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UNITED FRONT: Moscow police stand in front to a poster of
Vladimir Putin and his approved successor Dmitry Medvedev

UNITED FRONT: Moscow police stand in front to a poster of Vladimir Putin and his approved successor Dmitry Medvedev

UNITED FRONT: Moscow police stand in front to a poster of Vladimir Putin and his approved successor Dmitry Medvedev

Two thirds of Russians voting in today's presidential election are expected to back Dmitry Medvedev as Vladimir Putin's successor in the country's most predictable poll since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr Medvedev, the low-key first deputy prime minister and chairman of the state-run Gazprom gas monopoly, was effectively hand-picked by Mr Putin -- who will step sideways into the post of prime minister.

The election will guarantee that the popular Mr Putin continues to wield great influence over the Russian government, to the fury of the fractured opposition which was unable to field a convincing challenger and yesterday urged other world leaders not to recognise Mr Medvedev's election.

But the other driving force in Mr Medvedev's unexpected rise to Russia's highest office is his wife, Svetlana, who will today become the Kremlin's first lady in waiting.

Diplomats and western officials have begun scrutinising her, as well as her husband, for clues as to how Russia will be run when he takes over as head of state in May.

The couple were childhood friends and high school sweethearts before they eventually became husband and wife. The steely 42-year-old Mrs Medvedev is widely believed to have provided much of the drive that has helped propel her husband -- once a mild-mannered law lecturer -- to the very top of Russia's political tree.

Sociable and energetic, she is credited with forging the contracts that enabled her 5ft 4in husband to break out of academia into the world of commerce, a move which propelled him into Mr Putin's path and eventually to the very top of Russia's political tree.

She helped draw him into the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution which has endorsed him in today's election, and is thought to have been the friend with whom he was baptised, aged 23, at St Petersburg Cathedral.

Now she is expected to be an influential presence behind the scenes at the Kremlin, as well as providing what he calls "a solid and dependable rearguard''.

Russia's new first couple, who are the same age, met at the no 305 elementary school in St Petersburg and eventually married in 1989.

Mrs Medvedev's parents provided a home for the couple, allowing them to share their cramped St Petersburg flat. Eventually she prodded him to form the contacts needed to move into the more lucrative world of commerce, becoming a director of timber firm, Pulp Ilim, in the mid-Nineties.

A source close to them said: "He was happy, really, writing books on law and working at the state university in St Petersburg, but she had the contacts from her social life and she pushed him into the timber company. Everything he has done, she helped and supported him.''

Another friend added: "I don't think he could have got that job on his own, even though he's incredibly capable. But he's easy going. He liked his fish and his aquarium and his local football club. He needed Svetlana's drive to push himself forward.''

Indeed, stung by opponents' taunts that her husband looked "like a scholar fresh from the library'', Mrs Medvedev is also credited with his recent weight loss and increasingly muscular appearance -- not by taking steroids, but by making him learn yoga, go to the gym and swim nearly a mile twice a day.

© Telegraph