How are we doing with eggs? Ilya Shablinsky on how Putin’s December ‘direct line’ will be remembered

15 December 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky


Truly, he was in top form. This time around he managed, to a greater extent than usual, to say essentially nothing. Or, when responding particularly resolutely, not responding with anything relevant. He kept totally jovial — he was even glowing.

This is more or less what many observers were expecting. But they were still putting their hope in the questions.

And indeed, the questions that appeared on the large plasma screen were quite interesting and unexpected. For example: ‘How can I move to the Russia shown on Channel One?’ Or: ‘Why is your reality at odds with ours?’ Or: ‘We gave gas to China, so when will Khakassia get gas?’ There was even a request: ‘Don’t run for another term, let the younger people run.’ And so on.

I don’t know how these little sarcastic remarks could be explained to the leader present in the hall. Could they really be a subtle protest from members of the president’s press office? It’s a mystery.

There were also some interesting questions (or comments) from those who had been given the floor. Those were definitely more interesting than Putin’s responses. Before asking his question, a guy from Magadan remarked, “For as long as I can remember, you’ve always been in power.” Putin definitely heard that. He got noticeably fidgety and let out a joke about the youth and good health of the guy who asked the question. We’re familiar with these hints: the guy should watch his back…

There were basically two types of questions: questions about the war and questions about how ordinary citizens can make ends meet. I’m setting aside the questions and wildly enthusiastic sobs from the political lackeys.

One economic question from a pensioner from Krasnodar region, in my opinion, encapsulated a languid evening. She started with the classic preamble (“You are my favorite president”) and asked about the rising prices of chicken and eggs. She cited some prices: chicken breasts were 165 rubles and are now 350, and wings were also 165 but are now 250. As we all remember, there was a separate conversation about eggs, which reached 220 rubles.

In his response to this existential question, the dictator said that he asked the Minister of Agriculture specifically how the minister was doing with eggs.*

The audience smirked during the dictator’s pause (although I don’t know if the pensioner who asked the question smiled). But it was clear from the dictator’s response that he was already demonstrating concern and getting to the bottom of the issue. He also stated that the main reason is increased demand. Meaning the population has started eating too many eggs. Which probably shouldn’t be considered a good dietary decision.

But in all seriousness, chicken and eggs are the least expensive sources of protein (until now). If people don’t have the money for other types of meat, this is what’s left.

And, of course, there was talk about the general impoverishment of a considerable portion of the Russian population. The dictator said nothing about the Central Bank printing money, or, accordingly, the uncontrollable inflation. All this despite the fact that these issues, in my opinion, are the main reasons for the rising prices of mass-market food products.

Putin, on the other hand, began by noting the growth in actual incomes of Russians. A 5% growth. He meant this seriously. What kind of inflation or anything of the kind could he talk about then?  

There was also a question about the pitiful state of clinics and hospitals in Sverdlovsk region. This was his answer: there will be a program to grow “primary healthcare,” and everything will be fine. There was a question from a young pilot: there are no replacement parts for foreign airliners, and there are no domestically produced aircraft at all — so how will we fly? The response: by 2030, we’ll make a thousand airliners — that’s what we’ll fly on. In the meantime, we’ll use what we can get our hands on.

I’ll say it again: the questions that day were more important than the answers. The people who asked them were almost creating a picture of the world, and with very broad strokes.

And of course there were different little details that link back to the current party line. For example, the dictator spoke at length about abortions. I don’t think I’m the only one who was left with the impression that he talked quite a lot but basically said nothing at all. He was told that private clinics in many regions are now refusing to perform abortions. Here were his recommendations: turn to traditional values, to the idea of a large family, and put women’s clinics in order. (I don’t understand the last one at all.)

The dictator felt much more confident in matters of war and related foreign policy issues.

Not enough combat drones? We are working on this, everything is going according to plan, there will be many drones. Demilitarization of Ukraine? We’ve smashed 747 of their tanks. Just so. Putin has previously mentioned even more impressive numbers of Ukrainian tanks taken out. Mathematical games are generally his favorite. Could have even called it 1747. No problem.

Are they unwilling to recognize a soldier who fought in a ‘private military company’ as a combat veteran? Yes, there is a bit of a catch, according to the law we do not have PMCs. But — we’ll solve the problem. They solved the problem with the leader of the main PMC – now it can be done with the veterans as well. 

A new mobilization? An important question. The dictator, in effect, said the following. The mobilized 300,000 are fighting well. Plus they recruited about the same number on contracts. And this means there is someone to fight. Therefore, it seems that a new wave of mobilization is not needed.

Here I involuntarily recalled his conversation of 8 March 2022 with airline representatives — mainly stewardesses. Then, responding to a direct question about the possibility of mobilization, he confidently and somewhat haughtily said that professionals would manage the tasks set during his special operation.

We remember this. And we also remember what happened afterward.  

However, he could not manage the anger he is usually accustomed to hiding. He spoke viciously about Moldova, which, if anyone has forgotten, he also meant to conquer. And naturally about Ukraine as well, which, in his words (with what an expression it was said!), has now become ‘the poorest state in Europe.’

As always, and with great pleasure, Putin spoke on a variety of international topics. It was obvious how pleased he was with the war in Gaza. He recalled how the Israeli Defense Forces shelled the area, how they destroyed everything there, and immediately offered an example of a very good war. A word-for-word quote from him: ‘After all, there is nothing like this in Ukraine!’

It seemed to me that a shadow passed over the faces of those sitting in the hall at these words. What could have reminded the dictator in this moment? Or more precisely – who could have reminded him? I think, before anyone, those 100,000-120,000 residents of Mariupol, entombed under the ruins of their houses and buried there amongst the rubble. Yes, they could remind him. And there are also a dozen and a half names of Ukrainian cities and towns that were literally swept off the face of the earth…

The main result of the four-hour communication with the dictator was, in my opinion, the formation of two images of the country. The first image is that of a large, uncared-for land, where labor veterans from Vorkuta and Inta must be relocated somewhere in the south, but it is unclear with what money. Where food is getting more expensive, where cheap mortgages have to be canceled, but it is unclear how young families can buy apartments, where the highway from Omsk is still two-lane and dangerous to travel, and so on.

And the second image of the country is that of a giant 2,000km-long front (so Putin called it), where fighting continues, where people are killed hourly, where huge fleets of tanks and armored vehicles are amassed and continue to accumulate, where convoys with thousands of mobilized men are being sent. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been killed and injured there — and, if both sides are considered, the number is likely to approach half a million. And all this because in the neighboring country, as the dictator explained to us today, Stepan Bandera is a national hero. And somewhere in Canada, the Ukrainian president applauded the wrong person. 

I cannot recall any analogues of such a wild and absurd situation in the history of Russia. No, of course, I remember the tragedy of 1914, but at least then the Russian tsar had been persuaded by his allies.

Now, the initiative for shedding such massive bloodshed belongs only to the dictator. And we are doomed to watch a tragedy of gigantic proportions, helpless to influence anything. True, in some of its manifestations the tragedy is masked by farce – as during this ‘direct line.’ Of it, what will be most remembered? The typical joke about eggs*? Maybe we had it coming. 

*In Russian ‘eggs’ is also a slang word for testicles – ed.

Translated by Nina dePalma and Alyssa Rider

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