Putin reveals news of pardon on his way out of yearly marathon press conference

Russian leader transmits image of strength and control to his awestruck fans

Vladimir Putin came away from his marathon annual press conference last week with a list of petitions and a gift of a cuddly toy Yeti. For anyone who sat through the four-hour discussion the message was clear: Russia’s president is a hard man in a hard country and he inspires awe among many of his people.

It has become a tradition for hundreds of journalists to journey to Moscow from all over Russia to attend Putin’s live broadcast press conference in December.

More than 1,300 representatives of Russian and foreign media attended the eighth such event at Moscow’s World Trade Centre on Thursday that was open in principle to all, except those with criminal records or psychiatric illnesses, according to Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman.

Voted the world's most powerful man by Forbes magazine this year, Putin appeared to be at the top of his game, fielding questions on anything from electricity supplies and pensions to traditional moral values with aplomb. Not to worry if the economy is stuttering, banks are failing and Ukrainians are protesting against Kremlin influence, Russia's president has everything under control.


This year's conference failed to break the four hours 45 minutes record set in 2012 and offered nothing of interest for news hounds. Putin waited until he had departed the hall to drop the bombshell – he was about to pardon the jailed oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allowing one of his fiercest critics to walk free.

As journalists packed into the hall frantically waved banners to get Putin’s attention, tweeters streamed often irreverent commentary on the internet. Tough police action may have quelled anti-government street protests, but many Russians remain deeply opposed to the Kremlin.

In the past Putin has used the press conference to hector the US, answering to widespread suspicion of Americans in Russia, a hangover from the Cold War.

This year he adopted a milder tone, welcoming the role the US had played in reducing tensions with Iran. He confirmed that Russia was considering siting missiles in Kaliningrad as a counterweight to US weaponry in Europe, but added that so far it had not happened. Putin had spent the previous day preparing for the conference, according to Peskov, and was ready to answer questions on domestic policy in painstaking detail.

Asked why the Kremlin could not renationalise industry and do away with the oligarchy, he explained in avuncular fashion how private capital brought essential liquidity. He dismissed concerns about a recent series of Russian bank failures, saying the new state insurance agency guaranteed depositors had got their money back.

Pressed on human rights, Putin played to his countrymen’s ingrained fear of disorder. Law enforcement at street protests had to be tough – the alternative was “chaos”. When it comes to critics Putin is extraordinarily tough. Asked whether he thought the prison sentences handed to the two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were pardoned in an amnesty last week, had been too harsh, he said he had no pity for the young mothers. “I felt sorry not for that, but for their disgraceful behaviour which I think degrades women . . . they crossed all boundaries.”

Putin stressed that Russia had to restore conservative values to fill the moral vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an indirect reference to the outcry in the West about Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda law, he slammed the “aggressive behaviour” of social groups trying to dictate how his country behaved.

An element of hero-worship crept into the proceedings as the conference wore on. A blushing female reporter confessed she was in love with Putin “in a platonic way” and said an earlier encounter with him had changed her life.

Reporters stopped waving to applaud, tweeters cringed. Why was it that in Russia there was such a lack of professional journalism?

Many in the audience were there not to ask questions, but to plead for help. One women suggested that Putin should shake down the oligarchs for Rbs 20 million to fund a cancer facility in her home town in the Russian far east.

Another complained about the hardship caused by the closure of the only factory in her city. Putin took notes and promised action. It was only 3pm – still time to telephone the relevant authorities that day and sort things out.