MOSCOW — It was Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the flesh. Standing in front of the dilapidated wooden barracks where Anastasia Votintseva shares a single room with her sister and three children.
The Russian leader had come on Votintseva’s birthday, bearing flowers, gifts and good news. Soon, she and her family would have a new home. But first, they were going on a seaside vacation, courtesy of the Kremlin!
If that sounds like a fairy tale about a benevolent czar, it’s supposed to. Putin was delivering on a promise he had made June 15, when Votintseva was one of about 70 lucky Russians whose appeals he took during his annual televised call-in show.
The event, called “Direct Line,” is carefully staged to show that Russia’s head of state, who probably will seek a new six-year term next March, understands his people — and can solve their problems — better than anyone.
It’s like winning the lottery: More than 2 million people submitted requests for Putin to prod ineffective local leaders to release disaster relief funds, build promised housing and deliver on long-sought improvements and entitlements.
And because no one cuts through red tape like the Kremlin leader, the calls have gotten results. On Wednesday, as television cameras rolled outside Votintseva’s home 750 miles east of Moscow, Putin uttered clipped orders to the acting local governor — whose predecessor is facing bribery charges — to move her family and 11 others to new housing by the end of the year. Then he kissed her, and handed her a huge bouquet of roses and a certificate for a free trip for five to Sochi, Russia’s Black Sea resort.
“You’re my best present today,” Votintseva gushed.
The important part of this display is not just the delivery of the goods; it’s the way that Putin projects his authority “by dropping responsibility on the irresponsible elite,” as the veteran Russian political analyst Lilia Shevtsova put it in a recent blog.
This way, a president who rules unchecked over a political system whose leaders he hires and fires can sail in and save everyone, allowing him to avoid taking the heat for their failings. At a time when Russia has seen nationwide anti-corruption rallies, Putin’s approval ratingremains above 80 percent.
And although recent polls suggest that Russians don’t like the job Putin is doing to rein in corruption, they evidently approve of the way he deals with feckless underlings.
Take, for example, the mayor of the Moscow suburb Balashikha, who resigned in disgrace after a resident told Putin on a video call to “Direct Line” that the town is doing nothing about a massive landfill that was releasing noxious gases, making people “suffer from nausea and vomiting, all the time.”
“Turning to you is our last hope,” said the caller, Yelena Mikhailenko, who added that authorities had given only noncommittal replies.
This was music to Putin’s ears. Within days the site was closed.
Although the show may be choreographed, the emotions of the people calling in are real. One of the most poignant calls came from Darya Starikova, a 24-year-old cancer patient from Apatity, a remote town on the far northern Kola Peninsula, who was misdiagnosed when the local hospital closed and the specialists left.
“Our maternity hospital was closed, our surgical department was closed, our cardiology department was closed,” she said. “They send us for complicated operations and tests to the city of Murmansk, which is a five-hour drive from us. Not everyone can afford it, and not everyone can go there.”
Although she asked for help “not for myself,” but “for the city, for our residents,” Putin told her “not to lose hope.”
Starikova was brought to Moscow and is being treated at an oncological center. Putincare: signed, sealed, delivered.
Putin can’t save all the people this way, but he can side with them.
A caller from southern Russia got through to say that authorities had failed to pay compensation for flood damage. “I simply cannot get my head around it,” Putin said.
Another said she and her young child were living in an abandoned house because local authorities had failed to compensate her when a fire destroyed her home in a Siberian village.
“This is strange,” Putin said.
So it went with the woman who complained about the lack of funding for expensive medicines she needs, and the inhabitants of an island in Lake Baikal who couldn’t get clean drinking water, and families in Russia’s Far East who live in 40-year-old trailers.
The Kremlin issued instructions to look into all of it.
And Putin, partner of the people, promised to stay in touch.
“Okay, Andrei, we will look into it with your help,” Putin told a boy who called in from the Far East port of Nakhodka to complain about pollution. “Leave your contact details, and you will tell me later what measures were taken and whether people living in the area noticed any difference.”
If not, you never know. He might just show up to fix it himself.