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Touched by the Hand of Putin

Prime Minister Putin continued his annual Q&A with the Russian people on Thursday.  A full English transcript is now available on Putin’s website. Russia watchers have already began combing through his words, interpreting their significance, and assessing their political resonance. As most reports emphasize, Putin spoke at length about the economic crisis assuring Russians that things will get bad but the nation will weather the storm. It’s not surprising that the PM’s comments focused on the economy. Issues like unemployment, inflation, benefits and pensions were naturally what concerned most people.

Russians were eager to pose questions to the PM, or as a caller named Dasha Varfolomeeva called him, “Uncle Volodya.” About 2.2 million flooded in via phones, text messages, and the Internet.  At times it appeared the studio was barely handling the deluge.  At one point, Maria Sittel, the event’s co-host said, “The load is tremendous, Mr Mackevicius. No time for rest. I think we have crossed an important psychological barrier: 2.2 million communications, including 1.5 million telephone calls and just over 600,000 text messages. The rest is from the Internet.”  Putin may not be president, but he certainly is “the father of the nation.”

This idea of Putin as “father” or even “uncle” to the masses is certainly not a new political idea for Russia. Direct communication with the Father, whether it be the Tsar, General Secretary, President or Prime Minister has been a dynamic between leader and people for centuries.  Normally, the distance between leader and led is vast, giving the opportunity to be in the leader’s proximity a momentary but significant symbiotic relation.  Here I find myself in agreement with Masha Lipman’s explanation of this event:

“[It] emphasizes the paternalistic nature of the regime. It is a style of government in which the most important thing is the rapport between the top decision-taker and the people. Many of those questions were local or even individual. And people have their own legislators. They have federal legislators they voted for, they have their own governors and yet there is this sense that maybe the only way to get a problem solved is to get through to the supreme authority.”

Putin’s Q&A does say a lot of about the personalized nature of the regime, but it also says that Russians themselves recognize this as an effective means to get problems solved.  For example, the Financial Times notes,

From the southern city of Nizhny Novgorod, a mother called to complain that a subsidised baby food clinic had been closed. Half an hour after the show, the governor of the province announced the miraculous resolution of the problem.

The Tsar + people against the boyars dynamic continues to function.  The interests of the leader are sublimated into the people so that for one brief moment they embody the sovereign body of Putin. When looked at closely, the whole exercise exerts an air of the carnivalesque.

The notion of proximity between leader and lead is further seen in how so many Russians crafted their questions.  Not only did they address subjects as wide ranging as Christmas trees and pedophiles,  how callers crafted their questions says volumes about the language of appeal.  The questions were often personal and callers were quick to give Putin a short autobiographical note mixed with a political statement.  For example,

Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Oksana Klimova. I’d like to express the pain of many people who live in the Far East. We feel detached from central Russia, since many families cannot buy train or air tickets, because air tickets cost around 30,000 rubles or even more. My kid asked me if we could go to St Petersburg for winter holidays, but I said No.

What will be done for the healthcare and education professionals to help them afford such luxury?

or,

Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Savelyeva.

I am a single mother. My daughter is 16. She studies in the 11th grade, this is her final year. I work at the radio-electronics plant, the Kontakt plant with billions in sales. These days, they have announced layoffs because of the crisis. Out of its 4,000 workers, 1,500 will be dismissed. I have worked as a production engineer for more than 20 years, and my salary grew from 6,000 to 8,000 rubles, but now it is being reduced. I am afraid I may lose my job.

Mr Putin, how will you deal with massive unemployment?

As someone who has read a number of appeals to leaders during the Soviet period, I’m struck by their narratological similarities.  Often letters to power began with an autobiographical introduction of some sort.  Since those appeals were written, the authors tended detail their life in greater depth than those fielded by Putin. Citizens’ requests from the early Soviet period also had a similar individual tone.  I have letters to Komsomol General Secretary N. Chaplin asking for advice on marriage, employment, money, and other forms of assistance. Sometimes people got results.  On some letters to Stalin, one can see his marginal notes directing the appeal to the appropriate authority.  In other cases, letters of complaint and denunciation opened up investigations of local officials.

Finally, I think the most interesting part of the Q&A was the final part when Putin took short questions and at many points took personal responsibility for their resolution. Here are a few examples:

“I have eight children, my eldest daughter is 20. I have not received the Order of Maternal Glory, and, hence, I don’t get the benefits.”

It goes without saying I will check on this. I can’t comment on this particular case now, but this mistake should be corrected. I hope you’ve left your address here. We will find you.

“Dear Mr Putin, I found my father’s grave killed during WWII on the Internet.” The man asks to help with restoring the monument, which the local budget cannot afford.

We shall contact you. This is a sacred duty of local and regional authorities alike. If they do not have enough money, I would stress that the matter implies not only money but also morals. We shall help if they cannot afford such things, but I don’t think this is a matter where thrift should come in to play.

“We have no school and no art or knitting classes near our home. The children hope you will help.”

This is also a matter of regional scope, but we shall help, as the message has reached me. We shall certainly help.

“My request concerns my son, who will be conscripted next autumn. He dreams of serving in the Kremlin Regiment.”

Good boy! It’s great that he wants to go into the army. As for the Kremlin Regiment, it has certain qualifications. I will pass your message along to the Federal Guard Service, and I believe its chiefs will do something for you.

Whether Putin actually comes through on these is immaterial.  What is important is that he acknowledged people’s individual voices in a very public forum. In the big political sense, that recognition is more important as any results.

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