The annual special Direct Line with Vladimir Putin was broadcast live by Channel One, Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24 and Russia Today TV channels, and Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio stations.

Tatyana Remezova: Good afternoon, we are live. This is Direct Line with Vladimir Putin, a joint project by Channel One and Rossiya 1 TV channels. You can also watch the broadcast live on Rossiya 24, and listen to a live radio broadcast on Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii radio stations.

The anchors of Direct Line are Tatyana Remezova and Dmitry Borisov.

Dmitry Borisov: Good afternoon,

First of all, I would like to introduce our colleagues who will be helping us today. Maria Gladkikh and Natalya Yuryeva are in the call centre; and here in the studio we have Vera Krasova, Nailya Asker-zade, Olga Pautova and Olga Ushakova.

They are surrounded by people who were in the spotlight of the last year’s most dramatic news reports, people who arguably have shaped today’s Russia in one way or another.

Now to Tatyana Remezova.

Tatyana Remezova: President of Russia Vladimir Putin is here, in the studio, live.

Maria Gladkikh: Good afternoon,

We are in the call centre, which plays a key role in Direct Line. Our centre has already received 1.1 million calls. You can submit your question to Vladimir Putin right now. The telephone number has not changed: 8 (800) 200 4040. You can also use 04040 for SMS and MMS messages.

Natalya Yuryeva: In addition to SMS messages and telephone calls, our operators also accept video questions that can be submitted either from the website or by using a special mobile application called Moskva Putinu (Moscow to Putin).

You can also submit questions using the programme’s official accounts on the VKontakte and Odnoklassniki social networks. For the first time, you can talk to the head of state by direct video link via OK Live, as well as the Moskva-Putinu application. This way, not only will the President hear you, but he will also be able to see you.

Go ahead, make a call. We will be taking questions until the end of the broadcast. You still have time. Maybe it will be your question that Vladimir Putin answers.

Maria Gladkikh: Another innovation in this year’s Direct Line is the SN Wall communications platform that enables us to monitor, in real time, how the audience is discussing the programme on social media. More than 300,000 comments have already been posted on Facebook, VKontakte, Instagram and Twitter.

Those who need sign interpretation can watch the broadcast on Public Television of Russia and on our website.

Dmitry Borisov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Dmitry Borisov: Our call centre has been receiving phone calls for 12 days, and 2 million messages of various kinds have been received to this point. The top five of the most sensitive issues for Russians includes growing prices, declining living standards, housing and utilities, healthcare and of course, there are many personal requests.

Tatyana Remezova: That said, I would like to highlight a major difference from previous Direct Lines.

Most of the messages we have received are not about the present, but about the future: how will our country live in the years to come, what will its relations with other countries be like? This could be due to the fact that we are in a pre-election year, when people have more questions to their leaders, to you primarily, of course.

Dmitry Borisov: However, before we start talking about the future, let me begin with the present.

We have been hearing many optimistic assessments of the state of the Russian economy lately. Can we say, would it be right to assume that the economic crisis is over?

Vladimir Putin: You have started with a core question, whether the economic crisis is over. I would very much like to give an affirmative answer, thereby sending a positive signal to the people. However, in the back of your mind you cannot stop thinking that something could still go wrong, something could happen.

Nevertheless, when it comes to drawing conclusions of this kind we should be guided by objective data. What are the hard facts telling us? They are telling us that the Russian economy has overcome the recession, and moved into a growth trend. I will get back to this later to explain how this conclusion can be reached and on what data it is based.

But I would like to start by making a different point and highlighting the most pressing issues that have yet to be resolved. You mentioned them in your question, by the way. What are these issues all about? Real incomes have been declining over the last several years, and what is even more alarming is the growing number of people below the poverty line with incomes below the minimum living wage.

In this regard, Russia hit a low in the early and mid-1990s, when almost one third of the country’s population lived below the poverty line, almost 40 percent or 35 to 37 percent, according to various estimates, almost 40 million people. This was the all-time low, while the highest indicators in this respect were reported in 2012.

In 2012, 10.7 percent of the population was below the poverty line. Unfortunately, since then this number has reached 13.5 percent. It may not seem like a lot, just a few percentage points, but we are talking about tens, and hundreds of thousands of people, their lives, so this is a matter of serious concern.

There are economic issues that have still to be addressed, above all regarding real incomes. What are these issues? They have to do with the structure of the economy that we find unsatisfactory. In this connection I have to mention low labour productivity. There will be no new jobs, and incomes will not increase, unless we improve labour productivity. This is a major issue.

We will most definitely come back to these matters and I am 100 percent certain that people will have further questions and we will go into greater detail and look further at all that makes it possible for me to say now that the recession is over and we have seen economic growth for three quarters in a row now. GDP growth is modest, but it has nonetheless held steady from one quarter to the next.

GDP growth was plus 3 percent at the end of the fourth quarter of 2016, plus 5 percent in the first quarter of this year, and up 1.4 percent in April this year. This makes for GDP growth of 0.7 percent overall for the first four months of 2017.

Industrial production is also on the rise. We had growth of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of this year. I have brought along some of the latest figures, so as not to forget anything, and I can share them with you too. These are the latest statistics.

Investment into capital assets is up 2.3 percent. We see an increase in car sales and mortgage loans, which all economies consider a clear sign of growth, and non-resource and non-energy exports are up by 19 percent.

Finally, another important macroeconomic indicator is inflation, and we have brought it down to a record low in modern Russian history. The figure today is 4.2 percent. This is an unprecedented result and it gives us reason to expect that we will reach our target figure of 4 percent by the end of the year.

The Central Bank’s gold and foreign currency reserves, our international reserves, are growing. We started 2016 with $368 billion and ended the year with $378 billion. Today, the figure is $407 billion. One of the most significant indicators that I must mention is investment into capital assets, which is growing at a faster pace than the economy as a whole.

The economy grew by 0.7 percent over the first four months of this year, while investment into capital assets was up by 2.3 percent. What does this mean in simple terms? It means that investment in developing production facilities is up by 2.3 percent, and this is laying the foundations for growth in the short term. This, of course, is a positive development that will have an impact on various aspects of the social sector too.

Which aspects? The main social sector achievement that I want to mention once again is the substantial drop in infant and maternal mortality. Infant mortality has undergone a three-fold decrease since 2000, and maternal mortality has seen a close to four-fold drop. Probably no other country’s social sector has achieved such results. This has contributed to increased life expectancy as well. The figures here are now up from just over 70 years to 72 years. Overall, these results give us reason to say that we have overcome the crisis.

Tatyana Remezova: Mr President, you yourself spoke about people’s declining real incomes, and the official statistics confirm this. When will people feel the benefits of the reviving economy?

Vladimir Putin: You know, the decline was rather steep, and so it will take some time before people will feel an improvement. As I said at the beginning, I consider this to be the most important and serious problem.

Real wages started increasing in July or August 2016 and increased 0.7 percent by the end of the year. This increase is rather difficult to see, although it reached 2.3 or 2.4 percent in April this year.

As you know, we made lump sum payments of 5,000 rubles to pensioners early this year and increased pensions for non-working pensioners by 5.4 percent starting from February 1 and later brought the overall figure to 5.8 percent. We have also indexed social pensions.

We are working with employers to increase the minimum wage. We increased it by over 20 percent last year and have also raised it this year. Overall, we are working at this so that people can feel the improvements.

Tatyana Remezova: Still, many people complain about low wages. Here are many text messages and photos of wage slips. For example, a preschool teacher at Kindergarten No. 111 in Astrakhan is paid 7,935 rubles. The slip is for May 2017. Can you live on this wage?

A medical nurse at the Vostochny Space Launch Centre received 10,246 rubles in May.

“Should a firefighter risk his life for 8,000 rubles a month?” asks Alexander Melnikov, head of a fire team from the Saratov Region.

“When will postal workers’ wages be raised? You cannot live on 3,600 rubles.”

Vladimir Putin: We will have to check the situation with salaries of 3,600 rubles to understand how this is possible. After all, there is a minimum wage in Russia, and it is more than 3,600 rubles. However, all the people you have mentioned are public sector employees who did not benefit from the wage increases under the May 2012 executive orders.

As for public sector employees who did benefit from these increases, their salaries are going up as planned, more or less. In other public sector jobs that were not covered by the May 2012 executive orders, the situation is more challenging. Their salaries were not adjusted for inflation, even though prices have gone up, and the inflation rate was quite high at 12.9 percent in 2015. Still, their wages were not adjusted for inflation. If you are telling me that this is not fair, I agree. I have raised this issue with the Government, and issued instructions to this effect. These salaries will be adjusted for inflation starting January 1, 2018.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you.

Dmitry Borisov: We have received many calls on this subject. Let us ask the call centre to join our conversation.

Natalya, you have the floor.

Natalya Yuryeva: Mr President, we have just received a call from a medical nurse in Primorye who asked how she could survive on her salary. Socioeconomic issues are always the most sensitive, and they worry Russians the most.

I also see a question on another sensitive issue, the low salaries of teachers in the regions.

Here with us, via video conference, we now have Alyona Ostaltsova from Irkutsk.

Alyona, good afternoon, you are on, you can ask your question.

Alyona Ostaltsova: Hello, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Hello.

Alyona Ostaltsova: My name is Alyona Ostaltsova, and I am calling from the city of Shelekhov, Irkutsk Region. The question I have is quite common. Why are teachers paid so little? I am an elementary school teacher. I have been working for one year, but my salary has never exceeded 16,500 rubles per month. I have not received the allowance young teachers are entitled to. I love my job, and I love working with children, but with a salary like this, I have no choice. How can I live on it? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: Alyona, you are from Irkutsk Region, is that right?

Alyona Ostaltsova: Yes.

Vladimir Putin: Shelekhov is probably a small town. I do not know whether your school is fully staffed. You and I know, and so do all other teachers across the country, that there is an objective to bring teachers’ salaries up to the regional average. If I am not mistaken, since I may not recall the exact figures, the average salary in Irkutsk Region is slightly above 30,000 rubles. The average salary in Irkutsk Region is above 30,000 rubles. And teachers’ salaries are even slightly higher in Irkutsk Region.

What happens in reality? The teachers’ money and the level of wages are managed by the school itself, and it determines the payroll and extra payments in addition to the salary. The school itself does this. Again, the payroll and additional payments. It is clear that young specialists, and you are a young specialist, usually make somewhat less than experienced teachers with longer service and all. It is unclear though why it is so much less, 50 or 70 percent – I do not understand this either. I hope that the region’s administration, the authorities that supervise education, will pay attention to this.

This is what I’m thinking: as I said, such a difference in income is unacceptable. Therefore, if this is happening, it would probably be reasonable to establish a minimum wage or a minimum ratio between the income level of young specialists and those who have a long record of service. We probably need to think about this.

Alyona Ostaltsova: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: About 11,000 rubles, it is certainly strange. I repeat: wages should not differ so dramatically. We will deal with your specific case.

