Kabuki Theater: Why Vladimir Putin Held a Four-Hour Press Conference

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It wasn't to break news.

RTR3BRV5-615.jpgReuters

He insisted he wasn't a dictator. He defended the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent. And he claimed to know when the world will end.

The Kremlin hyped President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference like a Hollywood blockbuster. It lasted more than four hours, and when it was (finally) over its contents were dissected and parsed like an ancient text.

But in the end, there were no spectacular announcements: no government shakeup, no new corruption targets, and really, not much major news.

The main take-away was the optics.

Opposition journalists spent a good deal of time patting themselves on the back for their bravery in asking the president tough questions. And tough questions were asked, at least by some: about the fate of those detained in connection with the May 6 protests on the eve of Putin's inauguration; about the wisdom of pending legislation banning U.S. citizens adopting Russian children; about what is really going on with the Kremlin's anticorruption campaign. There were also the usual crop of servile questions as well.

The Kremlin and its many surrogates spent the day praising Putin's performance -- insisting that he's back in top form. He certainly had his moments, quipping about how he's not afraid of the end of the world because it is inevitable (and noting that it won't happen on December 21, but in 4.5 billion years).

But as a relaunch of brand Putin, if that is what the Kremlin spinmeisters had in mind, it seemed pretty weak. He was the star, but he had to share the spotlight with at least a few real journalists asking real questions -- and they appeared not to be in awe of him.

A telling moment came when Putin addressed an adult journalist, Maria Solovyenko, by the diminutive, "Masha." She came right back at him, addressing the Russian head of state by his diminutive, "Vova."

Addressing Putin this way in public would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Russian television treated the whole thing like the Super Bowl or the World Cup final. And in the post-game show, both sides were claiming victory.

Live from Moscow, the Putin Show was long, and at times it was even informative. But I'm not sure yet whether it tells us anything new about where Russia may be headed.

Those are my initial thoughts, which I reserve the right to revise.

In this week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast, I'll discuss all this with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin of RFE/RL's Russian Service and NYU Professor Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

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