Russian President Vladimir Putin, fielding questions from across the country on his annual call-in show, urged citizens to overcome their hesitancy and get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the country continues to wrack up daily records for deaths from the coronavirus.
Officially known as Direct Line, the June 30 event, which lasted almost four hours as Putin answered 70 questions, came as alarmed officials scrambled to reimplement restrictions on public life.
Speaking on stage at a desk with two moderators presenting some of the more than 2 million questions submitted by Russians -- many of which are prescreened -- Putin used a large part of the show to concentrate on the pandemic before moving on to questions about inflation, unemployment, education, and infrastructure.
Notably absent were any mentions of human rights or opposition politicians.
Putin said he hoped the country would avoid a nationwide lockdown in response to the spike in cases and would not impose mandatory vaccinations, even though Russia currently has one of the lowest rates of vaccinations among major industrial nations, with many people either distrusting the science behind the Russian vaccine or the government more generally.
On June 30, health authorities reported just over 21,000 new infections and 669 deaths, a new daily mortality record for the country. In all, more than 135,000 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded in Russia since the pandemic’s beginning, the highest official toll from COVID-19 in Europe.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been forced to acknowledge that the national goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the population would be missed.
At the start of the show, an annual performance aimed at showcasing his willingness to respond to the concerns of average Russians, Putin revealed for the first time that he had received the locally developed Sputnik V vaccination, ending months of speculation over which shot he received behind closed doors.
He claimed he hadn't gone public previously with the type of vaccine he received because he didn't want to give the vaccine makers a competitive advantage.
"It is necessary to listen, not to people who understand little about this and spread rumors, but to specialists," he implored Russians, the majority of whom polls show oppose receiving coronavirus vaccines.
In past years, the Kremlin has used the hours-long event to show Putin as a responsive, sympathetic leader who can both extol Russia’s past and current successes, and also pay attention to local issues like landfills or unpaid salaries.
The event typically features screened calls ostensibly from average Russians, plus messages sent via text or social media.
Last year, the Kremlin canceled the event as Russia grappled with the pandemic, while this year's version comes with less than 11 weeks remaining before Russia holds national parliamentary elections, the last major vote before Putin’s current term ends in 2024. Kremlin-engineered constitutional changes have opened the door for Putin to stay on as president, possibly until 2036, though the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin has not indicated whether he will seek to remain in power.
Amid the struggle to contain the coronavirus, Putin has tried to remain above the nitty-gritty details, leaving major decisions like imposing, or lifting, public restrictions to regional officials like Moscow’s mayor.
Some epidemiologists have observed that the current trajectory of cases means Russia will see a peak in late August or early September, close to the final run-up to the September 19 election.
That could be problematic for United Russia, the Kremlin-allied political party, which is hoping to maintain its dominance in the 450-seat lower house of parliament. A strong showing and a supermajority would smooth the way for possible future legislative or constitutional changes depending on Putin’s political intentions in 2024.
However, United Russia is deeply unpopular, with some opinion polls giving the party its worst ratings ever.
A large part of that displeasure was on display in the call-in show, with questions directed at Putin over price increases that have hit average Russians hard in recent months.
One teacher in Russia's Far East complained of having to work in a dilapidated building in an area where homes were also in bad shape, while "the roads are another story altogether."
"In short, we have very many problems and we would like attention to be paid to us," she bluntly told the president.
One of the most original submissions to the Direct Line program was a short musical video, similar to a TikTok video, showing the bad shape of plumbing pipes in an apartment building in Pskov, northwest of Moscow.
Putin parried many of the tougher questions, using them to pivot into the nitty-gritty details of hyper-local issues affecting communities across Russia's sprawling territory -- the type of thing that the Kremlin hopes will give the image that Putin is sympathetic to the needs of average Russians.
At least one social-media user appeared unwilling to believe the president's words.
Twitter user @mhenriksson2 posted a picture of himself with noodles draped around both ears, a nod to the Russian idiom of "hanging noodles on one's ears," which means an attempt to mislead or fool someone.
The dissent has resulted in the Kremlin and the powerful presidential administration tinkering with political parties and alliances, and trying to generate interest using celebrities or high-profile political figures, like the defense or foreign ministers.
The government has also taken steps to quash opposition political movements, including that of Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who built a formidable national organization that has dented Putin's public image.
Still, over the show's three hours and 42 minutes, Putin failed to take any questions related to human rights or civil society.
"When United Russia was just beginning its inglorious path, the party promised its citizens the observance of individual rights and a 'century of Russia's prosperity'," Navalny's team tweeted.
"But 20 years later, these promises have only turned into repression and lawlessness," it added.
Putin’s approval is still high but has taken a hit in recent years, dragged down by controversial pension reforms and what many Russian view as stagnating wages, slipping living standards, and persistent high-level corruption.
Nonetheless, Putin is now in his 22nd year in power and he is still all but unrivaled, according to analysts Andrei Kolesnikov and Boris Markarenko.
“Putin remains, in the eyes of most Russians, a unifying national symbol and the guarantor of stability,” they wrote in a commentary published this month.
An equally pressing concern is apathy. The last parliamentary elections, held in 2016, had the lowest turnout for a parliamentary vote in post-Soviet history.
One top Kremlin official has predicted turnout in the September vote will be even lower.