Tatyana Remezova: Before this broadcast, we talked to people who sent in their complaints, including complaints on this issue. Indeed, the situation is very different in various regions and largely depends on who is in charge of the region.

Over the past year, many changes have taken place in the leadership of Russian regions, something that never happened before: Buryatia, Kaliningrad, Karelia, Kirov, Mari El, Novgorod, Perm, Ryazan, Sevastopol, Tver, Tula, Udmurtia, and Yaroslavl. Why? Are all the newly appointed governors coping with their duties?

Vladimir Putin: You know, in many places the governors’ tenure in office simply ended, as many of them had worked for 10 and even more years. Frankly, it was their own idea to try working in other areas.

In other regions, we just felt that people want change, and therefore initiated the process. As to whether they are competent or not, this is primarily a question for the local people. Some of the elected regional leaders had already served for six months or a year before running for the position, so when they did, people voted for them because they knew they could trust them with managing the region, so we can say that people – the voters – believe these candidates were doing a good job. But, of course, any election, the results of any election are an upfront trust given to candidates for leadership at any level at the beginning of their work at this new high office.

Whether they succeed or not – I will return to this subject now. They have to succeed, they have everything to make it despite the fact they are relatively young. They have extensive state work and life experience; of course, you can blame it all on them – but the financial situation is not easy in the regions.

In this regard, the Federation helps for them, supports them. To solve these social issues and level wages, 40 billion rubles have been allocated in this year’s federal budget. What is more, I asked the Government to provide additional finances, and they have allocated another 10 billion rubles. Therefore, they have the support; they also have their own social programmes. They have to work and achieve results.

Tatyana Remezova: We received the following question online: ”Two weeks ago, Europe extended the anti-Russia sanctions for another year. Do you think we are ready to live under these sanctions for decades?”

Vladimir Putin: In fact, the history of Russia shows that we have usually lived under sanctions whenever Russia started to become independent and feel strong. Whenever our partners in the world saw Russia as a serious rival, they imposed various restrictions under various excuses; this has been the case throughout our history, not just in Soviet times; this was the case even before the 1917 revolution. So no surprises here.

We now know that the US Senate has drawn up another draft law on toughening these sanctions. What are the reasons for this? Nothing extraordinary is taking place. Why have they started talking about sanctions again, for no particular reason? This, of course, testifies to the ongoing domestic political struggle in the United States. In any case, this is happening and I can see no real reason for it. If it had not been Crimea or some other issue, they would still have come up with some other way to restrain Russia. The policy of containing Russia has always been presented like this.

So, what is the situation with these sanctions and what impact, if any, have they had on us? They have had an impact. Has this been fundamental in nature? I do not think so. We have been affected more by the global situation and the drop in prices for our main traditional goods – oil, gas, metals, chemicals, and so on. What view do our partners take?

The US State Department believes that these sanctions have lowered our GDP by 1 percent, the Europeans give a slightly higher figure, and the UN has calculated that we lost around $50–52 billion, and that the countries that imposed the sanctions have lost $100 billion. In other words, sanctions have proven to be a double-edged sword and harm everyone, including those who impose them.

Strange though it might sound, however, there have been advantages too. What are they? For a start, we were forced to concentrate our intelligence, talent and resources on key areas and not simply rely on oil and gas revenue. What result has this brought? We have seen real production growth in important and complex economic sectors.

We have rebuilt substantially our skills in the radio-electronics sector, and we made good progress in aircraft engineering, rocket building, pharmaceuticals, and in heavy engineering. That is not to mention agriculture. We all know that agriculture has posted growth of around 3 percent and Russia is now a leader in exports of grain and wheat. That is the result we have to show.

We have reduced substantially imports and developed our own production of pork and poultry and cover practically our entire consumption needs. What’s more, we are now looking for sales markets abroad.

We are in talks with our Chinese friends on opening the Chinese market to our pork and poultry producers. So, there are positive aspects in this situation.

But this is not a normal situation, of course. All of these restrictions do not produce anything good, and we should work towards a global economy that functions without these restrictions.

Dmitry Borisov: If possible, I would like to return to the issue of public opinion on the performance of regional authorities. We have been collecting questions for the past 12 days and have noticed that journalists have used some of these questions as themes for their reports, citing people’s complaints and requests. Miraculously, asphalt was laid, walls painted and building facades repaired the next day after the stories appeared on Channel One or Rossiya. This seems to have solved the problem, or has it?

And there is also a different trend. Tatyana Remezova can correct me if I am wrong, because this story was aired on her show. It is about people complaining over long queues in outpatient clinics while doctors say that this is not true. Then, there is the issue of pseudo-assistance, when people pretend that there is no problem, and simultaneously, the issue of the pseudo-problem, when people try to make a mountain out of a molehill.

I would like to say that we record all these cases. Mr President, we will forward the list of issues that have been allegedly resolved and also pseudo-problems to you and the Presidential Executive Office.

Vladimir Putin: It looks as though holding this event once a year is useful after all. Those who were sitting on their hands will do something good, like build a road or settle matters with healthcare or social facilities. But these are only separate elements. What matters for me is the ability to gauge the public mood, to see what worries people most, the whole range of issues. Of course, it is impossible to answer every question. It would be unrealistic to even try. But we can answer some of them today – I can do this with your help. And this will help us – me, the Government and the Presidential Executive Office – to see the main, and I would even say the most glaring issues, which we must deal with as a priority. I would like to thank our television audience, and those who sent their requests online, for taking part in this work.

Tatyana Remezova: I know that the subject of sanctions has found a response among the guests in this studio.

Olga Pautova has the floor.

Olga Pautova: Mr President, there are many agribusiness representatives in this room. They are more concerned with our response to the sanctions and the related import replacement.

Standing next to me is Sergei Korolev, head of the National Vegetable Union. He says the past three years have taught our farmers to grow delicious and, most importantly, wholesome tomatoes and cucumbers.

Mr Korolev, do we have productive harvests?

Sergei Korolev: We are growing by about 20–30 percent a year.

Mr President, you mentioned the sanctions earlier. We see the measures introduced against Russia as a gift and an additional tool to support our agro-industrial sector. The retaliatory measures that were introduced have produced an effect.

Vegetable production is growing at a rate unprecedented both in the Soviet Union and in recent history. I can tell you that we grew by 50 percent over the year when the retaliatory measures were introduced. We have invested 150 billion rubles in vegetable farming. You mentioned these figures today – 150 billion over a short period – [as an example] of growing investment. This is without a precedent. More than 10,000 new jobs have been created. And we are certainly ready to continue this work.

But all of us are concerned with the following issue. The US Senate adopted a decision yesterday, and Europe declared that their sanctions would be extended and even expanded. Will we extend our counter-sanctions in response to the West’s decisions?

And a second question: When, God forbid, their sanctions are called off, can we hope for your support in protecting the domestic market, as was the case with Turkish tomatoes, for which Russian vegetable growers owe you a special thanks?

Vladimir Putin: This is not a peripheral question, since it is relevant to the whole country. Why? Two years ago, as you and I know all too well, vegetable and fruit production was the most challenging issue. Prices jumped which could not help but affect household incomes. In fact, we blocked or substantially reduced imports, but were unable to meet the needs of Russian consumers on our own. We did everything we could, and I will not go through the whole list of initiatives we undertook. You know them better than I do, and I hope that you have benefited from them. These initiatives were aimed at helping our producers expand vegetable and fruit production, primarily vegetables. Two years ago, the inflation rate reached 12.9 percent, and vegetable and fruit prices were one of the main reasons behind this surge, although there were other reasons that also pushed the inflation rate up.

What we believed was that Russian agricultural producers, meat producers and those growing fruit and vegetables, needed to expand their operations to such an extent as to be able to satisfy domestic demand. You have been successful at this, and I would like to thank you. Not only you, but all those who live in rural areas.

The inflation rate is now at just 4.1 percent. This is a tangible result that benefits the entire industry. After all, almost one third of the country’s population lives on agriculture, if we include the rural population working in social services. This is a very positive development. You were right to say that your products have superior quality.

The Government has extended the sanctions until the end of 2017, to December 31. We will see how our relations evolve with the countries that imposed these restrictions on the Russian economy.

As for the question of keeping the restrictions in place indefinitely, if our partners lift the sanctions they imposed on us, we will have to do the same. Otherwise, Russia will face issues in the WTO. What I want to say is, first, we need to promote competition on the domestic market so that it benefits consumers, including those who live in major cities. Secondly, we very much hope that you will succeed in expanding your operations and enhancing your competitiveness, and we are doing everything we can to help you succeed. If you reach the same level of quality and labour productivity as your competitors, you will always have an advantage on the domestic market due to lower logistics costs. For this reason, we are providing indirect support, which is not prohibited under WTO rules. As a matter of fact, there are many loopholes that can be used, and we will continue to do so. However, you should not expect any massive, direct, or, should I say, aggressive support measures from us. Now is the time when you have to do everything it takes in order to become competitive in the near term.

Tatyana Remezova: Let’s cross to the call centre and hear a telephone call. Maria, you have the floor.

Maria Gladkikh: Yes, thank you.

Mr President, many people call about issues that they have been attempting to resolve at the local level for a long time. Finally, when they get desperate, they turn to you in a bid to get something done quicker. We have a call now from Trans-Baikal Territory.

Hello, you are on air. Please introduce yourself.

Natalya Kalinina: Hello,

Mr President, I am Natalya Kalinina, a resident of Olovyanninsky District, Trans-Baikal Territory. My village, Shiviya, was burned down entirely on April 29, 2015. I remain homeless to this date.

We were offered housing, but it was unfit for habitation. I have a small child and am a single mother. I have turned to all possible levels of authority, but have received no response anywhere. Our district officials have taken no action at all.

My daughter is set to begin school this year, but we have no place of residence registration. We are living in an old abandoned house. Mr President, please help us to obtain a decent place to live.

Thank you very much. God bless you.

Vladimir Putin: Ms Kalinina, please stay on the line. Which region are you in?

Natalya Kalinina: Olovyanninsky District, Trans-Baikal Territory.

Vladimir Putin: Trans-Baikal Territory? This is strange.

Yes, Trans-Baikal Territory was indeed hit by fires in the summer of 2015, and we disbursed in full federal money for providing the fire victims with new housing.

I do not remember the exact figure now, but I think it was a bit over half a billion rubles that we allocated, including over 300 million for resolving these housing problems, and this money was to have been spent on either buying housing or on building new homes for families such Ms Kalinina’s.

The region has a new governor, true, she arrived only in 2016. I will ask her to look into this situation and will also ask the prosecutor’s office to investigate where the money went and how it was spent. Whatever the case, we will resolve your problem. This is the state authorities’ duty. We promised to provide everyone affected by the fires with housing, and we will do this.

Dmitry Borisov: Maria, what are the updates? How many calls per minute is the call centre receiving? How busy is the line?

Maria Gladkikh: Of course, Dmitry, I can give you the updates. But first, I would like to show you how questions for the Direct Line are taken. Our operators fill in forms for every caller with their name, gender, age, occupation and, of course, their question.

