For several hours Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin took questions from the public in his 14th annual Direct Line call-in show.
“The annual TV marathon, though highly choreographed, provides the Russian public with a rare opportunity to present their concerns directly to Putin — who in turn, uses the event to gauge public mood and defend policies at home and abroad,” Charles Maynes reports for NPR from Moscow.
“State media says over 2.5 million questions were submitted to the president. Those, taken together with Kremlin spin on its own policies, make The Direct Line, in a way, a window into the challenges of running the Russian empire,” Charles says.
The conversation ranged over domestic dissatisfaction — with the country’s struggling economy and crumbling infrastructure — to international relations with Turkey, Russia and Ukraine. Putin also commented on the drug that showed up in Maria Sharapova’s doping test and his preferred breakfast food.
Here’s a sample of responses from the show:
The First Question: What’s Up With These Potholes?
The first call came from a woman in Omsk, in southwestern Siberia, asking why the potholes in her region are never fixed.
In December, the BBC reported on a “pothole fairy” fixing potholes in Omsk by herself, because the government wouldn’t.
“Putin replied the government needs to make sure that local officials don’t divert road construction funds to other needs,” The Associated Press reports.
Greg White, an editor at the Moscow bureau of Bloomberg News, tweeted that there were photos on social media suggesting that — just hours after that question aired on national TV — crews were repaving streets in Omsk.
Who Would He Save From Drowning: Erdogan Or Poroshenko?
A 12-year-old girl asked Putin whether he would choose to save Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko first if they were both drowning.
“If someone has decided to drown, it is no longer possible to save them,” Putin said, according to Reuters.
“But, of course, we are ready to lend a helping hand and a hand of friendship to any of our partners if they want that themselves.”
Putin also said during the marathon that while tensions were high with Turkey, it was an issue with individual politicians, and not a conflict with the country as a whole.
On Porridge — And Unwilling Action
Another child asked about the president’s breakfast preferences, and whether he was ever made to eat a kind of porridge he didn’t like (a question that smacks of recent personal experience of the questioner).
Putin responded with an endorsement of porridge and a declaration of absolute autonomy.
No Expectation Of Sanctions Lifting
Putin said he had no expectation that the West would lift sanctions on Russia, and that Russia would maintain countersanctions, Reuters reports.
Serving Up A Defense For Maria Sharapova
Asked about recent Russian doping scandals, Putin criticized the World Anti-Doping Agency for banning meldonium — the drug that Maria Sharapova, among other high-profile Russian athletes, recently admitted testing positive for.
He said meldonium was not a performance-enhancing drug, but also said he didn’t think banning the drug was politically targeted.
Praise For Obama’s Admission Of Error
The Associated Press writes that Putin said “only a very strong man” could do what Obama did recently and admit to his biggest mistake.
Obama said on Fox News Sunday that his worst mistake was not making a plan for what to do after intervening in Libya.
“This is another proof that the President is a decent guy. It takes heart to admit something like that,” Putin said, according to Sputnik News.
Then he turned that question into a commentary on Syria: “The U.S. wanted to follow the same course in Syria. But we managed to work this out with the U.S. to avoid this through working hand in hand to foster a solution.”
What’s In His Medicine Cabinet?
Asked whether his pharmaceuticals were domestic or foreign-produced, Putin dodged.
What Would His Three Wishes Be?
Another question from a kid: If he found a magical wish-granting goldfish, what would Putin’s three wishes be?
“We shouldn’t rely on miracles. We have to work with our own hands,” Putin said, according to Sputnik News. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing, just like in a famous Pushkin fairy tale.”
(Here’s an English translation of that Pushkin poem.)
On The Panama Papers
Putin said the massive data leak implicating prominent figures around the world in offshore banking appears to be accurate — but says the reporting is vague and is being used to try to manipulate Russia.
He also spent a long time arguing that a good friend of his, implicated in the papers, spends his eye-popping fortune on things such as Stradivarius instruments.
In Russia, it’s not unheard of for puppies to be used as bribes, Putin said, but he suggested cellos weren’t nearly so sordid. (The puppies line, by the way, was a reference to a classic Gogol line … but on at least one occasion, life has imitated art.)
Criticism For Ukraine, Agreement On Monitors
Putin said he’d welcome monitors from the The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe entering Ukraine, the AP reports:
“Putin says he agrees with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s proposal to increase the number of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and deploy them along the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the rebels. He said OSCE monitors could also be armed.
“A February 2015 deal signed in Minsk has helped reduce hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, but skirmishes have continued. Two years of fighting has left 9,100 people dead.
“Putin also accused Ukraine of dragging its feet on the political aspects of the Minsk agreement, such as giving the east more autonomy.”
Will Putin Run For Re-Election?
His reaction to this one sparked some amusement on Twitter.
A New First Lady In Russia’s Future?
Putin dodged this one, Sputnik News reports. “I’m not sure if I should advertise my personal situation, it may change the currency or oil price!” he said. “I’m aware people want to know about my personal life but it’s not really important. I may satisfy your curiosity in the future.”