MOSCOW — On any given nightly news broadcast, Vladimir Putin, face devoid of expression, voice quiet but martial, interrogates a cabinet minister or a director of a state-run factory or a utilities chief. If the economic news is good, the subordinate is off the hook and the next segment comes on.
But if prices have spiked, or salaries are low, or costs have gone way over budget, then Putin lays into the unfortunate bureaucrat — “What’s wrong with your head?” “Are you crazy?” “What are you saying?”— as the cameras roll and the Russian president’s quarry stammers and squirms.
It’s populist political theater that makes for really, really awkward television. But it helps explain the riddle of the enduring popularity of a ruler who has no checks on his power, no serious opposition, and who presides over a country mired in an economic slowdown.
Even as Putin plays the role of grand inquisitor, he has also positioned himself as the one person in the country to whom citizens can turn at a time when faith in government institutions is low.
It is reflected in the emotional Internet appeals from apartment owners buried by their mortgages because of the ruble’s decline, doctors at a family clinic who cannot get by on their salaries or a town looking for justice for a badly burned infant whose mother left him. Putin is invariably addressed, in the Russian style, by his name and patronymic:
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, it’s as though we don’t exist.”
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, this is a cry for help.”
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, I appeal to you not just as a president, but as a father, as a man.”
He is Russia’s “fixer-in-chief,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
“Putin’s popularity has become closely tied with the idea that he is the decisive factor at all levels of Russian politics,” Hill said. “Putin is the locus of power and the agent of continuity or change. Every problem, large or small, has to come to Putin’s attention.”
This all-encompassing role demands that Putin be everywhere at once, seen doing things most presidents do — such as Thursday’s annual address to both houses of the Russian parliament — but also making dreams come true for ordinary citizens, and submitting his ministers to public excoriation that can be excruciating to watch.
Last week provided a stark example of the nationally broadcast beatdowns. Putin chose a meeting with scientists and officials in an opulent hall to announce that some ranking government officials had been elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences, an honor usually reserved for standout scholars.
“Why did you do this?” Putin asked the president of the academy, Vladimir Fortov, seated a few places away. “Are they such great scientists that the Academy of Sciences cannot get by without them?”
Fortov look stunned, and stammered that the officials had been given permission from their bosses.
“That’s not the question,” Putin persisted. “Are they such great scientists that they have to be members of the academy?”
Fortov began to say the officials had met the academy’s standard but Putin interrupted, saying: “Then they are great scientists.”
“It seems their scientific activity is much more important than carrying out some kind of routine administrative task within the executive branch,” Putin concluded.
A few days later the Kremlin announced that four top officials had been removed.
The point of the show is to let bureaucrats know that they better stay loyal, while reassuring the population that Putin is keeping the officials in check. But to maintain his popularity, which consistently polls above 80 percent, Putin must also give.
The president has perfected this role in an annual live call-in show called “Direct Line,” a marathon appearance that allows rank-and-file citizens to ask for his intervention. It has created the image that he can, and will, step in to right any wrong, be it fixing bad roads or helping a pensioner get a gas line hooked up to her home. Russians see how Putin micromanages and gets results, and they want more.
The gifts that Putin has handed out — a dress “like Cinderella’s” for a little girl, a new playground, a real New Year’s tree instead of an artificial one — have inspired citizens to ask for more in Internet videos addressed to the president.
In one short video, from workers at a safari park in Crimea, whatever they are asking for is drowned out by the roaring of what sounds like lions. In a 22-minute video from a mining city in southern Russia, a narrator ticks off complaints as he rides through town. “You’re the best president on the planet,” says a 10-year-old blind girl, who asks Putin to help her get on a Russian children’s version of the reality TV show “The Voice.”
“Putin is seen by the population as the leader, the manager, the banker,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, who spent 15 years as a Kremlin strategist.
But does this political theater work? Up to a point.
“Putin has certainly managed to elevate himself into some semi-spiritual role as the avatar of Russia and the embodiment of the hopes and fears of its people,” said Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. “Russians are well able to distinguish between respect for Putin the symbol and dissatisfaction with Putinism the system.”