For example, here we have a form for Ella Pavskina from Moscow Region who asked a question about kindergarten waiting lists. Every minute we receive 106 SMS and MMS messages. Our operators take around 127 calls per minute. The line’s maximum capacity is up to 456 calls.

Right now, we have a call from Ivan Tarkin in Vladivostok. Good evening to you, since it is already evening in your city. You are on. Please ask your question.

Ivan Tarkin: Mr President, this is Ivan Tarkin from the free city of Vladivostok.

Mr President, can you explain what is going on with the One Hectare programme? Mockery is the only word that describes it. You have to spend months on the website to register your plot and nothing happens, the website crashes all the time.

By the skin of my teeth, I managed to get a cadastral number, print the contract, sign it and submit it to the Vladivostok Land Committee, last February.

Since then, I have not been able to get it back for ever new reasons. A hundred years ago, Stolypin with his primitive tools never made such mistakes. Why is that?

Vladimir Putin: The Stolypin reference is appropriate here, of course. Do not forget that there were also so-called Stolypin trains that people were forced onto, and so-called Stolypin ties, which were nothing but gallows. But it is true; we must remember all the positive things that Stolypin did for our country. This is why there is a monument to him outside the Government House in Moscow. We do not have a death penalty now as you know, although sometimes, you know what I mean.

As concerns the hectare programme: first of all, the programme is going fairly well overall. I will speak about this in a minute. Primorye Territory is struggling with it the most, I will explain why.

Last February, we made a decision that any Russian citizen who wants to move to the Far East will be given one hectare.

The number of applications rose immediately. There are 92,000 applications now. Even the system that was designed to process them has glitches. About 27,000 of the 92,000 applications have been granted, which is more than a third. This is the first thing.

The second. In the European part of Russia, it takes up to three years to obtain a land plot, as disappointing as this sounds, while in the Far East it takes a little over two months to get this one hectare.

Your case is, of course, discouraging. What could be the matter is beyond my knowledge, but we will certainly try to help you. I am sure that the relevant ministers in the region are listening, as is Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev. They will certainly respond.

What is the problem? The problem is that they do not have a proper cadastral register. This is their first problem.

The second problem is that too much land belongs to official agencies, like the Defence Ministry, the Academy of Sciences and all the departments involved in environmental protection. And so we have one figure on paper and a different one in reality. You have been issued a cadastral number, but when you started checking the data you found a disparity, and now you need to settle it with various departments.

I will try helping you in this. I will try helping my colleagues, the governors, coordinate these issues so that nobody else has these problems. I am sure that you will receive your hectare of land. Good luck.

Tatyana Remezova: We do receive many complaints from the Far East about the allocation of land under the One Hectare programme. At the same time, people from other regions demand to know when this programme will be spread around Russia. Vasily Denisov from the town of Blagoi in the Tver Region wonders if the One Hectare programme will also be applied in other regions, which must surely have unused land too.

Vladimir Putin: There is enough unused land in Russia. For example, over 43 million hectares of farmland is not being used for its intended purpose. This is a huge amount.

But first we need to complete the experiment in the Far East. As you can see, there are some problems, such as the one we heard about on the phone, although the situation is mostly favourable. In other words, we first need to test this process in the Far East. And we also need to settle the problem of cadastral registers.

Overall, I believe that the person who asked this question is right, and we do need to make use of this land. However, we should do it carefully so as not to create a secondary market for the land we allocate under the One Hectare programme because our people are very creative, you know: they can take several hectares first, then there will emerge a secondary market, and we end up with those hectares being resold many times without any tillage. Although the corresponding law says it all. This land is not being allocated as property. The land holders must show good result during the first five years, after which they will be able to receive either a long-term lease for this land or appropriate it. But they may not sell it to foreigners. In short, we need to test every detail of this programme in the Far East. But overall, it is the right idea.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you.

Dmitry Borisov: This year, the call centre editors, and all of us working on the Direct Line, selected a number of questions not only to let a person ask it live over the phone, or to record a video message, but to immediately send a film crew to the scene to see with our own eyes, through the eyes of our colleagues, what is happening there, on site. The first such place is Balashikha, outside Moscow. Our colleague Dmitry Kaistro is there now.

Dmitry Kaistro: Hello!

It is raining today and visibility is not great, but giant rubbish heaps are clearly visible in the heart of this neighbourhood of Balashikha. This dump has been here for more than 50 years, poisoning everything around it, and rubbish trucks bring more all the time, day and night. This dump is even visible from outer space – it takes up about 50 hectares and is closing in on the surrounding houses.

We have worked here for several days, but when we arrived at the landfill, strong young people emerged wearing “environmentalist” T-shirts with ‘Environmental Control’ written on them. They showed us some kind of facility for processing rubbish, even decorated with balloons in the colours of the Russian flag – it looked like some proactive move. This was a perfect illustration of the place and the disaster that has rallied tens of thousands of people here. We did not even have to ask – people came to us to talk about the burning matter and ask their questions.

Yelena Mikhailenko: Hello!

We live here in the neighborhood of Kuchino, in Balashikha, and some of us are from Olgino and Pavlino. The situation here is terrible, simply unbearable in fact. There is a huge landfill, the biggest in Moscow Region, within our town, just 200 metres from residential areas, kindergartens and clinics, and only 20 kilometres from the Kremlin. This is a violation of Federal Law No. 89.

Fires occur on the landfill daily; it is impossible to breathe, and there is a constant release of gases, methanethiol and sulphur dioxide. They become converted to hydrogen sulphide, and we breathe it. Many suffer from nausea and vomiting, all the time. It is unbearable.

We have appealed to many government agencies at various levels, receiving only formal and noncommittal replies; we have it all documented. We do not know what to do. This is not only our problem; it is a problem for the whole country. We do not know what to do in this situation. Turning to you is our last hope.

Vladimir Putin: This is a very sensitive and complicated issue. I know full well what you are talking about. I have seen this waste disposal site. As the reporter said, it has been there for 50 years. By the way, I see that you are standing by a building that was clearly built less than 50 years ago. Someone did decide to build housing near a waste disposal site that has been there for 50 years. So let’s not forget the people who took the decision to build residential buildings in this area. The dump has been there for 50 years. Nevertheless, we have what we have, and it is our duty to respond. Of course, we are aware of the problem. There is special urgency to deal with it in the Moscow Region, Tatarstan, Tula and a number of other regions.

What measures will be taken? First, a decision was made to build recycling plants. Four of them will be erected in the project’s initial phase, and three of them will be located in the Moscow Region. By the way, advanced Japanese technology will be used, provided by Hitachi, if I am not mistaken, and the Rostec Corporation will be in charge of building these units. This should be done as quickly as possible. This is the first point.

The second point is that 5 billion rubles were allocated from the federal budget, which is a substantial amount, to resolve the most pressing issues we are currently facing in this area. This is clearly your case. I will ask the Governor of the Moscow Region and the federal Government to use these allocations to resolve the most pressing issues like the one you are facing. I hope that this will be done.

The law on waste management was adopted quite a while ago, but its enactment has been delayed time and again. I think now it is expected to come into force on January 1, 2019. Why was it rolled back? Because manufacturers have to pay recycling fees under the law, so during the crisis, manufacturers asked us to postpone these fees in order to lessen the burden on the economy. This is the first thing I wanted to say about this law.

Secondly, with regard to individuals, this law stipulates that certain environmental fees must be paid by individuals as well. However, the effect of paying these fees will not be visible right away, because it is first necessary to build something using these funds, after which the effect will become visible. All this time we had doubts: will the people understand this, and should it be done at all? I want to ask everyone who will engage in this work or is already engaged: the people will certainly understand if they see where the money is going, and to make sure they do, we need public oversight in place.

By the way, I would like to thank Russian Popular Front, which created the corresponding map. Hundreds of people are already working on this as they identify the most critical issues. With regard to Balashikha, we will look into this issue separately and try to fix it. I can understand perfectly the critical importance of this problem. It has been building up over decades. We will try to fix it as soon as possible.

Dmitry Borisov: By the way, Balashikha is one of the places I was talking about. We were choosing locations in the regions for these reports and these questions arrived on every one of the 12 days that we were taking messages from different regions. We chose Balashikha, and went there. You can see everything and get a good sense of what is going on.

Vladimir Putin: Well, of course. People are standing there, and it stinks to high heaven.

Dmitry Borisov: Unfortunately, the screen cannot convey the smell. You just saw what Dmitry Kaistro showed us. It looks like they have spruced things up a little, and built some kind of a line there in one day. However, we have a photo taken the day before. I just want to show it to you, if I may.

This is modern-day Balashikha, the picture was taken yesterday. In a matter of one day, the balloons suddenly appeared. It looks like the matter is being addressed. They are saying there is no problem whatsoever.

Tatyana Remezova: We now have Irkutsk Region online. Lake Baikal and its biggest island, Olkhon Island. Our colleague Pavel Zarubin joins us from there.

Pavel Zarubin: Hello, Moscow! Olkhon Island sits in the middle of Lake Baikal. Look how beautiful it is here. Shamanka Rock is one of the main attractions of the lake.

Later, we will see that almost all trees here are covered with beautiful ribbons, as, according to local legends, Shamanka Rock and Cape Burkhan are believed to be a special sacred place, a place of worship.

Of course, many tourists come to the Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. Just imagine that 10 years ago there was no electricity in Khuzhir, from which we are broadcasting now, while now this town with a population of 1,500 has two or three thousand tourists every day in the summer – every single day!

The Yordynsky Games have begun in the Olkhon District. The games are a beautiful ethnic and cultural festival. Let’s take a few seconds to watch and listen.

Foreign tourists flock here to see the festival by the thousands; there are so many of them around! But the locals have complained that they live as if in a reservation.

The Russian nature conservation legislation was seriously tightened several years ago. The water conservation zone of Lake Baikal has been expanded inland by dozens of kilometres, and locals say that they will be unable to do anything here if they comply with the law.

They say that it is a major problem. Nearly all the residents of this town have said so, but Viktor was especially expressive.

Viktor, over to you.

Viktor Vlasov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Let us begin with the road. The road from the ferry to Khuzhir is so bad that it is almost non-existent. Many people come here by car, and these are expensive cars, and so people drive off from the road, trampling vegetation so that it will take a decade for grass to grow here again.

Nobody takes care of this road. The last time the road was filled was 10 or 15 years ago. Local and regional officials always fly in by helicopter, and so they do not see the road and do not know what it means to drive on a road on which vehicles easily turn upside down.

Pavel Zarubin: Indeed, the regional bosses arrived here by helicopter an hour ago. There it is, the helicopter, you can see it.

Viktor Vlasov: A few words about the water. We live on water. Look how much water there is all around us, but we get our drinking water from wells. It is incredibly bad! You fill a three-litre kettle and think that it is full of water, but it turns out there is a layer of hard water build-up two fingers thick in the kettle. Our drinking water is not filtered, and they cannot even build a good water tower.

