On August 9, 1999, Russian history changed forever. Then-President Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin, his former head of domestic intelligence, as acting prime minister.
It seemed likely to be a short-lived appointment. Putin’s predecessor had lasted only a few months in the job, and Yeltsin had seen three other prime ministers come and go following the financial crash of August 1998.
At the time, Putin possessed none of the aura of a world leader. Before joining the Yeltsin administration, he had a largely behind-the-scenes career as an adviser to St. Petersburg’s mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. He then moved to Moscow to work for the Presidential Property Management Department, an unlikely springboard to national office.
But within less than six months of making him prime minister, Yeltsin unexpectedly handed Putin the presidency on New Year’s Eve, 1999. That historic surprise set in motion Putin’s extraordinary rise to become the undisputed leader of Russia.
The numbers speak for themselves. In August 1999, when he became prime minister, independent pollster Levada Center put Putin’s approval rating at 31%. By January of 2000, after taking over as president, it was 84%. According to Levada, it has never dipped below 60% since then.
Few could have predicted that two decades later Putin would still be ruling Russia, having taken on a dominant role in world affairs. But the anniversary comes at a time of uncertainty in the leader’s reign.
During Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power, polls have often shown Russians blame their government rather than their president for their problems. Amidst a new wave of domestic tension, that could be changing.