Vladimir Putin Feels Your Pain

Even Vladimir Putin gets tired. Sauntering into the sleek Moscow TV studio Thursday at noon for his annual call-in show, the Russian president looked bored as one of the moderators showed him a computer where a perfectly made-up operator was receiving citizens’ questions by voice, text, and video from across Russia. For Putin, it was his 14th such program since 2001.

The more sclerotic his dictatorship becomes, the greater the importance of rare encounters with the public such as the “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.” In a country where the parliament is a rubber stamp and civil society curtailed, the will of the people is largely a mystery. Even though there’s plenty of theater in the staging of the show, what citizens are talking about lets the Kremlin gauge the true mood in the country. More than 3 million questions were sent in for Thursday’s show, according to state-run Channel One.

Moderators read out text messages, studio guests made appeals, and a few little old ladies had their phone calls put straight through to Putin. Live audiences posed their questions to the president via satellite from a fish-processing plant on Sakhalin Island and a construction site in Crimea. As always, the topics jumped all over the place, from the U.S. presidential elections (see below) to Putin’s love life as a divorcee (top secret, stop asking).

Although the call-in show is designed to demonstrate how hands-on the president is, it always ends up exposing how poorly his “power vertical”—the vaunted chain of command from the Kremlin down to the village mayor—works in reality. Issues that in other countries would be solved on the local or provincial level all pile up in Putin’s inbox. Russians call this kind of micromanagement “manual control.”

The broadcast, which lasted more than three-and-a-half hours, started with a video call from a woman, Yekaterina, who stood on a roadside in Omsk and complained about how local authorities ignored the city’s potholes. Before the show was over, one of the moderators announced the good news that Omsk officials had promised to repair 21 roads by May 1.

In the olden days, the idea of “good czar, bad boyars” protected Russia’s God-given rulers from the wrath of the people. Putin similarly uses the layers of officialdom below him to absorb frustration with government incompetence and negligence. After all, he takes the time to listen to people’s problems, unlike the stuffed suits in the ministries and parliament. Even with an ailing economy, Putin has consistently scored approval ratings higher than 80 percent since the annexation of Crimea two years ago.

During Thursday’s show, Putin invariably agreed with the callers, often appearing to note down their questions and comments. You don’t have to be a former KGB agent to understand that taking the side of your interlocutor is a smart tactic if you’re trying to keep their loyalty. Putin acknowledged that many of the questions addressed to him were angry and said that he shared “almost 100 percent” of the concerns of the people who had posed them. He, for one, was doing his best.

While there was some groveling before the czar, most of the questions aired during the show were critical and unvarnished. People were unhappy about the struggling economy, the cost of medicine and utilities, and wage arrears. One Muscovite said she was paying twice as much for food compared to a year ago, even though the annual inflation rate was below 13 percent. “Whom should I believe: the government or the grocery bill?” Another outspoken woman from Moscow queried Putin: “Everyone in Russia has started economizing. What do you save on personally?” The 63-year-old president’s reply was parabolic: “On time, the most important thing there is.”

There’s a stereotype about Russians that they are too passive for democracy and need a strong ruler. Often this view is carted out to justify the perpetuation of Putin’s reign.

On Thursday, anybody who watched could see well-informed citizens—some trying to do heroic things like working with autistic children—pepper their country’s leader with tough questions. A worker on Sakhalin asked if his region’s former governor, under investigation for bribe-taking, would have the same fate as “Mrs. Vasilyeva.” Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, a Defense Ministry official convicted of embezzlement last year, was released after serving only four months of a five-year prison sentence.

Russians know exactly what’s going on in their country, and their sense of justice isn’t in any way stunted. Not surprisingly, during the call-in show they focused on domestic problems—and not the foreign military adventures that Putin has pursued to restore lost glory and pump up the population.

There was almost no mention of Russia’s intervention in Syria, and references to the United States were mostly self-serving. The United States—in the form of Goldman Sachs—was behind the Panama Papers, according to Putin. What’s more, developed democracies are simply political monopolies shared by two dominant parties—and in the United States two families, the Bushes and Clintons. Putin refused to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as his preferred candidate in the U.S. election.

The Kremlin’s call-in program is like a surreal game show where an entire country asks one contestant questions—and his answers are always right. Yet the biggest question Russians are asking remains unanswered: Why—after 16 years of Putin and an unprecedented oil boom—have their problems stayed the same?

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