MOSCOW — Facing a wave of popular unrest not seen in years, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the nation’s airwaves Thursday to assure citizens that their lives will be getting better. Judging from the questions the Kremlin leader fielded over four long hours, Russians aren’t feeling it.
Just three days after tens of thousands of people turned out in more than 180 cities across Russia to express their dissatisfaction with the government, Putin used his annual “Direct Line with the President” call-in show to say that the Russian economy is showing signs of growth after a long recession and that “in general things will start moving to where people feel a change for the better.”
The questions that came in from viewers across the country reflected little of that. A Siberian teacher asked him how she is supposed to live on $280 a month. The residents of a Moscow suburb complained about a giant pile of garbage that they said is visible from space. A 24-year-old cancer patient from a far-northern mining town demanded to know why health care is in a shambles.
“Please do not lose hope. I will see how to help, including you personally,” Putin told her. “We will work on your problem and on the hospital in your town. I promise!”
Putin also touched on the political turmoil in the United States over Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Commenting on the testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey, Putin said: “It sounds and looks very strange for the head of a special service to record a conversation with the commander in chief and then pass it to the media through his friend. And how is the FBI director different from Mr. Snowden then?”
That was a reference to Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency leaker who took refuge in Russia in 2013.
“If some persecution is launched against [Comey] in this context, we will be ready to grant him political asylum in Russia as well,” Putin deadpanned.
The carefully choreographed show has traditionally been a showcase for Putin to show he understands his people’s problems and how he will get to the bottom of them.
But unedited texts from viewers that popped up on the bottom of the screen revealed the anger and frustration some Russians feel about their leader and the system he has created.
“Putin, do you really think people believe in all this circus with staged questions?” read one.
“All Russia believes you have sat on the throne too long,” read another.
Another asked when Putin would get around to firing officials who have faced corruption allegations, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
If Putin saw these comments — he said he was watching them — he did not react. When a young man in the Moscow studio where Putin sat asked a sharply worded question about official corruption, the Russian leader shot back, “Did you prepare that yourself or did someone suggest it to you?”
“Life prepared me for it,” the man responded.
More than 1,700 people were arrested in protests Monday, the most widespread in Russia since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The nationwide rallies were spearheaded by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed for moving a Moscow demonstration from its designated venue to a central street, where it disrupted official Russia Day festivities.
Answering a reporter’s question about Navalny at a nationally televised meeting with the press after the show, Putin, as he always does, avoided mentioning the opposition leader’s name and instead said, “Those who violate the law have to answer for it.”
Another reporter asked Putin how he feels when protesters chant “Putin must go.”
“When I hear that, I look at what happens in other countries,” Putin said. “It’s normal.”
In recent months, Russia has seen rallies by long-distance truckers angry about road tolls and by apartment owners angry about a plan to relocate as many as 1.6 million Muscovites. An earlier, huge anti-corruption demonstration took place in March.
This mood of defiance is not likely to prevent Putin, whose approval rating has not been below 80 percent in three years, from winning reelection next March, but pollsters say Russians feel that their leaders are unaccountable. And the Kremlin agrees.
“As always, unfortunately, people often say that it can be easier to get through to the president than to the leaders of their own regions,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, acknowledged in remarks to reporters Wednesday.
Putin did not say Thursday whether he plans to run for a new, six-year term in March. He also deferred an answer to a viewer’s question about whether he had chosen a successor.
“First of all, I’m still working,” Putin said. “Secondly, the electorate should decide that, the Russian people.”
Answering questions about U.S. and European sanctions imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Putin said the West has been trying to isolate Russia “for centuries.” A farmer praised him for counter-sanctions, thanks to which Russian agriculture has never had it so good.
Nearly 2 million Russians submitted questions, and Putin answered about 70 of them, some of which were true softballs: “What was the biggest fish you’ve caught?” Some, though they broke news — Putin has a new grandson — did little to move the needle on public affairs.
Others appeared to get immediate action. Shortly after a woman called to complain to Putin that victims of a flood in the southern Stavropol region had failed to receive promised compensation, the regional governor reportedly submitted his resignation. The governor’s press service later denied the report, but Russia’s prosecutor general opened an investigation into the situation.
As he did in his 14 previous Direct Lines, Putin appeared to be taking the side of ordinary citizens against an unfeeling and ineffective bureaucracy.
To the impoverished Siberian teacher who asked how she is supposed to survive on $280 a month, Putin responded, “I also don’t see how!” When someone asked whether he knows how ordinary people live, Putin told a story about how his father “had to count each kopeck he spent on electricity.”
And when a video call from a remote northern region broke off, Putin quipped, “Even the equipment cannot stand it.”
State-run media fawned over Putin’s performance.
“We’re always amazed at how many statistics Putin knows by heart,” tweeted the NTV national television network.
Wrapping up the show, Putin remarked that clearly people were less upset about corruption than in previous years, “judging by the questions people are asking,” apparently ignoring the angry texts popping up on the screen.
He said he read a text in which the sender wrote that “everything will be okay.”
“I’ll say it to you, then,” Putin said with a smile. “Everything is going to be okay. I can confirm this.”
Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report.