Much of the old Soviet elite -- the nomenklatura who had been positively vetted for high posts in party and state -- rapidly converted themselves into a property-owning middle class, with a new crude "aristocracy" of oligarchs of unbelievable wealth at the top. The poor, the vast pool of unemployed created by the theft of a nation, pensioners, the sick, the young whose schooling became a lottery, all suffered. Male life expectancy fell from 65 years in 1986 to 57 in the mid-1990s.
This tragedy was presided over by Boris Yeltsin, drunken conductor of a German brass band, general buffoon, corrupt liner of his and others pockets on a grand scale but, more seriously, destroyer, in 1993, of the nearest thing Russia had to a parliament by firing shells on its White House home.
He also crudely manipulated his re-election campaign in 1996, depriving opponents of a voice. Despite all this, unlike Putin, Yeltsin enjoyed a largely favourable press and image in the West.
There were two reasons for this. The only organized alternative to Yeltsin was the rump of the communist party and his bizarre presidency ensured it would never reorganize or gain control. In addition, many foreign interests -- especially oil, financial and legal services and some agribusinesses -- were able to fish prize specimens from the dank, turbulent, and muddy pool.
In 1998 a massive currency crisis finally stopped the ugly process in its tracks. Yeltsin had to step down for "health" reasons and the relatively unknown Putin was appointed as his successor in 1999.
At first, it appeared that Putin would have to be, like Yeltsin, a puppet of the oligarchs and the Kremlin kleptocracy. However, he soon proved to have a political strength of his own and, in a first major arm wrestle in 2004, he arrested and prosecuted the richest and most powerful oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that time number 16 on the Forbes world rich list.
Others took refuge abroad, like Boris Berezovsky, who was given asylum by the United Kingdom and eventually committed suicide in Berkshire earlier this year. Berezovsky's former protégée, Roman Abramovich, with whom he fought and lost a long court duel in London, took a different strategy.
Making himself a public figure in British life gave Abramovich some protection from Putin's control but, at the same time, he maintained positive working relations with Putin who put a golden chain round his neck by reappointing him as governor of the small and distant Chukhotka region when he wanted to give it up in 2004.
This was typical of Putin's new style. He was not going to be a creature of the oligarchs, who would have to toe his line or leave Russia. Putin gained immense popularity in 2009 by publicly taking to task one of the richest Russian-based oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, for shortcomings in his aluminium-smelting factory in Leningrad province.