MOSCOW – Twenty years ago on New Year's Eve, Lucia and Alexander Orlov had gathered a dozen or so family and friends around a table full of food, wine and vodka to ring in the year 2000 in their central Moscow apartment.
New Year's Eve is Russia's biggest holiday. It's a family affair, when Russia's version of Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost, puts gifts under a decorated tree and children stay up late as their parents toast the new year with champagne.
The evening of Dec. 31, 1999, had been full of such traditions. At midnight, the state channel aired its annual live shot of the clock on the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin ringing 12 times. As the tradition goes, any wish made between the first and last chime will be granted.
The Orlovs and most of their guests that night had already lived through monumental change: the aftermath of World War II and then the Cold War; shortages and cramped living in a communal apartment; the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991; and almost a decade of painful economic reforms.
So the last tradition of the night, the annual presidential New Year's address, came with a "very pleasant surprise," Lucia Orlov said.
Boris Yeltsin said he was tired: "I am leaving." Russia's first president announced he was resigning after two terms overseeing the country's difficult transition from communism to a free-market economy
Orlov said she and her guests let out a unanimous "hurrah!" Yeltsin then announced he was appointing his little-known prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his temporary replacement until the next presidential election, in March.
Putin has been in power ever since, as either president or prime minister. He has done so in large part by assuring Russians such as the Orlovs that even as the economy has weakened in the last five years and the West has tried to isolate him for Moscow's annexation of Crimea, the prosperity and stability he has brought to the country continues to make up for all they endured during the tumultuous 1990s.
"I wasn't very familiar with Putin when Yeltsin said his name," Orlov said. But she was happy to see Yeltsin go. He had embarrassed Russians with his humiliating drunken episodes in public and economic reforms that had left them all on their knees, she said.
"Stability is a lot for people like us after surviving so much," she said.
During Putin's first two terms, Russia's economy grew, thanks to an increase in global oil and gas prices starting in 2004. This fueled a consumer boom and raised living standards. Putin used Russia's economic success to propel his country back onto the world stage. Russia joined the G-8 in 2006, and Putin hosted its annual meeting in his hometown of St. Petersburg. The country won bids to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and then the soccer World Cup in 2018.
At the same time, Putin tightened his grip on power at home via a gradual crackdown on civil society and media. He dominated state media newscasts, appearing shirtless on Siberian fishing trips and visiting factories to shake hands with obedient managers. Potential political opponents never had a chance because the state-controlled media rarely mentioned their names.
Putin was re-elected for his fourth term in March 2018 as global oil prices and the Western sanctions began to hit the domestic economy. Economists said Russia was too dependent on its oil and gas exports and that Putin had done little to diversify the economy.
"He built an economy that works just fine for him and his elites who can afford Western standards of living and access to modern health care," said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign affairs analyst in Moscow. "For the rest of the country, it perpetuates stagnation and Latin American living standards with Third World health care."