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Good Tsar, Bad Tsar: Complaining To Putin Doesn't Always Work

TV screens showing Russian President Vladimir Putin during an annual nationwide Q&A on April 16.
TV screens showing Russian President Vladimir Putin during an annual nationwide Q&A on April 16.

Russian pensioner Vassily Yerokhin was one of the lucky few who got to personally vent their grievances to President Vladimir Putin in his annual phone-in with the nation on April 16.

Calling from the Vladimir region in central Russia, the World War II veteran complained about the long waiting lists to obtain a flat.

He said he and his wife had been living in temporary military housing for the past 64 years, and entreated Putin to speed up the process.

The next day, authorities in Yerokhin's region announced that he would be granted his own flat by the end of the month, despite casting doubt on his participation in the war.

The annual "Direct Line," a four-hour televised show during which Putin fields vetted questions from Russians, is carefully choreographed to portray him as a benevolent leader distributing largesse and wisdom to ordinary folk -- promising workers to recover unpaid wages or helping a woman get a puppy for her birthday.

In reality, however, complaining to Putin rarely pays off in Russia. In some cases, it can even backfire.

Nelly Sirotkina, a retired physics teacher from the southern city of Samara, knows this from experience -- her tireless requests to have her pension increased have actually resulted in a penalty.

Sirotkina has been calling Putin's Direct Line year after year to plead for a general, nationwide increase in retirement benefits.

"He already ordered such an increase in pensions once, everyone was happy, everyone remembers this time," she says. "Please try to increase all pensions equally. It will be a great comfort for people, especially those who live in misery."

'No Answer Whatsoever'

Her question, perhaps because it evokes the uncomfortable subject of pensioner poverty against the backdrop of much-criticized pension reform plans, was never selected.

Sirotkina's own pension amounts to $125 per month, half of which is spent on utilities.

With galloping inflation exacerbated by a Russian ban on food imports from some Western countries, she says she is forced to survive on a diet of bread and cheese spread.

Last July, the combative pensioner wrote a letter to Putin and had it delivered to the Kremlin through an aide to the Samara governor.

"No answer whatsoever, and in his speeches either," she sighs.

Letters to the Samara governor, the United Russia ruling party, and the regional human rights ombudsman also failed to yield results.

Three weeks after sending her letter to Putin, however, she received a note from the pension fund informing her that her monthly payments were being reduced by $14 -- 10 percent of her income.

The fund accused her of "illegally receiving extra money" in her pension, accrued for years spent studying at university while not working. Sirotkina insists Russian legislation entitles her to such payments.

"I totally collapsed," she says.

Sirotkina is nonetheless determined to pursue her crusade for higher pensions. And because she says she has nothing to lose, this will include sending in her irksome question to Putin's future phone-ins.

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