MOSCOW — In a sunny garden outside the Kremlin, not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, workers quietly hammered into place 10 squat black letters to commemorate one of the bloodiest battles of World War II: Stalingrad.
Until Friday, the memorial bore the name the city has had since 1961 -- Volgograd -- reflecting modern Russia's reluctance to honor a Soviet dictator famed and feared for a legacy of repression. President Vladimir V. Putin had long resisted pleas by war veterans to correct the historical record, saying it "could trigger suspicion that we are returning to the times of Stalinism."
Then, without fanfare, the 10 new letters appeared on the wall, and below them, a bright wreath of autumn flowers. Coming just days after Putin announced one of the most sweeping consolidations of presidential power since the fall of communism, the move evoked far more than the memory of war.
"It is symbolic -- another step toward the restoration of the Soviet Union," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a former Soviet dissident and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.
As a chilly early autumn takes hold in Russia, there is a palpable sense of unease.
On the streets, people live in dread of the next terrorist attack, and in law enforcement circles, authorities flinch from the demonstrated inability of Russia's famed security services to protect the population. In the last few weeks, more than 400 people have been killed in bloodshed that has included a suicide bombing near a subway station, nearly simultaneous airline bombings and a hostage siege at a provincial school.
Opponents worry that Putin's response has had almost nothing to do with terrorism, and everything to do with expanding the already formidable power of the government.
Putin responded to the school tragedy by saying that the nation was "weak -- and the weak get beaten," and by taking steps "to ensure the unity of state power." On Sept. 13, he announced a plan to eliminate the general election of regional governors and of independent seats in parliament, essentially removing the last real checks on his personal dominion over the largest nation on Earth.
As a result of these measures and others put into place over the last four years, the Kremlin now controls an absolute majority in parliament, all major television stations, the Russian gas giant Gazprom (which reportedly is positioning itself to acquire the private oil company Yukos), the country's corrupt judicial system and a massive state security apparatus.
"Putin is now past the point where his regime can be removed peacefully by democratic means. There is no way for democratic transition," said Vladimir Kara-Murza of the pro-democracy Committee 2008 organization. "There's no independent media, there's no parliament to speak of, there are no real parliamentary elections and now with the decision about the regional governors, there are no elections at all."
In an office at the parliament building Friday, one official broke from Russian into English and lowered his voice to barely a whisper, nodding his head toward the wall, as if it might be listening.
"Democracy is finished in this country," he said. "It is over. It ended on the 13th of September."
Asked whether his caution and pessimism were not extreme, he shook his head firmly. "Many have already been given very severe and hard instructions," he said. "Not to comment. Not to criticize. And real threats. All of us are in a state of shock. We are in the middle of 1937."
Notes of concern have been raised by Putin's onetime mentor, the reclusive Boris N. Yeltsin, and by former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, both cautioning about the need to preserve democratic freedoms.
"The general impression is that everything will now rest on the president's shoulders. First of all, this is too great a burden for even the most superhuman politician," Gorbachev told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It is vital for the people themselves to participate in, oversee and receive information about the activities of the authorities. If their intention is to solve everything without the involvement of the people -- that is a delusion."
Analysts said the move to appoint regional governors, with ratification by local legislatures, reflects concern over the growing militancy of some of Russia's far-flung regions. Oil-rich areas have grumbled loudly in the last year over Kremlin moves to substantially increase Moscow's share of oil profits; in July, 10 governors in the Russian Far East signed an unprecedented letter of opposition to Putin's plan to replace relatively generous Soviet-era in-kind benefits with meager cash payments.