This contradiction points to a larger flaw in the Putin project. The prime minister and his allies insist that they want to reinvigorate and diversify the Russian economy — and acknowledge that this must mean strengthening the rule of law, and less state interference. But a weaker state and the rule of law would threaten not just a few rotten apples, but the people at the very top of Russian politics and business, including the prime minister himself.

Putin must know this and he could react in one of two ways. The most obvious would be to secure his election — by fair means or foul — and then to crack down. But now that he knows that many thousands of people will demonstrate against him, he must also realise that a really tough crackdown would only increase the risk that he goes the way of the Arab autocrats.

The alternative choice is that, even as he secures his re-election, he and his allies begin to prepare for a post-Putin era. One possibility is that Putin heeds the calls for a rerun of the parliamentary elections of last December. Genuinely free elections would lead to a Duma with a real opposition that would be able to challenge the Kremlin rather than simply acting as its echo chamber.

Another possibility is to repeat the procedure that ended the presidency of Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999. Yeltsin was persuaded to step down, in favour of Putin, in return for guarantees that he, his family and his business cronies would not be pursued for corrupt practices.