It's been almost 20 years since Vladimir Putin became President of Russia.
Two decades on, the dictator has a prevailing legacy; Russia's economy and standard of living grew rapidly during his regime, political and journalistic freedoms diminished, and he developed a powerful personality cult.
His strongman image has been supported by consistently high approval ratings, and he's been credited with reforming the country's economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, reports News.com.au.
But embedded in his legacy is a dark conspiracy theory that suggests he was responsible for one of the worst human tragedies in recent history.
THE BOMBINGS THAT BROUGHT PUTIN TO POWER
In 1999, Mr Putin was a political nobody. He sat below then-president Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the "Unity" party, who had an approval rating of 2 per cent.
At the time, this party was not a popular one. The country's economy had broken down thanks to a financial crisis the previous year, and Mr Yeltsin had little public support. It was also reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr Putin himself had an approval rating of just 1 per cent, and most assumed that when Mr Yeltsin stepped down and he took over, he would be imminently disposed of.
The Russian apartment bombings changed everything.
In 1999, shortly after Mr Putin was elected Prime Minister of Russia, a series of bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings across the country's major cities.
All the bombings were set to go off at night, and designed to inflict the maximum number of casualties by targeting the weakest, most critical elements of the buildings' structure.
More than 300 people were killed and over 1000 injured in the cities of Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk.
The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, sparking fear across the country and driving up support for the Russian military in invading neighbouring Chechnya — a war fronted by Mr Putin himself.
Mr Putin took a strongman approach to the bombings.
On September 24 that year, he said: "We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, then in an airport, and, forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we'll rub them out (mochit) in the toilet …. The question is closed once and for all."
He authorised the aerial bombing of parts of Chechnya and an assault to recapture the breakaway southern province.
The Chechens denied involvement in the bombings, and to date, no Chechen has ever been named or prosecuted in connection with the attacks.
In December 1999, Russia held its parliamentary election. On New Year's Eve, president Yeltsin resigned over corruption allegations and Mr Putin was appointed acting President in a Kremlin ceremony.
At the presidential elections of the following March — despite barely running a campaign — Mr Putin won with 54 per cent of the vote.
DID THE KREMLIN ORCHESTRATE THE ATTACKS?
Many opponents of the Kremlin are convinced that Russia's FSB security services, which Mr Putin led prior to his 2000 election win, orchestrated the attacks to bring one of their own into power.
A week after the second Moscow bombing, a fifth bomb of the same nature was discovered in the basement of a building in Ryazan, southeast of the capital.
Police were called to a block of flats in the area and the bomb was diffused. That same evening, a telephone service employee in the city tapped into long distance phone conversations and detected a chat in which an out-of-town person said to the others that they should "split up" and "make your own way out".
The number was traced to a telephone exchange unit serving FSB offices. Three people were arrested for putting the bomb in the building, who turned out to be agents of the FSB.
Initially, Russian authorities had declared the Ryazan bomb to be a major threat. Mr Putin himself praised the vigilance of the citizens and used the incident to call for the air bombing of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
But following the arrest of the FSB operatives, authorities claimed it was actually a "security training" exercise.
Historians have since compared the Russian apartment bombings to the September 11 bombings in New York. But unlike with the Americans, Russian authorities obstructed all efforts to pinpoint who exactly was responsible for the apartment bombings and why.
"The Americans several months after 11 September 2001 already knew everything — who the terrorists were and where they come from," said Russian journalist Yuliya Kalinina. "We, in general, know nothing."
People who have attempted to investigate the source of the attacks have been killed. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and staunch critic of Mr Putin's federal presidency, was gunned down in 2006. Sergei Yushenkov, a liberal Russian politician who was chairing a parliamentary inquiry into the bombings, was also shot dead.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, an MP who had written articles raising doubts about the official version of the bombings, died from suspected poisoning in 2003. His medical documents were never found.
In 2003, US senator John McCain lent credence to these claims. "It was during Mr Putin's tenure as Prime Minister in 1999 that he launched the Second Chechen War following the Moscow apartment bombings," he said in a speech to the US Senate. "There remain credible allegations that Russia's FSB had a hand in carrying out these attacks.
"Mr Putin ascended to the presidency in 2000 by pointing a finger at the Chechens for committing these crimes, launching a new military campaign in Chechnya, and riding a frenzy of public anger into office."
Yuri Felshtinsky, historian and co-author of the book Blowing Up Russia, claimed Russia's security services were directly responsible for the apartment bombings.
The book claims they were a false-flag operation ordered to bring Mr Putin to power and justify the invasion of Chechnya.
Back then, he recently told The Times, no one would have believed he was prepared to kill 300 of his own people just to win power.
"But now, after so many more deaths, the invasion of Georgia, the thousands killed on both sides in the conflict in Ukraine, people are ready to believe he could have had a hand in the bombings," he said.
Felshtinsky wrote the book with his friend Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent and British-naturalised Russian defector who was mysteriously poisoned in London in 2006. Mr Litvinenko ingested polonium-210 in London, later dying of acute radiation syndrome.
A UK public inquiry found that the poisoning was "probably approved" by the FSB — and Mr Putin himself.
Mr Putin has addressed the claims himself. In March 2000, he dismissed the conspiracies as "delirious nonsense".
"There are no people in the Russian secret services who would be capable of such crime against their own people," he told the Kommersant newspaper. "The very allegation is immoral."
To date, the mystery of who bombed the Russian apartments remains unsolved — and we may never know for sure who was behind them.
But whether through careful deliberation or consequential timing, they were no doubt instrumental in giving birth to a dictator for life.