and vision powerfully attractive—far more attractive than the dubious virtues of democracy and the right to choose among political parties. It seems that after 15 years of an imperfect democracy, Russians are on the brink of exercising their democratic right for the last time—and put an end to messy multiparty politics once and for all.