It’s February 2014, and the Sochi Olympics are just coming up when I arrive in Moscow. It’s a different Moscow every time I come here. The ’80s-style go-go capitalist, conspicuous consumption, see-who-can-spend-the-most-money, disco-techno thing that I encountered when I first came here back in 2001 is still going strong. In fact, these days, Moscow has one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world. But as never before, it’s imperial Russia now, a one-man rule. All power emanates from—every decision—must consider [Vladimir Putin].

Whatever you think of this guy—his dead, affectless eyes, his smooth pulled-tight-like-a-snare-drum face—he ain’t going anywhere. Look at him. He’s the Russian Superman, the KGB middle manager desk jockey turned expression of Greater Russia’s hopes and dreams.

He lets no opportunity to take his shirt off pass him by. Pose with a large gun, he’s there. And no matter how transparently autocratic, vengeful, oblivious to even a thin veneer of democracy, Russians love him. They seem to feel about him like New Yorkers used to feel about [Rudy] Giuliani—“He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Bad things seem to happen to critics of Vladimir Putin. Journalists, activists, even powerful, once seemingly untouchable oligarchs are now fair game if they displease the leader.

This field note is excerpted from Bourdain’s narration of the episode.

Highlights from Russia on Explore Parts Unknown: