Direct Line with Vladimir Putin seeks to solidify the personal bond between President and citizenry. Through a mix of national and local issues, Putin strives to measure the pulse of the nation, assure his people, and send signals to his subordinates. Often lampooned for its staginess, it’s a key component to Putin’s rule. Dismissing Direct Line as mere cultic spectacle undermines its symbolic value in constructing a unified national body. After all, the call-in show serves as one of the few national spaces where vlast and citizen and center and periphery are in, an albeit managed, dialog.
Nevertheless, the fact that it’s managed threatens to render Direct Line as a spectacular misfire. The pulse Putin is taking might not be that of the nation, but of his own. The audience’s effort to see its own concerns in Putin could cause misrecognition. The virtual binding of Russia’s vast geography might reveal its incongruity. And Putin’s many masks—commander-in-chief, erudite technocrat, the all-knowing, all-seeing eye, and compassionate Tsar-batiushka–could imprint that of an indifferent and out-of-touch ruler.
Basically, the effectiveness of Direct Line depends on whether it still resonates with viewers.
So does it?
The latest episode of Direct Line with Vladimir Putin aired late last month. The initial metrics were still impressive. The call center received over a mission questions. Putin set a new record for stamina: a four hour, forty-seven minute performance. He fielded 85 questions. Ratings remained high with up to 49%of the country tuning-in.
Now we have a better indication of viewer reception thanks to a recent VTsIOM survey. The results are ambiguous. Over half of Russian polled, 52%, still follow Direct Line in some capacity. But Putin remains mostly a star mostly among the old (67%) and residents in Moscow and St. Petersburg (62%) followed performance. Young people 18-24 years old (62%) are for the most part uninterested. In all, however, attention toward Putin’s call-in has been dropping since 2005:
When it comes to the issues, Putin remains salient. Forty-two percent of respondents still find the individual topics of interest. This has remained steady since 2005. Fifty-one percent felt satisfied with Putin’s overall discourse.
Things, however, get interesting when respondents were asked about topics. The results were polarized between the rising cost of housing (23%) and nothing (28%). Everything else scored in the single digits with many rating a single percent. The big national issues—the anti-corruption campaign, the country’s economic development, foreign policy, the street opposition and many others—unsurprisingly rated in the basement. Like pretty much everywhere else, the immediacy of everyday life matters to Russians the most.
But what does this say about the effectiveness of Direct Line? If VTsIOM’s poll is any indication, viewers still find spectacle of interest but attention is steadily falling with each episode. Viewers still tune in to hear what Putin has to say but more and more of his words are unmemorable. The national body is there but its various cells are mostly looking inward.
Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The Discourse of a Spectacle at the End of a Presidential Term,” in Helena Goscilo, Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Routledge, 2013.