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Tomorrow Putin answers Russians’ questions on live TV. Here’s what his performance will tell us.

- June 6, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin answers questions during an annual live broadcast called “Direct Line With Vladimir Putin” in Moscow on June 15, 2017. (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/K/Pool/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will once again answer questions from citizens in his annual, multi-hour, live television call-in show, “Direct Line With Vladimir Putin.” Many observers describe these shows as entirely fake, and “Direct Line” is indeed a highly staged and controlled event: Journalists have reported on this year’s preparations and the elaborate rehearsals that those selected to appear undergo.

If we look closely at the interactions between Putin and citizens and compare this show with previous ones — this will be the 16th broadcast since Putin came to power — we can see the image of the Russian state that his administration wants to project.

Here’s what to watch for in 2018.

What kind of questions will Putin allow? 

While recent laws targeting “extremism” have made it more difficult for Russians to speak publicly about certain social and political issues, “Direct Line” questions often address very sensitive topics. Russians ask about such issues as corruption, protests, human trafficking and drug abuse. Economic problems, however, typically dominate. This suggests that Russia’s economic performance, and its effect on standards of living, is still an important source of legitimacy for Putin, despite his turn toward patriotic, nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric in speeches and the mass media since the 2008 financial crisis, and especially after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

By giving airtime to these concerns, the government acknowledges them as legitimate.

But that only means that discussion is channeled toward some topics and away from others in a more subtle way. The Putin administration uses the questions that come in to Direct Line, via old and new media, as a way to learn about popular concerns — and then air them with a large audience. By listening to what is and is not aired, viewers learn what can be discussed in public.

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That means, however, that some topics are indeed taboo and are mentioned only through a particular lens or not at all. Sometimes taboo topics appear in a humorous, sarcastic or indirect way. In 2015, one questioner jokingly asked the president whether he wanted to clone himself, since Russian bureaucrats will answer only to him; stifling a chuckle, Putin swiftly declined to entertain such a ridiculous thought. Though framed as a joke, this question raised the very serious question of Russia after Putin, while emphasizing his irreplaceability.

So watch for the jokes and for the themes that are not there this year.

In his answers, Putin will frame his personal use of power as part of Russia’s operation as a ‘normal’ state

Putin’s responses to “Direct Line” viewer questions are famously long and technocratic. He typically displays a virtuoso command of statistics and legislative reforms. Sometimes he promises to personally solve problems. At times, these kinds of answers emphasize Putin’s personal authority.

But they also consistently emphasize the institutions and legal channels that are meant to address a problem. Viewers are prompted to see Russia as a “normal” modern state, where authority is rational, rule-bound and institutional.

That’s a response to critics who describe the Russian state as largely deinstitutionalized, working through informal, corrupt personal networks that wield power arbitrarily. The broadcasts instruct citizens that personal and institutional power do not contradict each other. Personal power appears, in this carefully staged performance, to work alongside rational and legal authority, rather than undermining it.

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Putin’s answers are also always carefully tailored to each questioner. While he is always gentle with pensioners and children, his treatment of handpicked business elites and opposition representatives depends on that year’s economic and political situation.

Watch for who receives praise and who gets chided this year.

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TV and new media: Loyal or unruly?

Understandably, U.S. commentators have focused on how critical journalists are persecuted and how the government controls media messages. “Direct Line” shows another image: loyal TV journalists who enjoy high prestige and professional authority. Journalist hosts sit next to Putin; journalists in remote locations facilitate interactions with the public and comment on viewer questions, displaying expertise; Putin treats them all with respect. Journalists on “Direct Line” gain authority from proximity to power, rather than in opposition to it, and have an important role as mediators between state and citizens.

“Direct Line” viewers can submit comments via texting and Russian social media platforms that cooperate with state-controlled TV channels, but the answers come back over the television. “Direct Line” thus makes it clear that television journalists are in command, while social media are  presented as subservient and secondary.

That’s intentional: Social media are decentralized and difficult to censor. But by displaying “live” social media messages, “Direct Line” appears to be a more authentic communication with the Russian people. Last year, the show displayed viewer comments sent by text, some highly critical of Putin, such as “three terms as president are enough!” Reporters wondered whether these had slipped past the censors but later confirmed that the Kremlin itself had approved their broadcast.

Watch for how critical messages do and do not appear this year.

How does Putin frame his relationship with the crowds?

“Direct Line” was created for television. The set and the people on screen change each year. Since the first “Direct Line” in 2001, the studio has become much larger, featuring many more spectators. Since 2008, “Direct Line” has featured large studio audiences of handpicked representative citizens; since 2011, dozens of female telephone and computer operators have been in the studio, as well, their screens displaying video calls coming in. The studio is now crowded with hundreds of Russians.

The image is of a Russian public eager to engage with their president and willing to believe that he and his administration can deliver solutions. The increasingly crowded studio may also have been intended to compensate for Putin’s actual remoteness and inaccessibility. It is rumored that this year, for the first time since 2008, there will be no studio audience, signaling perhaps that Putin is comfortable relying entirely on mediated engagement with citizens far from Moscow. Or this may be a response to the show’s falling ratings in recent years.

Such tele-town halls are becoming more popular — in the United States, as well

Perhaps the most important reason to watch “Direct Line” carefully this year is that it is not unique to Putin’s Russia. U.S. congressional representatives are increasingly drawn to holding “tele-town halls” instead of uncomfortable face-to-face constituent meetings. Like “Direct Line,” these mediated events offer officeholders greater control. Watching these controlled and staged encounters between leaders and citizens helps us understand the images that political elites want to convey and the tools they use, here as well as abroad.

Christine E. Evans is an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of “Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television” (Yale University Press, 2016).

Susanne Wengle is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and author of “Post-Soviet Power: State-led Development and Russia’s Marketization” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).