Movie director Oliver Stone is being criticized for asking Russian President Vladimir Putin softball questions. NBC News’ Megyn Kelly was slammed for asking adversarial questions that Putin nevertheless can easily dismiss. So how does one interview Putin to satisfy the demanding critics?
I’ve never interviewed the Russian leader, although I met with him during his first presidential term when I was editor of a business daily in Moscow. Based on that experience, and on having read and watched countless interviews with him, I rather think no one can do much better with Putin than Russian voters at his annual call-in show. They ask questions such as, “Why is my salary as a grade school teacher in the Irkutsk region so low?” or “Where is the new apartment I was promised as a flood victim?” It’s easy to imagine the relevant local officials squirming as Putin promises to check into a specific case.
When Putin talks to professional interviewers, his answers, which have seemed for years to come off a stack of talking point cards, have the same function. They are signals and messages to someone who isn’t in the room, but they are only secondary signals compared with what Putin actually does.
It’s pointless to judge a journalist or filmmaker by what he or she asks Putin or how he responds. Putin’s public interactions are essentially one-sided, and though it might appear that he’s reacting to an interlocutor, he doesn’t really engage with the interviewers or with those who ask him questions during his carefully stage-managed call-ins and press conferences; he uses them. All they can do in response is try to use him, too — to make money, enhance their standing, or try to get a life situation resolved.
The first extensive interviews Putin ever gave were in 2000, before he was elected president, to a team of three Russian journalists — Natalya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov. They were published as a book and used in his campaign. Putin was an accomplished case officer, but he had little experience with the press, so a little of his personality slipped out. He told, for example, the startling story of how, as a boy, he once cornered a rat — and, desperate, it attacked him with such ferocity that he had to flee. I believe the book is still worth going back to for insights into the roots of Putin’s actions, but even then, Putin’s armor was as thick as the shell of a Kamchatka crab. It’s been growing thicker ever since.
In September 2000 — about six months into his presidency — Putin faced extended questioning from the formidable Larry King. By then, he had some practice. Among his smooth stock answers was a spiel about Russia’s opposition to the U.S. anti-missile defense system in Europe; he repeated it almost verbatim to Stone 16 years later. His only misstep occurred, as many thought at the time, when King asked him what had happened to Kursk, the Russian submarine that foundered with its crew in the Barents Sea. “It sank,” Putin replied with a chillingly calm cynicism.
I no longer think that was a slip. In the most recent interviews, with Kelly and Stone, Putin wasn’t shy about demonstrating misogynist and homophobic attitudes. With Kelly it was all mansplaining and unnecessary references to her kids; with Stone, it was quips about never having bad days because he’s not a woman and about using judo if a gay sailor approached him in the shower. These tasteless jokes get quoted a lot as though they reveal something about his personality. But Putin doesn’t make them naively: He knows how they make enlightened Westerners squirm. Putin can afford to be brash and insensitive. To him, that’s evidence he’s impervious to comments that would ruin a Western politician. That even appeals to his American fans, at least the ones I’ve met, because it rejects political correctness.
I can’t recall a single interview or public appearance in which Putin revealed anything accidentally or under pressure. He’s had editors of publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to the German tabloid Bild ask him pointed, tricky, mock-softball, pseudo-naive questions. He’s conducted four-hour press conferences and five-hour call-in shows. On each and every one of these occasions, he delivered a calculated performance to a specific audience without emotion. His dissembling is always deliberate, and his deviations from facts are meant to amplify the message.
In the case of foreign interviewers, the audience is the governments and political establishments of their countries and, to a lesser extent, the domestic audience that expects him to hold his own against the West. The message he has for foreign leaders hasn’t changed in 17 years: “Russia is a sovereign power with a set of historic interests that it will pursue no matter what; Western powers can’t tell Russia what to do.”
In the case of the press-conferences and the call-ins, it’s local officials and Putin’s core voters — those who believe in a good czar and a paternalistic state. Putin’s message to these audience never changes, either: “I have everything under control, and I’ll intervene in any matter of government, no matter how small, on behalf of my loyal subjects.”
Ever since he came to power, Putin has been absolutely predictable in these central messages. An interviewer can only hope Putin comes up with a new turn of phrase or shows a little bit of his tightly guarded private life. He told Stone he’d become a grandfather — a tidbit that wasn’t revealed to the Russian media. That made some Russian commentators jealous, with one complaining that the “American movie star” received “more personal stuff than [Putin had] given in all these years to any interviewer with a Russian passport.”
Stone has argued that he’s been extra respectful with Putin in exchange for the unusual access he received. In almost 17 years, no interviewer has been able to peek inside the Kamchatka crab’s shell. Some of them have seen Putin’s exercise machines, his hockey stick, the computer on his desk. They’ve looked into his mockingly narrowed eyes. But Putin has never once relaxed or relinquished control. One tries to read his mood and tracks the variations of his messages, but that’s hardly revealing. The most important lesson of understanding Putin is an old one: actions speak louder than words. It’s these actions that deserve to be scrutinized and interpreted, however glamorous a high-profile interview may be.
Thursday’s call-in show had an unusual feature: Uncensored questions sent via text message flashed across the TV screen. Some of these were harsh: “Why are you imposing an authoritarian regime on the country that’s turning totalitarian?” or “Do you really think people believe this circus with preapproved questions?” Putin told the moderator he saw the questions on the screen, but he made no attempt to engage with them. The end result was a typical Putin interview: formulaic reactions that I’ve heard time and again. Is the difference between these reactions and silence worth pursuing interviews with the Russian president? Well, perhaps for the bragging rights.
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