MOSCOW – Lock 1,200 journalists in a hall with one world leader, keep them there for four and a half hours with no breaks as that leader expounds on everything from Tuva’s railway system to whether accountants should get a national feast day, and what do you have?
The Russian president’s marathon session was notably harsher in tone than in previous years, with even journalists from state-backed media emboldened enough to press Putin on corruption, housing and traffic problems and a proposed ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Still, hero worship managed to creep into the proceedings, as desperate journalists waved scraps of paper, signs and even an image of a cat on a laptop computer to try to get the attention of Putin, 60, who has served as Russia’s paramount leader for the past 12 years. (The cat image was successful. The Washington Post’s scribbled Cyrillic sign was not.)
Apparently eager to show off his wide-ranging knowledge, Putin lapsed into amateur-astronomer mode when asked about the Mayan end of the world, which is anticipated Friday. Putin estimated that the end of the world would come in more like 5 billion years. Or maybe it was 3 billion.
“The end of the world is going to come … in 5 billion years, because, if I am not mistaken, this is the cycle of the sun, around 7 billion years. 4 billion years have already passed. In 3 billion years, the sun’s reactor, so to say, is going to extinguish,” Putin said.
Putin also offered Russian citizenship to Gerard Depardieu, should he desire it. The French actor has recently sought to acquire Belgian citizenship and give up French citizenship because of high taxes in his native country.
“If Gerard really wants permission to live in Russia,” Putin said, “he can count on a positive response from the authorities.”
There were friendly questions and exchanges. One journalist told Putin he looked strong and handsome, despite rumors that he had been in ill health. Another asked whether Russia should rename the disputed Kuril Islands, claimed by both Russia and Japan, the Putin Islands, just to show who had dominion over them. (Putin suggested the Pushkin or Tolstoy Islands instead.) From one reporter, Putin received “salutations from my daughter Annichka, who lives in Irkutsk,” in Siberia. (Putin signed a birthday card for her.)
Asked about charges that Russia is authoritarian, Putin said that a fair observer of the country’s politics could see that it is not.
“If I believed that the authoritarian system was the best system for us, I would have changed the constitution,” he said, to allow himself to stay on as president in 2008, when a two-term limit forced him to cede nominal power to his deputy, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin spent four years as prime minister, then swapped back to the presidency this year.
“It would have been easy” to change the constitution, he said. His party had a supermajority in parliament.
He also provided some quick, basic political theory lessons to the assembled journalists.
“Democracy is first and foremost compliance with the law,” he said. “Some have the impression, strangely, that democracy, like Trotskyism, is anarchy.”
As for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was signed into law by President Obama last week, Putin had many harsh words. The law imposes travel and financial sanctions on Russian officials tied to the 2009 death in Moscow of Magnitsky, a lawyer and tax adviser.
“It’s a matter of one anti-Soviet, anti-Russian law being replaced with another,” Putin said. “They can’t seem to do without it. They keep trying to stay in the past. This is very bad, and has a negative impact on our relations.”
Top Russian opposition leaders were quick to pounce on his performance.
“He was surprised, he was confused, he was angry, and he was not happy about it,” said Ilya Yashin, an opposition blogger and activist, in a telephone interview. “A lot of difficult questions for him, and he didn’t know the answers for many of them.”