Pavel Zarubin: As I understand it, you cannot build a road there, or can you?

Viktor Vlasov: No, we cannot build a road because the law prohibits quarrying on the island. Quarrying is allowed only on the mainland. But it would be impossible to transport all the materials by ferry, which runs strictly on schedule.

Pavel Zarubin: So, is it also because of this law that you cannot build a road?

Viktor Vlasov: When the Baikal National Park was established, a reserve was set up on our island. When we met at the club with the representatives, they promised us the moon and said that no one was going to infringe on our rights and nothing bad would happen.

In reality, everything happened: we are not allowed into the forest, not allowed into the fields, and things have reached a point where even our cattle are arrested and we are told that if we let this happen again, our cattle will be shot.

Vladimir Putin: We were in Balashikha only recently and we saw there the conditions in which people are living. This is the result of the fact that environmental norms were ignored at one point and people built housing in places where this should not have been done.

We certainly must resolve this situation now. I would like to get back, because what I have seen made an impression and we must do everything possible to help Balashikha and help the people living there.

Your situation is the other side of the coin, but these are two sides of the same matter. You said that environmental norms and legal provisions were toughened, but these territories are no doubt protected by our international obligations as well.

What can I say here? Of course, everything should be within reasonable limits. The protected water reservoir zone that you speak of should conform to Baikal’s status and significance and meet the needs and demands of the people living in the area.

Of course, we cannot force people to carry buckets and cans of water for several kilometres. Water quality should be guaranteed and roads should be built. We must amend the current regulations and laws in such a way as to allow for economic activity, coordinated with the environmental organisations, in order to ensure normal and civilised conditions for the people living in these areas.

We need to make amendments to these laws. I have taken note of the matter. We will work together with you. I will say again that together with the environmental organisations we should do everything to ensure that things stay within reasonable limits. This is definitely necessary work.

I do not think this will have any negative impact on our commitments to international organisations. These organisations make people the primary focus of their work, so why should we not do the same? I see no reason not to. We will address this problem.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Olkhon.

We received many questions from young mothers. This is why we went to a perinatal centre that has recently opened in the Republic of Bashkortostan, where our colleague Ivan Prozorov is working.

Ivan Prozorov: Colleagues, good afternoon,

We are in the Mother and Child clinic, a state-of-the-art multi-purpose centre, where high-technology surgery is performed, including under government quotas.

Of course, the main purpose of this centre is obvious from its name, Mother and Child. We are now in a ward for newborns, where mothers take care of their babies. By the way, we know that this mother and her child are about to leave the clinic. They will be home in a matter of hours.

This child was born less than two days ago. Both the mother and the child feel great, which should be credited among others to Ruslan Garifullin, who is an obstetrician-gynaecologist. He has been working at this centre since its first day.

More than 2,000 babies were born here in almost three years. Doctor Garifullin submitted a written question to Direct Line, and now he can ask it himself.

Doctor Garifullin, go ahead.

Ruslan Garifullin: Good afternoon, Mr President.

I am an obstetrician-gynaecologist, and have been working in maternity centres for 15 years. During my career, I had a chance…

Ivan Prozorov: Excuse me, my colleague is telling me that behind us you can see a ward where a young father has just entered with a newborn. Is that right?

Ruslan Garifullin: Yes, his child was born only a few moments ago.

Ivan Prozorov: Sorry for improvising. We knew that the operation was underway, but did not expect it to happen when we would be live.

Hello, you may not believe it, but this is Direct Line with Vladimir Putin. Millions of people can now see you. Congratulations on behalf of all of them. This is an incredible moment. What is your name, and how do you feel?

Artyom Sukharev: Hello, my name is Artyom Sukharev. This is actually my second child. He was born only 20 minutes ago, and I got to hold him right away. My wife is still in the intensive-care ward, while I get to know my child.

Ivan Prozorov: Were you nervous just as with your first child? Or was it less dramatic?

Artyom Sukharev: You know, I was less nervous, although there were still a lot of emotions.

Ivan Prozorov: Is it a boy or a girl?

Artyom Sukharev: It’s a boy. This is the second boy in the family.

Ivan Prozorov: Great, congratulations! What is his weight and height?

Artyom Sukharev: He is 3.8 kilograms and 54 centimetres long.

Ivan Prozorov: Have you chosen a name?

Artyom Sukharev: Yes, his name will be Mikhail.

Ivan Prozorov: Amazing. Can you show us the baby? Is he sound asleep right now?

Artyom Sukharev: No, he is trying to open his eyes. Everything is interesting for him.

Ivan Prozorov: Thank you, and once again congratulations. Please send our well-wishes to your spouse. We will not disturb you any longer. Thank you, and congratulations.


We are returning to the question. Ruslan, I am sorry we were interrupted. Can you repeat your question?

Ruslan Garifullin: This was a good reason for interrupting, great news. I will continue.

Mr President, here it goes. Over the 15 years of my career, I have seen the birth rate both in decline and on the rise, the latter in the past seven or eight years. However, right now we are actually afraid that the birth rate will begin to drop again as a backwash of the birth rate drop in the 90s. There are literally fewer women these days who are ready to have children.

In this regard, my question is, will the maternity capital programme, which expires in 2018, be extended? And will it cover the birth of a third child and further children?

Also, our new mothers are certainly concerned with the child allowance they receive once the child turns 18 months. At the moment they get paid a pathetic 50 rubles. It think it is a measly amount. Will anything change?

Vladimir Putin: First, I would like to congratulate Mikhail and his parents on his birth and the boy himself on coming into this world. It is a wonderful event for his family. We wish the parents and the child the best of luck and happiness.

Now to the demographics. Indeed, we have done a lot to turn the demographic trends towards stable growth. We have achieved a very positive result.

The birth rate in Russia is growing faster than across Europe. When I say that, many of my counterparts are surprised and honestly happy for us. Now, what I want to say about the trends is the following.

Russia suffered the biggest loss in terms of population and demographic development during the Great Patriotic War in 1943 and 1944. In 1943, the birth rate fell by 60 percent compared to the pre-war years.

During that time, fewer than one million children were born in Russia, in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. In the 1990s, also due to difficult events, we had 1.2 million children borne, which is similar to the demographic loss during the war. The drop was around 50 percent.

Surely, we must take into account that the second case was also a repercussion of the Great Patriotic War to an extent, added to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the social welfare system, the drop in the quality of life, and massive unemployment. All these factors together resulted in a catastrophic birth rate decline, and it comes back every 25 years.

First the war, then every 25 years, and in the mid-90s the collapse of the Soviet Union and everything it entailed affected the picture. Eventually, we almost fell back to the level of the Great Patriotic War.

And what do we have as a result? The number of young people, primarily women of childbearing age, as professionals say, has plummeted. The generation that was born in the 1990s has entered this age.

The number of young women aged between 20 and 29 has decreased by 34 percent and the number of women aged up to 38 or 39 has dropped by 25 percent. Women aged between 30 and 40 continue to have children, and these are healthy kids. We should be grateful to medical advances for this. But still, the decline is tremendous. The number of people who can become parents has decreased.

We must do something to prevent the demographic gap from becoming wider still. What can we do? First, we have a number of tried and tested systems. You have mentioned one of them – maternity capital. By the way, over 7 million families, over 7 million mothers have received maternity capital, and nearly half of them have used it. This is our first achievement.

Second, allocations for a third child have been introduced in the regions with an unfavourable demographic situation. As a result, the birth rate has increased by 37 percent there. Yes, we have achieved the desired result. Our measures are effective, although they are also expensive. But we are talking about our people, our citizens, and our future. We must analyse all aspects of the problem very carefully. Of course, we must not squander funds, but neither should we be stingy with them. Therefore, we need a set of various measures, such as the extension of the maternity capital programme as it exists or in a new form.

We must think about encouraging young women to have their first babies, probably by allocating funds to them. Why so much attention to young mothers? Because they are still young, and so we should help them by giving them a start in life. We must also think about encouraging older mothers, that is, mothers aged 30 or more, to have their second and third children.

We have resolved the problem of kindergartens for children aged between three to seven. It is a major achievement of our social policy in the past year. As far as I know, there are places for 89 percent of children in this age group in kindergartens. But we do not have enough day nurseries.

We must have nurseries for young mothers who do not wish to interrupt their careers or would like to have one. We need a programme and a package of measures. I can tell you that we have plans for a government meeting to discuss this issue. I will not speak here about the measures we will discuss, but they are on the agenda.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Ufa, and congratulations on the birth of a new citizen of Russia. It is a wonderful event. While we were answering your question, we received a question from Tatyana Prokopenko in Kabardino-Balkaria. She is asking about your grandchildren. How old are they, and what are their names?

Vladimir Putin: You know, my children, my daughters, despite all the rumours, live here in Russia, in Moscow. I have grandchildren and they live a normal life too. My daughters are involved in science and education and they stay out of the public eye, out of politics and live normal, everyday lives. As for my grandchildren, one of them is already in kindergarten.

The thing is, you see, I do not want them to grow up like some royal princes. I want them to live like ordinary people, and for this, they need to have a normal environment and ordinary interaction with other children. The minute I give their names and ages, they would be identified immediately and would never be left in peace, and this would be quite simply detrimental to their development. Therefore, everything is fine, and I ask you to understand me correctly and show understanding for this position of mine.

Tatyana Remezova: We understand you and we congratulate you on being a grandfather.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. My second grandchild was born recently.

Tatyana Remezova: Congratulations!

Dmitry Borisov: You said that the maternity capital programme should be expanded. We have received many messages from mothers in the regions asking for the new law to allow them to spend the maternity capital on purchasing a car, which is often an essential thing for large families.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, there have been frequent discussions on the possibilities of spending the maternity capital, which today comes to slightly more than 450,000 roubles. The maternity capital was not indexed over the last couple of years, the last three years even. This is something we must do and we will come back to this.

As for whether this money could be put towards other purposes, this is something we can reflect on. The only thing that has always worried me is that the money will be simply wasted and the mother, family and children will not receive the benefits of this state effort. This money is destined above all for improving housing conditions. Yes, this money is probably not enough to buy housing, but it can help towards buying it. Young families can also join one of the regional programmes for supporting young families and spend the money through these programmes. Alternatively, it can be spent on health or education. These are the main priorities.

Given the main issue people face today – the drop in incomes – we could perhaps take the simple approach of making it possible for part of the maternity capital to be given directly to the family, only part of it, to support families with two or more children. Perhaps this would be more effective than allowing people to spend it on something that is not a priority and then see it wasted, possibly the item being sold, and even at a loss. Perhaps it would be better to let people have part of the money in today’s circumstances. We will reflect on this.

Dmitry Borisov: Still, maternity capital is a lot of money – 450,000. But child benefits, as they report from various regions, are paltry: 183 rubles or 200 rubles.

Vladimir Putin: I am sorry. One of our colleagues, a doctor, has already asked a question about benefits. Yes, they are small. Indeed, they are, but we had a choice: either to increase the benefits or keep maternity capital. We opted for keeping maternal capital. It is a major financial commitment for the government, but it is a more effective tool. Still, we need to think about benefits, too.

