It is four o'clock in the afternoon. Light snow is falling. Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of the main roads leading to the heart of Moscow, is eerily silent. Not a car is in sight. Across each side-street a policeman stands, holding back traffic. I ask a security guard standing on the pavement what is happening. "The President is coming," he announces portentously. And then, in the distance, bright headlights appear, rapidly drawing closer. Suddenly a phalanx of cars, spread across both sides of the road, roars past at 60 mph, blue lights flashing, the windows blacked out. In seconds they are gone, sweeping Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin to begin an emergency meeting on the unfolding revolution in Georgia. It is November 2003. How many times did I watch the same scene 25 years ago, when Brezhnev swept down the same street in the same cavalcade of power. How little Russia seems to have changed.

No official nowadays refers to Putin by his name. He is simply 'The President'. His face usually leads the evening news bulletins. His words are on election posters plastered on the sides of buildings. His approval rating, according to the many polls published in subservient newspapers, still hovers at around 75 per cent. He is, overwhelmingly, the state institution most trusted by ordinary Russians, representing every certainty they used to know but have so missed in the past decade: order, discipline, and authority. Could Russia be sliding back to the past?

Superficially, there is no comparison with the drab old communist days. Moscow is booming. Shops are glittering with consumer goods; private restaurants are bursting each evening with the smart young crowd sampling this or that new Japanese, French or Thai cuisine. Advertisements line the escalators of the Soviet-era metro or blare out the merits of the latest Western fads - mobile phones, shampoos, Ikea furniture, Mediterranean package holidays - in the many breaks that now interrupt even the state-run television stations. The wide streets are clogged all day long with Russian-owned foreign cars. Gum, that three-floor shopping mall that flanks Red Square across the cobbles from Lenin's deserted mausoleum, has become a bright-lit arcade of boutiques, Gucci luxury and jewelry outlets, where once there were only felt boots and cheap saucepans.

Around seven per cent growth a year for the past three years has transformed Russia's oil-fuelled economy. And yet, this is hardly a Western society. The man who once headed the country's most Western and dynamic privatised oil company now languishes in prison, as state prosecutors ransack the offices of Yukos, looking for evidence to back up embezzlement and tax evasion charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the billionaire oligarch who had the temerity to stray into the political arena and start funding opposition parties.

And all of a sudden, the old art of Kremlinology is back. Whereas in Yeltsin's day politics was a raucous, chaotic cacophony of argument in the press, on chat shows and at countless impromptu demonstrations, now it is conducted behind closed doors. The men surrounding the president remain in the shadows, former KGB colleagues who plot demotions and decrees and pull the levers controlling public opinion to ensure an overwhelming victory in the parliamentary elections for United Russia, the party set up to back the president and known simply as 'the party of power'. Who is in and who is out, who has the president's ear and who is elbowing out rivals - all that jockeying by the siloviki - the 'elite' - can now be deduced only by the old arts of Kremlinology.

Putin is not a dictator. He believes in a free market, globalisation, efficiency, an IT society and in improving the lot of the impoverished pensioners and the distant neglected provinces. But more than anything else, he believes in power, and in restoring to Russia the top-down decision-making that always characterised the way the country was run, from tsarist days to the end of communism. There are plenty to help him revive the old ways, including an army of bureaucrats, the ancient enemy of progress in Russia, who are happy to interpret and enforce what they see as 'Putinism', while usefully expanding their influence and ability to make money on the side from the new regulations and business interests.

This bureaucracy is Putin's biggest challenge. No reform will succeed unless he can sack the parasites, cut corruption and free a dynamic young business generation from red tape. But his instincts are to control rather than to trust. He believes that, left to itself, a free market will only strengthen oligarchal monopolists and widen the already dangerous gap between the vulgar super-rich 'new Russians' flaunting their wealth and millions of sullen, resentful poor. All his efforts therefore have been to re-concentrate power in the Kremlin to ensure there is no challenge to his programme - by forcing the press into the old ways of self-censorship, 'co-opting' the lively new non-governmental organisations and, above all, using the authoritarian instincts of bureaucracy. "They have always been the gravediggers of Russia," one political analyst says of the bureaucrats. "They are the choir surrounding Boris Godunov who in the end will hamstring the leader."

Most Russians approve. They are happy to see the oligarchs kow-tow, the rich get their come-uppance and the mafia gangs brought under control. They see nothing wrong in raids on the Soros Foundation, which is peddling foreign concepts of Western democracy, or a resurgent nationalism that finds little place for non-Russian - i.e. Jewish - entrepreneurs. Russia certainly now has stability, economic growth and room for an expanding middle class, numbering at least 20 per cent of the population, to travel, make money and enjoy the consumer revolution. But there is an unmistakeable feel now of control, political subservience and authoritarianism. Russians cite Pinochet's Chile or the still one-party state in China as the model they would like to see. And so what if the streets are cleared to make way for the president? Isn't that how it should be?