On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared in his eighth annual televised séance with the Russian public. More than 2 million questions poured in by phone, e-mail, or text message, and, for a record four hours, Putin fielded some 80 of them from Russians across the country. All told, it was an odd spectacle. For one thing, Putin looked uncharacteristically weary, as if he was tired of putting on his populist hat and hearing the umpteenth pensioner complaining about a bad apartment -- something he's normally very good at.
It also made for a striking contrast with President Dmitry Medvedev's state of the nation address to the Russian political elite a month ago. Granted, it was for a different audience, but Medvedev, in calling for urgent modernization, struck a very negative tone: Russia was behind; Russia was backward; Russia needed to modernize or drown in the riptides of history. Stop whining, he said; start doing.
Putin's address, on the other hand, resembled an extended episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. He kicked off by answering some T-ball questions from the anchors about how well Russia had weathered the financial crisis. "With a big dose of certainty, we can say that the peak of the crisis has been overcome," Putin said, to the anchors' seeming relief.
And then to the mailbox. Even for what was obviously a scripted event, the range of questions was stunning. Once the weariness wore off, Putin covered everything from industrial accidents to Russia's lack of aeronautical engineers, the World Cup, legless veterans, pensions, birthday greetings, Stalin's legacy, the gaudy nouveaux riches, and Russian rap. (There was even what seemed like a surprise question on imprisoned Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which seemed to blindside Putin -- though he probably had to agree to have it asked -- before sending him into a controlled but apoplectic rage about contract killings and the Western bankers who, Putin claimed, brought about Yukos's bankruptcy.)
The vast majority of questions, however, were highly specific and highly personal. My great aunt is a veteran of World War II; how come she can't get an apartment? I lost my husband in an industrial accident and was hired as a replacement; what if they fire me? My niece works at a day-care center and gets paid too little for the number of kids she supervises; how can she live on such a small salary? My pension finally went up; thank you very much, Vladimir Vladimirovich.
In his answers to these requests, Putin sounded a bit like a genie. Someone writes in, "I am a diabetic but haven't been able to get free medicine for more than a year." Putin: "What region is this?" Irkutsk oblast, Angarsk. Putin: "We're going to see what's going on in Irkutsk oblast, and in Angarsk in particular. This I promise you." A caller brings Putin's attention to the poverty of an old woman living by the railroad tracks where the Nevsky Express train was blown up last week. Putin: "To her very modest pension -- I think just 4,500 rubles [$150] a month -- will be added an equal amount.... They will restore her home ... and look into the possibility of moving her closer to her relatives." A young man named Nikita studying aeronautical engineering volunteers to go build planes in the remote Russian Far East at the Sukhoi Superjet complex. Putin: "I support Nikita's choice, and if you're not against it, I will definitely talk to the CEO so that he can help you get over there."
But there were more than 2 million requests, and about two-thirds were highly specific -- a daunting workload for even the most powerful of genies. More than that, though, the piling on of personal, domestic troubles underscored one of the fundamental things holding Russia back and one of the things Medvedev addressed in his state of the nation address: a lack of working institutions that address citizens' basic needs. To receive social services, solve a grievance, or even seek compensation for an injury in Russia, people normally work through personal connections or understandings, which is exactly why corruption is so firmly woven into the fabric of Russian life. There are simply no working institutions -- impersonal and effective -- that can do something better than a bribe can. And if you've exhausted all your options or didn't have many options to begin with, you turn to the top, to the traditional figure of the Tsar-Father to intercede with the wicked authorities -- or with wicked fate. Putin's annual performances as this mystical wand-waver, as crucial as they are to his image and his ratings, only perpetuate the very thing Medvedev is purportedly trying to fight.
Another telling phenomenon was on display in Putin's TV appearance: Whenever possible, he blamed the regional governors. The woman whose niece doesn't make enough working in day care? "I think I understood correctly that you're from Krasnoyarsk," Putin said, acknowledging that the young woman's salary was impossible to live on. "Krasnoyarsk has a relatively young and energetic governor. He and I will absolutely discuss this problem. If this hasn't happened yet in Krasnoyarsk, it's about time it got started." This kind of ominous threat came down over and over again -- usually when Putin couldn't find a good answer -- and one could imagine governors across Russia gulping uneasily in front of their TVs.
What it indicates, though, is not Putin's authoritarian aggression, but the fact that Russians no longer have any means of directly addressing their own officials. After Putin abolished the direct election of regional governors in 2004 in favor of their appointment by the Kremlin, it undid any sense of accountability to the electorate. Now the governors are responsible to the Kremlin, which, through venues like the Putin phone-a-thon, can then tell the governors what's going on under their very noses. "In the West, there's a sense of public opinion," says political observer and former cabinet member Evgeny Gontmakher. "There's the mass media, elections. Here it's all atrophied, and I guess you can see this as a kind of ersatz form of feedback." But, Gontmakher warns, the phone-a-thon is no substitute for a real discussion. "The people asking the questions can't respond to the answers they get. It's one-sided; it's rehearsed."
And let's not forget the most important thing: In their appeals to Putin, the public seemed to forget that he was no longer president, and hasn't been for a while. Why wasn't Medvedev doing this?
"This is Putin's trademark genre," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who chairs the Foundation for Effective Politics, a think tank linked closely to the Kremlin. "It was discovered early on, by accident, and it's the genre in which Putin feels most like himself and in which people most like to see him. And he needs to keep his audience."
But the phone-a-thon was more than just about differences of style between the tech-savvy, übercorporate Medvedev and the hucksterish patriarch Putin. The four-hour slog came, incidentally, after Putin's approval rating sank to its lowest level since March. And, though he is still well ahead of Medvedev, Putin needs to make sure he doesn't disappear from popular consciousness.
"In a certain sense, it's theater," Pavlovsky says, "but theater with colossal political consequences. If Putin loses his audience, the tandem would become unbalanced.... This is Putin's strategic weapon, that in a difficult situation he can turn to the country. This is his main strength, and this is why the apparatus is scared of him, because he still has that card."