Dmitry Borisov: I would like our guests in the studio to join in the conversation. Nailya Asker-zade. Please go ahead.

Nailya Asker-zade: There are representatives of small and medium-sized businesses among our guests, and they complain about problems with financing. One of the business leaders here, Alexander Kychakov from Novosibirsk, develops residential neighbourhoods.

Mr Kychakov, your question please.

Alexander Kychakov: Hello, Mr President!

The business community is often confronted with one and the same problem: although banks declare interest rates of 11–12 percent, the actual rate in our particular case reaches almost 19 percent – 18.75 – through additional mark-ups and charges required to open credit lines, to maintain limits, or to meet restrictions. With such rates, as I mentioned, we will not be able to build a new economy, and unfortunately, business is unlikely to be as profitable as we would have liked. I would like to ask a question. My colleagues will confirm: we just sat here and talked with Maxim, who owns an equipment-making business. I would like to know: do your ministers report to you on the real state of affairs with the financing of small and medium-sized businesses, and whether the Government plans to do anything with the level of interest rates and take steps towards solving the problem of ensuring growth and access to financing.

Vladimir Putin: Excuse me, what is your name?

Alexander Kychakov: Alexander Kychakov.

Vladimir Putin: Alexander, this, of course, is one of the key problems – the interest rates and the availability of loans. We have the head of the Higher School of Economics here, who would probably explain this to you, even more professionally than I would, especially since he is close to the Governor of the Central Bank.

Why does this happen? Of course, the interest rate always corresponds to the level of economic development. This is one of the key things that affects the country’s macroeconomic stability. We had to act based on inflation, which surged to 12.9 percent. The Central Bank was forced to raise this rate, otherwise it would have sent the economy tumbling, but it is reducing the rate gradually, as you know, it is now 12.5, and the rates of commercial banks are also falling. True, the Central Bank promised us that this year the volume of financing from commercial banks will be increased to around 6 percent.

What is happening today? Today, the average weighted rate for corporate borrowers is 11.5 percent. Small businesses probably have to pay a higher interest rate, 11.5 percent is the average figure. Incidentally, regarding this and other subjects we will be discussing, I would like to apologise right away to people who say, “What does the average weighted indicator mean for us? This is like calculating the mean temperature of hospital patients. Some people have bigger loans or lower incomes, and few are what you call average.” We need some kind of reference point. What does an average weighted interest rate mean to us? Clients whom the banks view as reliable, stable, transparent and with a good credit history can borrow at even lower rates, while at-risk borrowers can take out loans only at a higher interest rate. As I have already said, we are talking about an average interest rate of 11.5 percent for corporate borrowers and 15.5 percent for individuals. Nevertheless, mortgage lending is on the rise, through all the initiatives to facilitate lending.

I very much hope that the Central Bank continues to move cautiously towards reducing the key interest rate.

Why has the Central Bank adopted such a cautious approach? Unfortunately, the Russian economy still depends on oil and gas. The price of natural gas depends on the price of oil, and a special formula is used to calculate it. The price of oil has recently exceeded $50, and today it is only $48, I think. The Central Bank believes that if it declines, the key interest rate would have to be adjusted. What matters most for us right now is not the key interest rate itself, but avoiding any sharp fluctuations in the key interest rate. We need to ensure a stable exchange rate for our national currency, the ruble. This is what underpins the Central Bank’s cautious approach. Some may like it, others may not. I am simply trying to explain the Central Bank’s logic. It deserves respect.

There is no doubt that small businesses should be supported. I will not go through all the mechanisms we have in place for supporting SMEs, you probably know them, and these mechanisms should be further improved.

We also have to create incentives for the banking sector to act more aggressively. One thing to keep in mind is that profits of private banks are on the rise and have exceeded 650 billion, which is a substantial figure. At the same time, this kind of growth does not translate into more lending. In fact, corporate lending has increased by only 0.7 percent. The rise in consumer lending was somewhat more pronounced, but this is not enough. We have to work together and be cautious so as not to shake up the macroeconomic landscape. This is the foundation of Russia’s financial system and its entire economy.

Tatyana Remezova: Let us hear from the call centre. Maria Gladkikh.

Maria Gladkikh: Thank you.

Mr President, the geography of calls is all over the map. We get many calls from the CIS and beyond. Our editors are telling me we have a call from Kiev.

Dmitry, please ask your question.

Question: Good afternoon. My name is Dmitry, and I live in Ukraine.

Why did you abandon us? Not everybody in Ukraine supports Bandera and Shukhevych. We honour the memory of our ancestors. We march with the Immortal Regiment. Why does Russian television smear us all with one colour?

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much for your views and for valuing our shared history. You just mentioned the Immortal Regiment. We do see and appreciate that, believe me. And I cannot agree with you that Russian television smears everybody with the same colour, black.

Overall, we make sure not to paint anyone black. But we are cautious about giving you excessive public support, which could actually harm you. We try not to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

Once again, trust me, we can and do highly appreciate your stance. Thank you for your call.

Tatyana Remezova: Mr President, what do your friends say on this topic? For example, Viktor Medvedchuk, who was actively involved in the exchange of POWs in Donbass?

Vladimir Putin: You know that we have many allies in Ukraine. You just mentioned Viktor Medvedchuk. I met him when he was Chief of Staff of President Kuchma’s Administration. He mainly cooperated with Dmitry Medvedev, who was Chief of Staff of the Russian Presidential Executive Office. They are still on very good terms.

Medvedvchuk has his own beliefs. My opinion is that he is a Ukrainian nationalist but he does not like this description. He considers himself to be an enlightened Ukrainian patriot. It is not a secret that his father was an active member of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and was convicted by the Soviet court, went to prison and then was exiled to the Krasnoyarsk Territory, where Medvedvchuk himself was later born.

He has his own views on Ukraine’s independence. He is, of course, an ardent supporter of Ukraine’s independence but his belief system is based on fundamental treatises of those whom we can hypothetically describe as Ukrainian nationalists and who wrote their treatises in the 19th century and later on. These are Grushevsky, Franko, Dragomanov and the like. Then comes the man of our time, Chernovol.

All of them – I would like to emphasise that all of them proceeded from the premise that Ukraine should be independent but as a federal state. Moreover, one of them wrote that excessive, “mechanical” centralisation, as he put it, would lead to internal conflicts in Ukraine and this is, actually, what we are witnessing today.

But Viktor Medvedchuk is upholding their view; he is doing this on-the-record in his public speeches and papers. He is involved in scholarly studies. He writes articles and he does all this publicly. Probably, some people in Ukraine do not like this but such is his position.

Incidentally, these fundamentalists of Ukraine’s independence and Ukrainian nationalism – some of them did not see Crimea as part of Ukraine at all, but this is apropos. At any rate, all of them favoured federalisation, greater freedom of the individual and democratic development of the Ukrainian state.

Mr Medvedchuk shares this viewpoint but that said, he stands for very good relations with Russia, for economic integration, if not for some form of union. He says it is absurd to destroy the advantages we inherited from the past, referring to the common infrastructure, common energy grid and common financial and technological potentials and cooperation. It is absurd to destroy all this.

He believes economic cooperation is not only possible but also rational. He is acting or rather formulating his ideas proceeding from the interests of his people, the way he sees them. So he is not alone.

We have just heard from Kiev or from Ukraine anyway, from a man who told us that he is taking part in campaigns linked with our common memory. Such people as Medvedchuk are also doing this. He also thinks we should cherish our common past and all the positive events of the past.

Yes, he is involved in the exchange of detainees, prisoners of war, if we could call them that, and he is doing this on instructions from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Dmitry Borisov: We have a follow-up to the Ukraine theme.

Here is a question that came through VKontakte social network. “Ukraine widely celebrated the beginning of visa-free travel with Europe. President Poroshenko referred to this as bidding the final farewell to the Russian Empire. After that, he quoted Mikhail Lermontov’s poem, “Forever you, the unwashed Russia! The land of slaves, the land of lords …”

Would you like to answer him?

Vladimir Putin: No, I did not see his remarks on this account. However, I was told about them yesterday, I will not hide this fact. Indeed, Mr Poroshenko thought it fit to read this excerpt from Lermontov’s poem, “Forever you, the unwashed Russia! The land of slaves the land of lords, and you, the blue-uniformed ushers, and people who worship them as gods.” First, this tells us that he is familiar with the Russian classical literature, and takes an interest in it. I commend him for that. However, this is not the end of this poem. There is the second part, which runs as follows: “I hope, from your tyrannic hounds to save me with Caucasian wall, from their eye that sees through ground, from their ears that hear all.”

Mikhail Lermontov was a forward-looking man, and he wanted the political situation in Russia to improve. He was smothered by the atmosphere that prevailed in Russia at that time. And he talked about it openly.

First, if it was Mikhail Lermontov who wrote this poem, he wrote it approximately in 1841–1842, if memory serves, when he was headed for the Caucasus to join the active army. He was an officer and defended the interests of his homeland. He was a brave officer.

Further, at that point, the regions that are considered Ukraine today were Russia’s regions, and if the President of today’s Ukraine quotes Lermontov as saying that he is leaving for some other place, Lermontov referred to entire Russia, including the areas that today are known as Ukraine. So, there is nothing special to brag about here.

Also, Lermontov was going to the Caucasus, which was part of the Russian Empire at that time. He moved from one part of the empire, St Petersburg, his native land, to another part of the Russian Empire. He was not going anywhere outside of Russia as a matter of fact.

Perhaps, Mr Poroshenko is thus sending us a message that he is not going anywhere, either. However, he does it so finely, looking over his shoulder at the jingoists and the real nationalists, numbskulls running around waving swastikas. However, he is telling us: guys, I have my interests in Russia, and I am really not going anywhere. This may be the case as well.

Of course, this is nothing but conjecture. In fact, most likely, Mr Poroshenko wanted to show his voters that he is delivering on his promise by making a civilisational choice, as the Ukrainian leadership puts it, by leading the country towards Europe.

By the way, remember the line, “the blue-uniformed ushers, and people who worship them as gods?” The place he is taking Ukraine to has more blue uniforms than our country. So, he should stay alert to keep out of harm’s way and look around carefully.

To be sure, we have nothing against these guys. I want to say: we have nothing against you, live in peace and harmony, and good luck to you, especially with new recruits.

As for the core of the matter, you know that incomes fell here a few years back, and this is something we speak about frankly. Our average wage, if we put it in dollars rather than convert between rubles and hryvnia, was around $540 a month. Wages in Ukraine were similar, with an average of somewhere in the range of $450, $457, or $460. Wages here have not grown much, but they have grown, and the average was $624 a month in April this year, while in Ukraine, they have dropped to $251 a month.

At the same time, gas prices have at least tripled, and households are paying even higher prices. Cold and hot water costs have also risen, by 200 percent each, and pensions have decreased by 45 percent. If this situation continues, many people in Ukraine will face sanitation and hygiene issues.

