Packed house for Vladimir Putin’s one-man show – and it runs and runs

A President in failing health? Not judging by this performance Shaun Walker saw in Moscow

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It went on for as long as three football matches, or an uncut production of Hamlet. In a showpiece press conference that seemed designed to quash rumours about his failing health, Vladimir Putin answered questions for four-and-a-half hours on everything from Bashar al-Assad to Gérard Depardieu; from the coming apocalypse to rural Siberian transport links.

The recurring theme of the marathon session was the Russian President’s fury at the US, and Mr Putin said he supported a law that has almost finished its passage through Russia’s parliament which will ban adoptions of Russian children by American citizens.

The bill is a reply to the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by Barack Obama earlier this month, which bans dozens of Russian officials implicated in the death in prison of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky from entering the US or holding American bank accounts.

Mr Putin faced a number of questions on the proposed adoption ban, which he described as an “emotional but correct response” to the US law, and railed repeatedly at American hypocrisy. 

“Not only are prisoners [at Guantanamo] detained without charge, they walk around shackled, like in the Middle Ages. They legalised torture in their own country. Can you imagine if we had anything like this here? They would have eaten us alive a long time ago.” Mr Putin said it was unacceptable for a country with a human rights record like that of the US to lecture Russia.

“They still point out our problems. Well, thank you, we are aware of them. But it is outrageous to use this as a pretext to adopt anti-Russian laws, when our side has done nothing to warrant such a response.”

Mr Putin said he had not yet carefully read the proposed anti-adoption law so could not back it definitively, but said he approved of the idea in principle.

On a later question about activists who have spent months in jail for causing public disturbances during a street protest the day before his inauguration as President in May, he again drew a comparison with US policy on public demonstrations. “Try to put your hand in your pocket there and pull something out, and you’ll have a bullet in the head with no questions asked,” he said. “And then they’ll support the police.”

Amid the serious issues there was also plenty of light relief. A Vladimir Putin press conference is no normal briefing. Assembled were more than 1,200 journalists; everyone from international television networks to Siberian village weeklies.

Many Russian journalists brought banners emblazoned with the name of their city. There was the reporter from faraway Magadan who used her one opportunity to pose a question to her country’s leader to inform him that he is an “energetic, beautiful man”.

Another journalist asked for an autographed birthday message for  his daughter, while a reporter from the Russian Far East suggested that  the best way to end the territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands would be to rename one of them Putin Island. (Mr Putin modestly stated that naming it Pushkin Island or Tolstoy Island would be “more productive”.) 

“Two more questions and that’s it,” implored Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press secretary, as the three-hour mark was breached, but Mr Putin had other ideas and carried on for another 90 minutes.

Seen limping in recent months,  and apparently suffering from back pain, Mr Putin has been subject to a number of rumours to do with his health, but by the end of the marathon, he looked like the least tired person  in the hall.

When asked about his supposed failing health, he gave a trademark wry grin: “I’ll give you my traditional answer: don’t hold your breath.”

Vladimir Putin: Words of wisdom

On the end of the world:  “I know when the end of the world will come. In roughly 4.5 billion years… And what is there to be scared of, if it’s inevitable?”

On Gérard Depardieu: “I have very good personal relations with him... If Gérard wants a residency permit for Russia, or a Russian passport, consider it done.”

On democracy:  “Democracy is about respecting laws. For some reason, people here think that democracy means Trotskyism or anarchy. It doesn’t.”

On the future of Russia:  “If you compare it to other periods of Russian history, the recent one has been far from the worst... maybe one of the best. But I hope future leaders will be even more successful.”