The closest analogy to the “Direct Line” between President Vladimir Putin and the Russian people is the practice of European medieval kings, who periodically reached out to their subjects, giving alms or even curing ailments through the royal touch.
A pensioner in Omsk watches the live broadcast of the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Photo: RIA Novosti
The annual televised “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,” which took place on Thursday, April 16, for the 13th time, has long turned into a media ritual, with clearly prescribed roles for all participants and the manifest triumph of form over content.
The part played by Russian President Vladimir Putin is less “president” than “national leader,” since the tradition of “Putin meets the people” was not interrupted even during the period 2008-2011 when he was prime minister.
The second protagonist in “Direct Line” is, of course, the people — in all their manifold guises and permutations: from children to cosmonauts to celebrities. Several dozen of the “best people” are traditionally honored by being present in the studio; others ask questions from all corners of Russia by all means available, electronic or otherwise.
The preparations for “Direct Line,” and the actual face time with the president, receive great fanfare in state-run media, and take place in an atmosphere artificially stoked by “record mania.” The TV hosts constantly stress that all conceivable communication channels are open and myriad questions are posed, yet Putin’s time on air, the number of topics covered, etc., are meticulously calculated.
For a different take on this issue, read "Putin's 'Direct Line' did not offer any direct solutions"
In 2015 Putin stopped somewhat short of his chronological record for continuous televised chat set two years ago (4 hours 47 minutes), but still delivered a performance capable of astonishing foreign colleagues (or provoking ironic bewilderment).
To endure these conversational marathons year in year out, the head of state needs to be not only physically and emotionally fit, but also seriously motivated, since it is clear that a politician of Putin’s standing has more than enough channels of communication with any audience at his disposal, and does not need to exhaust himself and viewers time and again.
Some leaders are famous for waxing poetic in public. Cuban President Fidel Castro once spoke at the UN General Assembly for four and a half hours. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also liked to exercise his jaw, and when he got tired of speaking, entertained his admiring audience with some half-decent crooning. U.S. senators, too, in their desire to obstruct a bill, have lingered at the podium for more than a day.
However, the case with Putin is, without a doubt, unique.
The Russian president seems to act not out of political necessity, as do the filibusters in the U.S. Senate, and not under the influence of the oratorical ecstasy that grips Latin American’s fiery politicians (although it is clear that Putin derives pleasure from the proceedings and tries to remain in his comfort zone for as long as possible). But the president would hardly display such positive emotions and with such regularity were it not for the accommodating reaction of the other side of the discourse, i.e. the people.
The closest analogy to the “Direct Line” is the practice of European medieval kings, who periodically reached out to their subjects, giving alms or curing ailments through the royal touch. And although Putin is not yet qualified to heal scrofula through the laying on of hands, as the French monarchs apparently were, in recent years questions about the price and availability of medicines and medical equipment have invariably cropped up, and they always receive the most concrete answers and assurances that something will be done. Thus, it could be argued that in some instances Putin is even more useful and effective than Saint Louis.
It is no wonder that millions of people across Russia take the time to formulate and send a question to the president, because to some it looks like a free (although not every-ticket-wins) lottery. In Soviet times, a proven method for solving the problems of the world was a letter to a newspaper.
The most effective was believed to be a letter to Pravda, the main mouthpiece of the Communist Party, but it was better to start with a lower authority, such as the factory circular. Editorial offices had large departments responsible for correspondence with readers; and in some cases a biting feuilleton in a newspaper really did help to break the deadlock.
So it was possible to prod the authorities into some sort of response. But in Soviet times, under no circumstances did the top leaders condescend to any form of lengthy or substantial dialogue with ordinary people.
When the young General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the fashion of periodically stopping his motorcade to chat with the crowd, it created a genuine furor, and the policy of perestroika instantly garnered millions of zealous supporters.
A few years before the “Iron Curtain” between East and West was finally lifted, the analogous metaphor that existed in relations between the Soviet people and their political leaders ceased to be a factor (or so it seemed to very many).
As a child of the transitional period, Putin is well aware of the raw power of the public energy given vent in the 1980s, understands the ingredients that made it possible, and does not want to repeat the mistakes of Soviet leaders who lost touch with the common man. The “Direct Line” helps him maintain this contact, or at least maintain the outward appearance of maintaining this contact.
However, Vladimir Putin’s efforts in this direction have had some unforeseen consequences. His carefully built image as a strong man with “human” traits has been attracting more and more admirers from outside Russia, too.
Readers of Time magazine recently voted the Russian president as the most influential person in the world. It seems that Putin’s passion for winning the hearts and minds of the people has turned from a domestic into an international hobby. That’s what really gives “Direct Line” free scope for new records!
Imagine the headlines: “The people of the BRICS countries ask Vladimir Putin 100 million questions,” “Putin promises Brazilian farmers that U.S. hegemony will be dealt with,” “Putin encourages all people on Earth to lead a healthy lifestyle,” and others in a similar vein.
As a matter of fact, if people in many countries are so unhappy with their leaders and so enamored of Putin, why not give them a chance to communicate directly with their idol?
Then again, asked if he would like to become UN Secretary General, Putin replied in the negative, meaning that all international fans of the Russian president should bear in mind that a Russia without Putin is not an immediate prospect.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.