Who gets to wash, where, and how often will become a big issue. Of course, Russian and Ukrainian literature both offer memorable and blunt examples that I could use to respond to Mr Poroshenko, but I will not do this out of respect for the Ukrainian people and for our common history and common faith.

If someone wants to become a European, they should first close their offshore accounts and then talk about the good of their people. In this respect, one quote comes to mind. I cannot quote it exactly, word for word, but I can convey the message.

Close to 170 years ago, Taras Shevchenko said, “Ukraine has fought to the point where it suffers more at the hands of its own children than it ever did at the hands of the Poles”. I hope that this period in the life of Ukraine and its people will end.

Tatyana Remezova: We have a question from the Stavropol Territory. One of our crews went to the author of this question in Krasnokumskoye, a village that was badly damaged by the May floods this year. We have our colleague Mikhail Akinchenko there.

Mikhail Akinchenko: Good afternoon.

The weather has created many problems for people in the Stavropol Territory. Even today we have been bothered by rain. Of course, it is much lighter than the showers that hit the region in late May and resulted in the worst floods in 50 years. Krasnokumskoye was one village that was badly affected. The overflowing Kuma River flooded some 400 buildings and household plots.

Locals recorded the flood on their smart phones. You can see what happened at the site where we are now. It was flooded for about three days, and the water was about a meter deep or even more. Three weeks later, many people still cannot return to their houses. They are damp and the walls are cracked, so it is unsafe to live in them or even go inside, like this house. The owner, Valentina Sokovskaya, called Direct Line to ask a question. Valentina, what are you doing now?

Valentina Sokovskaya: I am putting away the children’s stuff because it will get more damp and smelly if I leave it here. I will move it to save at least some of it.

Mikhail Akinchenko: Valentina, I know that you have been promised financial assistance for repairing this house or for buying a new one. I see that you are not doing anything yet. Why? You can share your problem with the President, who can see and hear you. Tell him.

Valentina Sokovskaya: Hello, Mr President. There is not much to tell. I have not received any money from the government. The walls are cracking, the ceiling is shifting, and the plaster is crumbling. The house has cracked on all sides.

We are waiting for the inspection commission; we cannot do anything until it comes. But the commission will not come until we pay an architectural fee of 6,000 rubles. Also, we must pay 1,800 rubles for certificates to prove that we have nowhere to live. But there are four owners in this house, which we bought with maternity capital, and the total we have to pay is high, about 15,000 rubles. We don’t know what to do. We are living with friends, and we have sent our children elsewhere. I have three children, but I only have the youngest with me. My daughter is in a health camp and my son is with my relatives. But I don’t know how long this can last. It’s good that it’s summer and we have friends, but what will we do in the autumn and winter? Frankly, we are at a loss.

Vladimir Putin: I see.

Valentina Sokovskaya: We hope that maybe you will be able to help us in one way or another.

Vladimir Putin: Excuse me, what was your first name?

Valentina Sokovskaya: Valentina.

Vladimir Putin: Valentina, what you have just said is very strange. I simply cannot get my head around it. Can I ask you whether you received the 10,000-ruble allocation and 50,000 rubles for partial loss of property?

Valentina Sokovskaya: No, we have not received anything so far.

Vladimir Putin: Nothing at all?

Valentina Sokovskaya: I am not the only one in this situation. There was no aid.

Vladimir Putin: This is very strange, since the funds for helping the affected families were transferred from the federal budget to Stavropol Territory. I would like to ask the Governor of Stavropol Territory, where did the money go? This is the first thing.

Secondly, I would like to ask the Prosecutor General’s Office to check how the work is proceeding.

Thirdly, the fact that you are asked to pay fees to architectural agencies or for receiving certificates of some kind is total nonsense.

You are entitled to 10,000 rubles for your immediate needs, another 50,000 rubles for partially lost property, and 100,000 rubles for unrecoverable property. The municipal, city and regional authorities must deliver all the relevant certificates free of charge, without shifting the burden on to you. We have decided on these allocations of 10,000, 50,000 and 100,000 rubles in order to help people, and did not intend to get the money back by charging people for certificates. This is complete nonsense. Be assured that we will look into this.

Valentina Sokovskaya: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: I hope that the Governor visits you as soon as today.

Valentina Sokovskaya: We hope so too.

Vladimir Putin: He should look into this situation.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you very much. We will wait for a response.

We are now travelling from the Stavropol Territory to Rostov-on-Don. Our colleague Anton Vernitsky is reporting from outside the new Platov Airport.

Anton Vernitsky: Platov Airport, which is currently under construction 30 kilometres from Rostov-on-Don, was named after Matvei Platov, a prominent chieftain of the Don Cossack Army and hero of the 1812 war. The airport is 90 percent completed and will receive its first flight in December.

Why is this project unique for Russia? While other Russian airports were upgraded or restructured, this airport was built from scratch. Only three years ago, there was nothing here. Now there is a facility that can receive up to 5 million passengers a year. It is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. Nine jet bridges. Those who saw the old Rostov-on-Don airport where our crew arrived will notice the difference immediately. The old airport does not even compare to this.

Why are we here? Almost 3,000 construction workers and engineers are working here on a daily basis. Alexander Serov is a future member of the staff. He will be receiving passengers. For now, he works at the old airport. He sent his question to Direct Line, and we called him away from his work and invited him here to ask his question to the President in person.

Please, go ahead.

Alexander Serov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Before I ask my question, I would like to invite you to the opening of Platov Airport next December. We really hope that the completion of such an ambitious and perhaps unique project will not go unnoticed by you.

Now, let me ask you a question. My colleagues, my friends, a large number of passengers and I cannot fly directly between Russian cities. The itineraries require transit via Moscow airports. Passengers have to make a stopover in Moscow and lose precious time or instead travel by train or by car. Are there plans to expand the domestic flight network to connect our regions directly?

Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Alexander, you have raised one of the most urgent issues both as regards transport accessibility and preserving the unity of our territory. Our people must have the opportunity to move within regions not via capital cities. You are absolutely right.

However, regrettably, this network collapsed completely here in the 1990s and early 2000s. As you know, for several years we have been working to restore it and put it on an entirely different footing. However, distances in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, where this issue is particularly urgent, are great while the population is not big enough to fill up large airliners. So the economics of interregional flights is difficult. Everything has to be subsidised. But we have set up, I think, seven public enterprises to organise interregional domestic flights. This is the first point. They are operating and I am hoping we will expand their activities and number to other regions of the Russian Federation. This is the first part.

The second is the expansion of the airport system, the number of airports. I think we have 230 or 232 airports in all, and a whole programme to develop the airport network. We will continue working on it and funding it.

The third matter is the availability of adequate equipment because, let me repeat, even if you build an airport… By the way, we will have an absolutely new airport that will be built from the ground up in the open country for the first time in Russia’s recent history. Importantly, it is being built using the latest methods and technology. This is vital for transport infrastructure both at the national and regional levels.

However, for a flight from Rostov to Sochi, for example, neither a Boeing nor Il-96 could be filled up. We need small planes and they must be of different haul – those that cover 400–500 km, 1,000–1,500 km or from 2,000 to 4,500 km. We are now localising the production of small modern aircraft that have earned a good reputation with a view to producing them in Russia.

We also want to bring back a slightly bigger aircraft – the Il-114, I think. Regrettably, the Government did not find the money and I will reprimand them for this. They did not find the funds to develop this aircraft that is critical for us, considering our vast territory.

Nevertheless, we found an opportunity and earmarked several dozen billion from Rosneftegaz for the relevant programme designed for several years. This aircraft will be manufactured at a modern facility in the Moscow suburbs and I hope very much that everything will be done on time. In any event, I am almost certain that we will make it. At any rate, we know about this and will continue working to fulfil this extremely important task.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Rostov.

Now let us give the floor to our guests again. Olga Ushakova’s section, please.

Olga Ushakova: Thank you.

Mr President, we have representatives of the creative intelligentsia here today, our favourite actors, directors, who certainly have questions for you, things they want to ask.

I would like to give the floor to Sergei Bezrukov, National Artist of the Russian Federation and artistic director of the Moscow Gubernsky (Provincial) Theatre. Please go ahead.

Sergei Bezrukov: Good afternoon, Mr President!

First, I would like to thank you for your work on children’s issues. On May 29, you signed the Executive Order On the Decade of Childhood. We are grateful for this, and for the support of children’s theatres. We have discussed this at the forum in Omsk. Thank you so much. I hope that it will be annual, because they do need support.

So, the question that really worries us, my colleagues and me, I cannot help but ask it. Something monstrous is happening, as I see it, with regard to Alexei Uchitel’s film – I am sitting next to him, but I will take it upon myself to explain – the film Matilda.

At first, we thought it was a joke. But then, when checks and inspections began, when people who have not even seen it tried to ban it…

Also there was the Gogol Centre and the incident with Kirill Serebrennikov. Kirill’s place was searched, then the theatre, and in no time rumours started about attacks on freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression, freedom of creativity.

Who needs this? Certainly not you. But it looks like someone is trying to create negative feelings toward the authorities among cultural figures. I would like to hear your opinion on this matter.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: We have a big and complicated country, with many people with various views, various points of view, various assessments. There used to be many films featuring the imperial family in former times, I mean they concerned, in one way or another, the imperial family, Rasputin and so on.

There was a lot of that. Those films were much more hard-edged, I would say, than what your neighbour did, Mr Uchitel. I know him personally, and respect him as a person who is very patriotic, for all I know about his views, and who does very talented things. But I would not like to interfere in his dispute with State Duma deputy Poklonskaya. She also has the right to her point of view.

You said that they are trying to ban the film. No one is trying to ban it. She has a stance, she is trying to defend that stance by appealing to various authorities, but no prohibitive decisions have been made on this matter, as you know.

I am really counting on continued open dialogue in our society, but I urge everyone to maintain dialogue within the bounds of decency and, most importantly, within the framework of the law.

Mr Uchitel wants to say something. Yes, please.

Alexei Uchitel: I will not criticise or praise anyone.

Mr President, the absurdity is that – well, one certainly can express their point of view, when they see something. But when I saw Ms Poklonskaya on June 12, I invited her to see the film. She refused. This is what I see as absurd.

I would think that the Duma has, for example, a Committee on Culture headed by the amazing director, Stanislav Govorukhin, where they could deal with this issue. But sending … Why waste government money on sending the Prosecutor’s Office, the Treasury, the Accounts Chamber to inspect us first? They all do the same thing. We show the document that everything has already been checked and everything is in order, and they are doing the same thing.

I would say incitement to this is unacceptable.

Vladimir Putin: Yes.

Dmitry Borisov: Natalia Yuryeva is ready to join us.

Natalia Yuryeva: Thank you colleagues.

This year, for the first time in real time we can see how social network users are reacting to our programme.

NTV launched the hashtag #watching the line a few days before the programme, and we now have 120,000 messages. Another 365 messages have come in as I was speaking.

