"It was a very painful signal to the public that said politics is just a game played by a couple guys at the top, the impression of choice is only an illusion, and they've decided that we're going to have Putin forever," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now a leader of the anti-Kremlin liberal opposition.
"Even some very loyal people were appalled by the cynicism of this maneuver. There is no doubt that it changed public perceptions, by creating this hopeless picture of Putin in power forever, and it was a trigger for the protest movement that was to come," he says.
A year on, Putin – who turned 60 on Oct. 7 – has achieved his goal of returning to supreme power, but it is hardly the triumphant Kremlin lap he may have been expecting.
His domain is racked with unexpected political turmoil, and his leadership, though still strong, no longer looks unchallenged. Enormous street protests that broke out last December, propelled by evidence of massive electoral fraud on behalf of United Russia in Duma polls, have continued, and may now be mutating into a permanent and intransigent opposition movement.
The new Duma, established by that deeply flawed and disputed election, has passed a wave of draconian new legislation that appears as much aimed at exacting revenge against the protesters as it is at sharply raising the future penalties for any kind of dissent.