By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow
Russia's Vladimir Putin is due to stand down as president next year, but there is a growing recognition within the international community that his political influence could last much longer.
For the last two years, one of the favourite pastimes of Moscow's hacks and Kremlin watchers has been laying odds on who will replace him when he steps down.
Could Dmitry Medvedev (l) replace Vladimir Putin when he steps down?
For step down he must, and he has repeatedly said that he will.
The early money was on a young acolyte of Mr Putin called Dmitry Medvedev. By the beginning of this year the heavy betting had shifted to Sergei Ivanov, an old friend from his KGB days.
And that is where it stayed until two weeks ago, when the odds on either Mr Ivanov or Mr Medvedev becoming Russia's president suddenly lengthened dramatically.
Out of the blue, Mr Putin named a complete unknown as Russia's new prime minister: Victor Zubkov.
Then, a couple of days later, Mr Putin suggested openly that the obscure Mr Zubkov would be an excellent candidate to replace him as president.
The man who will now replace Vladimir Putin as Russia's leader is, in all probability Vladimir Putin
A week later, Mr Putin suggested that he himself might be a good candidate to become prime minister when he steps down from the presidency next March.
All this has sent Kremlin hacks in to a collective spin, scrambling for an explanation.
The clear conclusion is that the man who will now replace Vladimir Putin as Russia's leader is, in all probability, Vladimir Putin.
We are now asking ourselves why we did not see this coming.
The main reason is that Mr Putin has put on a very good act.
In interview after interview he has insisted that, despite his huge popularity, he will follow the Russian constitution, and leave office after his second term.
His heroic poses could have come straight from a Soviet era propaganda poster
He has carefully nurtured his possible successors, promoting them to higher office, and making sure they got a slice of airtime on state-run television.
It was all very convincing.
But, with the benefit of hindsight, contrary signals have been there for some time.
I think the first time I realised that something was wrong with the conventional wisdom was in mid-August.
Russia's main newspapers began running large photo spreads of Mr Putin on his summer holidays in Siberia.
The president, 55, was shown in a selection of highly contrived macho poses, astride a Mongolian horse, staring out across the wilderness or with a huge jungle knife at his belt.
But the real show stopper was a shot of a bare-chested Mr Putin, muscles rippling, fishing in a Siberian river.
His heroic poses could have come straight from a Soviet-era propaganda poster.
But to what end? Why did a man who is already hugely popular, and about to step down, need a propaganda boost?
A few days later I was having dinner with a group of Russian academics, a couple of whom are very close to the Kremlin.
"What on earth are those photographs about?" I asked.
"They show Mr Putin is still a strong and virile man," one said.
"Yes, but why does he need to show he's strong and virile if he's about to step down?" I insisted.
"I do not," one of them declared, "consider that we are witnessing the end of the Putin era.
"Indeed I would say we are still at the beginning of the Putin era. I expect Mr Putin to be a major force in Russian politics until the 2020s."
It was a telling remark.
How exactly Mr Putin intends to engineer his continuation in power is still not entirely clear.
He may, as he has suggested, become prime minister. He may anoint the obscure Mr Zubkov as a loyal successor, and meanwhile prepare to make a return as president in four years' time.
Either way, Russia's people will cheer him on.
Big chunks of the media have been taken back under state control
One BBC colleague joked to me recently: "Only the Russians could get rid of the communists, and then invite the secret police back to run the place instead."
In the 1990's Russia made a brief, chaotic attempt at democracy. It was, by and large, a disaster.
But amid the turmoil it did gain a democratic constitution, free elections, a multitude of political parties, an outspoken media and the beginnings of a civil society.
In his eight years in power Mr Putin has done much to dismantle that fragile infrastructure.
Big chunks of the media have been taken back under state control. Opposition parties have been driven out of parliament, some out of existence.
Mr Putin appears to want to show the outside world that he is sticking absolutely to the letter of the Russian constitution
Elections for the governors of Russia's vast regions have simply been abolished.
At every stage, the majority of the Russian people have cheered him on, grateful and relieved that their country is once again stable and increasingly prosperous.
By stepping down as President, Mr Putin appears to want to show the outside world that he is sticking absolutely to the letter of the Russian constitution.
It is still possible he will hand over power and walk away.
But there is also a real danger that Russia is now sleepwalking its way back to autocracy.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 13 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.