People say that the internet audience does not watch TV, but we see here that this is just an opinion and nothing more. The most active users live in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod Region, and Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Let us see now on the screen the post that drew the biggest number of likes. Here it is: Krasnoyarsk residents are waiting to be resettled from khrushchyovki [Khrushchev-era 5-storey apartment blocks]. If Muscovites oppose the plan, try the experiment on us. Hashtag #watching the line.

I suggest we now take a video question that has come to the call centre.

This is a video call via the OK Live service. Hello, you are on. Please put your question to the President.

Question: Hello, Mr President.

I have a category-one disability. My name is Klavdiya and I live in Orel. Could you tell me please why those entitled to federal benefits in this area are not receiving their medicines in full? Why are we forced to fight for our medical provisions in courts? For six months now, I have not been receiving the medicines I need: Cinacalcet, paracalcitol, and mircera.

Vladimir Putin: I heard your question. This is odd to me too, because the federal authorities have ensured full funding for the acquisition of these medicines. There could be some problems related to delayed purchases and delays in…

Remark: I have appealed repeatedly to Vadim Potomsky and Alexander Lyalyukhin, but I am always told that under Federal Law 422, federal beneficiaries will again receive 707 rubles and 22 kopecks and they cannot provide us with the full range of medicines for this money.

Vladimir Putin: We will look into what they can and cannot provide. There are some medicines and some illnesses, the so-called orphan diseases, which I know for certain receive federal funding and are covered in full. Let me say again that there can be glitches due to delays in holding tenders and purchasing these medicines. But there should be enough money for all of these medicines. I promise – the main thing is to remember where you are, I understand that you are in Orel –we will definitely look into this situation.

Remark: Thank you very much.

Can I ask another question?

Vladimir Putin: Go ahead.

Question: Mr President, could you please enact a law so that patients can be transported for haemodialysis from their homes and back?

Vladimir Putin: I remember that this issue was raised last year, including the possibility for providing this treatment at home.

As for transporting patients, I have to be honest that this is the first time that this issue has been put to me this way. I promise you that we will definitely look into it. We will also think about the transport issue. Of course, this will require additional spending, but this is a very sensitive topic and a very important thing for people who are suffering from diseases of this kind. Be assured that we will look into this and do our best to find solutions.

Remark: Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure and honour for me to be able to talk to you.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, Klavdiya, for this call.

Dmitry Borisov: I would like to thank the call centre.

And now we are live at the Baltic Shipyard in St Petersburg with our reporter Dmitry Vitov.

Dmitry Vitov: We are at the Baltic Shipyard’s outfitting quay, where the construction of a unique vessel, the Arktika nuclear icebreaker, is about to be completed. It will be a successor to the legendary Soviet icebreaker which was the first surface ship to reach the North Pole in 1970s. This new icebreaker was floated out last year, and the nuclear reactor has already been installed.

Mr Ryzhov, as you were telling me, what is its overall propulsion power?

Yury Ryzhov: The icebreaker’s overall propulsion power is 60 MW.

Dmitry Vitov: So the foreign newspapers are right when they call it the biggest and the most powerful icebreaker in the world?

Yury Ryzhov: This is the largest and the most powerful icebreaker in the world with the highest icebreaking capability.

Dmitry Vitov: Mr Ryzhov works in the shipbuilding department. I hope that you will not take it as an offence if I call you an elder of this plant. How many years have you been working here?

Yury Ryzhov: I am one of the oldest employees here. I have been working at this plant for about 50 years.

Dmitry Vitov: The history of the Baltic Shipyard goes back 160 years. Your career lasted one third of its history.

Mr Ryzhov has told me that the Baltic Shipyard has always been regarded as a unique experimental facility. It built the first metal ships and the first Russian submarine a hundred years ago. It also built gunboats and battleships. It did not stop working during the Great Patriotic War, when it built barges for the Road of Life. In the 1990s, which was yet another difficult period in Russian history, the shipyard built heavy nuclear-powered missile cruisers such as the Pyotr Veliky, which are serving in the navy.

The people I have talked with told me that the most difficult time in the shipyard’s history was the early 2000s, when private owners almost bankrupted the shipyard, because they only wanted the land on which it stands on Vasilyevsky Island in the centre of St Petersburg. They probably wanted to build luxury housing or malls here. But the government has saved the shipyard. Right?

Yury Ryzhov: Yes, you are right. The early 2000s was probably the most difficult time for the plant and its personnel. The number of people working at the plant dropped from 12,000 at the best of times to 3,000. The shipyard stopped building high-tech nuclear-powered battleships and only turned out unpowered bulk oil barges. The situation is improving now, thanks to the state and the President. We have a thick portfolio of state contracts until 2021.

Dmitry Vitov: Mr Ryzhov, you can ask the President your question.

Yury Ryzhov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Yury Ryzhov: I have a question from the Baltic Shipyard staff and myself. What will happen to the plant? What could we do in light of the Government’s Arctic development plans and Arctic projects? Will you use the shipyard’s rich, unique experience of building nuclear-powered vessels? Do you have modernisation, construction or further development plans for the plant? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: The Baltic Shipyard is a flagship of our shipbuilding industry. You just spoke about the history of the shipyard. I know about the difficulties the plant faced in the 1990s and the early 2000s. When I worked in St Petersburg, we tried to support it and make sure it got orders. By the way, we managed to keep the plant going, and it was also helpful for the Navy. Those rough attempts to privatise the Baltic Shipyard are, thank God, in the past. I am talking about rough and fraudulent schemes.

Nowadays, the United Shipbuilding Corporation is growing, and the shipyard is developing. And it will keep developing. We saw you near the new Arktika nuclear icebreaker. Our plan is to build four icebreakers of this class. I think you know about this. The first one is the Arktika; then there will be the Sibir and the Ural. They all have a high power of 60 MW. By 2025, another icebreaker class will be developed, even more powerful, twice as powerful as those that I just mentioned, one of which you are finishing. The new class will have a power of 120 MW. If the first class breaks ice up to three metres thick, the Lider will be able to deal with unlimited amounts, any thickness. All this is due to the latest technology which the Baltic Shipyard is mastering very fast thanks to its prior experience and the opportunities of modern developments.

Therefore, what can I say? We have included the necessary funds in the budgets. The prospects for the Lider are more distant and the funding options are not yet clear, but I am certain we can accomplish this.

I want to point out that nuclear icebreakers of this class are not built anywhere else in the world. Russia has them because we need to operate in the Arctic. As you said, we need to establish ourselves there, and we will do it. There will be plenty of work for the shipyard. I am certain the plant will not only retain its team but also expand it. I wish you all the best.

Tatyana Remezova: Mr President, I have a question coming from the website of our programme: why are we so focused on the Arctic? For the past 20 years, no one spoke about it, and today we see Arctic troops even at the Victory Day parade. A lot of money is spent on the Arctic. Why is this being done?

Vladimir Putin: While we are on this subject, what else can I say? I have already started talking about this. The Arctic is an extremely important region, which will ensure the future of our country. Mikhail Lomonosov once famously said that Russia would expand through Siberia. I can say with confidence that Russia’s power and capabilities will expand as we develop the Arctic region.

As I mentioned at a meeting held in the Arctic, by 2050 about 30 percent of all hydrocarbons will be produced in the Arctic area. Some of our major projects are already being implemented there with NOVATEK building a plant, a company town, an airfield, and a port in the Arctic zone. Production has already begun in the Arctic.

Therefore, from an economic point of view, this is critically important. Especially so if the climate is going to change. Despite a cold spell in Moscow, the global warming trend will continue, meaning that the navigation period in the Arctic zone will get longer. In turn, this means that the Northern Sea Route will be used much more actively than now. The navigation period will go from the current one or two months to four and even five months.

The so-called non-regional powers are showing an active interest in this region. That is a good thing, and we are willing to cooperate with them, but we must ensure our priority interests.

I went to Franz Josef Land recently. The people who work there told me that many tourists go there, including those from other countries, and some tour guides have already told tourists that these islands used to be part of the Soviet Union.

This should put us on alert, as it is our territory. So, we need to ensure the use of these routes, develop our economic activity in these areas, and ensure our sovereignty over these territories. Let us not forget about the purely military aspect of the matter: it is an extremely important region from the point of view of ensuring our country’s defence capability.

I do not want to stoke any fears here, but experts are aware that US nuclear submarines remain on duty in northern Norway, the time it takes a missile to reach Moscow is 15 minutes, and we need to have a clear idea of what is happening there. We must protect this shore accordingly, and ensure proper border guarding.

On top of everything, from the point of view of strategic weapons, the flight route of the ground-based missiles located in the United States passes precisely above the North Pole. I hope it will never come to that, but since we are aware of it, we just need to make sure that the missile warning system and the missile launch control system are in place.

This is what the Arctic means to us. We had not engaged in this work before not because it is unimportant, but because we were unable to afford it. We just let it go, as, unfortunately, we did many other things that are critically important for our country. Now we are back to it, I hope, for good.

Dmitry Borisov: We can now go back to St Petersburg so that you can ask a second question.

Dmitry Vitov: We have been able to get a glimpse of people working at the plant. These are incredible people. Not everyone would be able to work in these conditions.

For example, welder Alexei Bogdanov has been telling me that while you can learn the welding profession elsewhere, it is only here that shipyard welders work, on the building berths and the outfitting quay.

Apart from professional matters, local workers, just like St Petersburg residents in general, have questions on broader issues. Ivan Brattsev is a worker who builds icebreakers. Ivan, you have a question. Go ahead.

Ivan Brattsev: Good afternoon, Mr President.

We work in the Baltic Shipyard, where we build the most powerful and the largest icebreakers in the world. However, my question is not related to industrial matters. Many residents of this wonderful city, myself included, are eager to hear your personal perspective on the future of St Isaac’s Cathedral.

As someone who was born and grew up in St Petersburg, do you think that it would be right for the city to keep the cathedral and preserve it as a museum and an architectural landmark or transfer it to the Russian Orthodox Church?

Vladimir Putin: I did not expect this question, especially from the Baltic Shipyard.

What I can say is that Russia is a secular state. This is the way it was created, and it will stay this way. This is my first point.

Second, after the October Revolution, the state went to great lengths to destroy our spiritual and religious roots, and was unwavering and cruel in pursuing this objective. Many churches were razed to the ground.

Back then the state attempted to come up with a quasi-religion and replace the Bible with the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism. It did not work. Many cathedrals were demolished; many priests perished, were killed, sent to camps or executed by firing squads.

And the traces of what happened back then are all around us. Here in Moscow, not far from where we now are, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was razed to the ground. It was not uncommon for churches to be used as stables or workshops. Thank God St Isaac’s Cathedral was spared.

You know, of course I looked into this issue. It is true that this cathedral never belonged to the Church. Throughout its history it was operated by the state. However, the Tsar used to be the head of the Church, so if we see it this way, the Church did own the building. It was built as a cathedral, as a church, not a museum. It was intended for worship, for people to pray there.

