Vladimir Vladimirovich, the questioner wondered, what is the best advice you could give your grandchildren?
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who only confirmed last year that he has grandchildren at all, considered the question and responded during a nationally broadcast call-in program. “Don’t lie,” he said — a rather stunning response for a former KGB officer who has told whopping untruths about, for instance, the existence of Russian troops in Ukraine.
But you never know what you’re going to hear on “Direct Line with Putin.”
Thursday marked the 16th year for the annually televised event, in which Putin took more than four hours of calls and texts from Russians across the country. The live format allows Russians to reach out to their president with what appear to be previously vetted questions.
This year’s show lasted 4 hours, 23 minutes. The Kremlin said it received more than 2.5 million questions, of which Putin answered 79 during the live event.
The show is perhaps best known for giving Putin an opportunity to play a cross between the Tooth Fairy and Ann Landers, doling out sage advice and almost magically solving problems great and (mostly) small.
This year’s live show had a slightly different format. Russian media reported days before the show that regional governors, ministers and deputies had been put on notice to be ready to be speak to some of the questions coming in live via video calls. Several times, cameras flashed to video screens of governors and ministers as Putin put callers’ questions to them about a wide range of topics, including gas prices, the closing of rural medical clinics and low salaries of state workers.
Now in his 18th year of being either president or prime minister, Putin seemed to strike a more serious tone than in previous years. He addressed Russia’s involvement in Syria, saying the military has ceased “large-scale military actions” in the conflict but its troops will remain “as long as it’s in Russia’s interests.”
Putin said accusations that the Kremlin tried to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election could only be described as “a joke.” The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it had anything to do with disinformation campaigns or other ways of influencing the election’s outcome.
As in the past, sometimes the questions weren’t questions at all. Early in the show, a reporter from the state channel stood at a fan zone overlooking Luzhniki Stadium, where the final championship game will be played for the FIFA World Cup, which starts here next week. The reporter turned to Russian soccer legend-turned-parliament-deputy Valery Gazzaev, who began a monologue about how important it was to invest in and develop Russia’s soccer program.
The moderator interrupted Gazzaev: “Yes, but what is your question?”
“My question? I want to wish you good health, Vladimir Vladimirovich. And don’t forget about soccer.”
But Putin’s focus this year, as it has been in previous years, was on portraying himself as a hands-on father of the nation, and sometimes, the maker of dreams.
Here’s a sample of some of Putin’s more unusual “Direct Line” questions and their outcomes over the last 16 years.
Dasha Varfolomeyeva called from Buryatia, a republic in eastern Siberia, during the December 2008 “Direct Line” to tell Putin about her and her sister’s struggles to afford the clothes of their dreams while trying to survive on their grandmother’s small pension.
“Uncle Volodya!” the 8-year-old began, addressing Putin by a diminutive name for Vladimir typically used by close friends or family members. “It will be New Year’s soon. We live on my grandmother’s pension, there is no work in the village. My sister and I dream of new dresses. I want to ask you for a dress, one like Cinderella. Please, be our good wizard this new year!”
Putin, who was then taking the calls as prime minister, replied by inviting the girl and her family to Moscow, some 2,700 miles to the west of the girl’s Siberian village. As for the new dresses, “Come to the main Christmas tree in Moscow, and we will deal with the gift,” Putin told the girl.
Reached by a reporter from Komsomolskaya Pravda the next day, the girl’s school principal said Varfolomeyeva’s call with Putin was “a truly grandiose event” for the village.
Two weeks later, Varfolomeyeva and her family visited Putin at his house outside of Moscow, where he presented the girl with a new dress.
During the 2015 “Direct Line,” the presenter read Putin a letter from a woman whose close friend was about to turn 40 and really wanted a dog for her birthday. Her friends had said they were ready to get her a dog, but her husband was against it, the woman wrote. Could Putin, who was prime minister at the time, use his influence to persuade the husband, Boris, to allow her friend to have a dog? “Tell Boris he’s wrong!” the woman wrote.
“We can together work out a plan of action and ask to meet his wife halfway,” Putin said. “I am sure that after that he will give her not only a dog, but an elephant, especially if she says that at the right time and right place. And he may in addition promise her a fur coat.”
A week later, the state television channel ran a report showing the friend with a new puppy, a Corgi she said was just as she had wished. Boris had capitulated to Putin’s persuasion, the report said.
Dresses and dogs aside, Putin does try to address serious questions about the country’s economic woes and infrastructure problems. In 2017, a video report aired on “Direct Line” showed a reporter interviewing Valentina Sakovskaya, a mother of three whose home was nearly destroyed by floods in the southern region of Stavropol that spring.
Sakovskaya complained to Putin that the local authorities had done nothing to assist her or other residents of the village, and her home remained uninhabitable.
Within days, Sakovskaya received government financial assistance, first for 120,000 rubles, or $1,930. More money began trickling in for various government assistance funds. In total, the family received the equivalent in rubles of about $30,000 within a year after her call.
“We bought a house,” she told the Russian paper RBC.
This year, another woman from the same region called in to complain that she had still not received any help from the same flooding. Putin referred the issue to the regional governor, who looked nervously at the camera as he promised to address the issue.
The residents of Kuchino in the Moscow region gathered together to complain to Putin last year about the toxic smell coming from the nearby landfill, which served the city of Moscow and was polluting the air of the surrounding towns.
Putin promised on live television to close the landfill within the month. He kept his promise, but within six months, residents living near another huge landfill in the Volokolamsk region were demanding the same outcome. The landfill remains open, despite several rounds of protests that have ended with detentions and arrests of activists demanding its closure.
Ayres is a special correspondent.