And what did they do there in the Soviet days? They set up Foucault’s pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. In fact, it was a museum of atheism, a quasi museum of atheism. In a sense, it was a subtle mockery of people’s religious feelings. However, hundreds of thousands, millions of people, including foreigners, visit it. There is no getting away from this fact.

So yes, we have a law passed, I believe, in 2010 on the transfer of religious buildings to religious organisations, and we are supposed to enforce it. At the same time, we have international obligations and other laws that ban the transfer of architectural landmarks under UNESCO protection. There are some disagreements, but I believe we can easily overcome them if we ensure both museum activity and the exercise of religious beliefs. I do not want to jump ahead of myself, but such solutions have been found in other countries. Say, St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – people go there and there are guided tours.

Therefore, it is important to depoliticise this problem, to stop thinking about it as such, to respect people’s religious feelings and never forget that this building and structure was built as a church, not as a museum. Nevertheless, it should retain its function as a museum, of course.

How can these interrelations be fostered? As a matter of fact, it is not so difficult. Simply, there should be no agitation, no exploitation of this issue. People should not be provoked and used as a tool in some petty internal political squabbling.

Dmitry Borisov: The call centre again, Maria Gladkikh.

Maria Gladkikh: Yes, colleagues, our statistics show that women are more active: 62 percent of those who have called are representatives of the fair sex. And now an urgent question from Svetlana Romanova in Chelyabinsk.

Good afternoon, you are on. We can hear you.

Svetlana Romanova: Good afternoon, Mr President,

I have a vegetable plot. I have been using it since 1981. A cottage was built there. No construction regulations were violated. A natural gas pipeline is more than 100 metres away from the plot.

In 2014, a bylaw was passed extending the exclusion zone from 100 metres to 150. As a result, many vegetable gardeners received a court summons and were ordered to tear down their houses without compensation. Is that legal? Will there be a law to protect us?

Vladimir Putin: Well, I am returning to the subject of Balashikha once again. Housing was built near the rubbish dump that had been there for decades. Now residential units were built near pipelines. Then they decided to expand the restricted area and are trying to evict residents. Is this fair or not? This is unfair.

I think this law must be changed. In any event, those people that already live in these buildings must be left alone. Of course, it is necessary to do everything for their safety, but they must be left alone.

It is possible to prohibit the construction of new buildings in the 150-metre area, but those who already live in the 100-metre area must be left alone. I will do everything to encourage the adoption of this decision.

Dmitry Borisov: We have been on the air for a third hour running. Natalya Yuryeva is collecting video messages, among other things, in the call centre.

Natalya Yuryeva: Our next question comes from Jeremy Bowling from America, who not only sent it to our editorial office but also posted it on YouTube. There were heated debates in the comments on this video call – will we put it on the air or not. Even bets were placed. I betted on the positive answer. Just kidding. By the way, Jeremy Bowling said himself that we were unlikely to put it on the air. But let us still listen to it.

Jeremy Bowling: Greetings, Mr Putin. My name is Jeremy Bowling. I live in Mesa, Arizona in America. I am a big supporter of you. I am very pro-Russian and I wish you much health and success in your life. My question to you is this. As an American who sits here in America and sees the racist Russian phobia running crazy in my country, what advice would you give me to help set the record straight, to help my fellow Americans understand that Russia is not the enemy?

Vladimir Putin: To begin with, I am very grateful to you for this call. And I can tell you as the current head of the Russian state that I know the attitudes of our people. We do not consider America our enemy. Moreover, twice in history when we were going through very hard times, we pooled our efforts; we were allies in two world wars. In the past, the Russian Empire played a substantial role in helping America gain independence and supported the United States. We see that Russophobia is running high in America and think this is primarily a result of the escalating political infighting.

I do not think I have the right to give you any advice. I simply want to thank you for this stance. We know that we have very many friends in the United States. My American colleagues told me so, and public opinion polls show the same results. At any rate, those polls taken a month ago show that we have many friends there. True, regrettably such hysteria is bound to affect the frame of mind, but let me assure you that there are also very many people in Russia who have deep respect for the achievements of the American people and are hoping that eventually our relations will get back on track, in which both we and the United States are extremely interested.

Tatyana Remezova: People in this studio also have questions about our relations with the United States.

Olga Pautova has the floor.

Olga Pautova: I suggest talking on this subject some more, considering that when we were preparing for this programme and speaking to our guests, it became clear that this is an issue of concern to practically everyone. Even today, shortly before we were to begin, international issues were being discussed up until the last moment.

I am giving the floor to a person whose question is of concern not only to Russians, but to everyone in the world, without a doubt. Konstantin Remchukov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief.

Konstantin Remchukov: Good afternoon, Mr President. I would like to talk about Russian-American relations. One of the current trends, as you and an American guest have said, is that bilateral relations are deteriorating and there is Russo phobia along with daily reports about new anti-Russia initiatives, including sanctions. At the same time, there is a growing demand not only for stabilising but also for improving Russian-American relations.

At a Senate hearing the day before yesterday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said something to the effect that every time he met with his foreign colleagues since his appointment, they asked him to stabilise relations with the Russians. He indicated that his colleagues from the Middle East and Southeast Asia had the same request. This is how he explained the need to act during a hearing on the 2018 State Department budget.

In three weeks’ time, the G20 will convene in Hamburg, where you are to meet with US President Trump. Is it possible that these talks will help prod this negative trend towards a more positive one and possibly even towards a radical improvement in our relationships with the United States? In what areas and on what issues can Russian-US cooperation be productive and mutually beneficial? I believe that these questions are of concern not only to people in Russia and the United States but many other countries as well.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: As someone with experience and well-acquainted with the subject, you know as well as I do the areas in which we can work together with the United States. This includes, above all, control over non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are the biggest nuclear powers and so our cooperation in this area is absolutely natural. This is an area of crucial importance and concerns not just the North Korean issue but other regions too.

Then there is the fight against poverty, fighting environmental damage and so on. We know the position the current US administration has taken on the Paris Agreement, but President Trump is not rejecting discussion on the issue. Cursing and trading barbs and insults with the US administration would be the worst road to take because we would reach no agreement at all in this case, but it makes no sense to seek agreements without the US, which is one of the biggest emitter countries. We must work together to fight poverty in the world. The number of people earning a minimum income has increased in Russia, but there is a disastrous situation in many parts of the world, and this is one of the sources of radicalism and terrorism, this poverty around the world, and we must decide together how to address this problem. Here, we must work with our other partners too, work with China, India and Europe.

By the way, we worked together with the United States to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, and we did reach an agreement, we did find a solution. There are positive examples of cooperation then. The previous US administration directly recognised the substantial role that we played in resolving this issue. We can reach agreements and work together then. Of course we can.

On the Syrian problem and the Middle East in general, it is clear to all that no progress will be made without joint constructive work. We hope greatly too for the United States’ constructive role in settling the crisis in southeast Ukraine. A constructive role, as I said. We see then that there are many areas in which we must work together, but this depends not only on us. We see what is happening in the United States today. I have said before and say again now that this is clearly a sign of an increasingly intense domestic political struggle, and there is nothing that we can do here. We cannot influence this process. But we are ready for constructive dialogue.

Dmitry Borisov: I see someone has a question in Vera Krasova’s sector. Let us go there.

Vera Krasova: Thank you, Dmitry. Russia-US relations are of interest to representatives of the machine-building industry. We have Alexei Bakulin from Volgograd Region in our studio.

Good afternoon, you have the floor.

Alexei Bakulin: Good afternoon, Mr President.

You mentioned the aggravation of the internal political conflict in the United States. Indeed, the world is following the conflict between President Donald Trump and former FBI Head James Comey like a television drama. As is customary, “Russian influence” has been detected. What is your take on this situation, and what are its possible implications?

Vladimir Putin: I am not familiar with the details of Mr Comey’s testimony, but I am aware of certain things, of course. What are my thoughts on it?

The first thing that caught my attention was that former FBI director said that he believes that Russia interfered in the US election process. He did not provide any evidence, as usual, but he said there were attempts “to shape the way we think, vote, and act.” Is that not the way it is all over the world? What about the unending US propaganda and funding of US-oriented NGOs? The funds are allocated directly to this end. Is this not an attempt to influence our minds and our actions during election campaigns? It goes on year after year.

Take a globe, give it a spin, and point your finger randomly. You will point to a place where the United States has interests and has most likely intervened. I know this from my conversations with almost all leaders and heads of state. They just do not want to fall out with the Americans. No one talks about it openly, but everyone is saying the same thing.

Therefore, there is nothing unusual here. What do they want? Do they want everyone to bow down? We have our own opinion, and we openly express it. This is not some kind of subversive activity. We simply express our point of view. This is my first point.

Secondly, he said that he has no evidence of us interfering in the vote count. Thank God for that.

Next, he said quite unexpectedly that he had written down a conversation with the President, and then passed along this conversation to the media through a friend. It sounds and looks very strange when the head of an intelligence agency writes down a conversation with the commander-in-chief, and then passes it to the media through a friend. How then is the FBI director different from Mr Snowden? In that case, he is not the head of an intelligence agency, but a human rights activist who takes a certain position.

By the way, if he is persecuted in any way for this, we will be willing to grant him political asylum in Russia as well. He should know that.

Dmitry Borisov: The call centre is receiving so many questions that I simply have to pass the floor to Natalya Yuryeva.

Natalya Yuryeva: Thank you.

Our call centre is about to reach its peak capacity. We have received more than 2 million calls. Every minute, our operators receive 1,700 video calls.

Social media is on fire, especially the OK Live service. About one thousand people are watching the live broadcast and waiting for the opportunity to ask the President a question. Here is a question from one of them.

Hello, you are on the air. Please, go ahead with your question, and do not forget to introduce yourself.

Andrei Bol: Hello.

My name is Andrei Bol, and I am from Nakhodka in the Primorye Territory. I am worried about coal dust, since coal is shipped through here in the open. How are we supposed to live?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, this is not good. We have to look at how the work in port facilities is organised. It is probably a tradition to have coal transported through the city from or to the port. We have to look at who owns the port, and how it operates.

Could you please tell me where you are? Where is this place?

Andrei Bol: Near the Primorye Territory.

Vladimir Putin: But what port are you talking about?

Andrei Bol: The one in Nakhodka.

Vladimir Putin: Nakhodka? Very well. We will look into it, and how it all works. We will try to respond in such a way as to minimise impacts on the people and the environment.

What is your name?

Andrei Bol: Andrei.

Vladimir Putin: Ok, Andrei, we will look into it with your help, and get in touch later. Leave your contact details, and you will tell me later what measures were taken and whether people living in the area noticed any difference.

Andrei Bol: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you for your call.

Natalya Yuryeva: And now let us see what people are writing on the internet with the #СмотрюЛинию [#WatchingLine] hashtag. For example, we already have 171,773 comments on social networks. I will ask you to show one of the most recent posts. Let us take this one, “Reading the #СмотрюЛинию [#WatchingLine], I see how many concerned young people we have, who understand that the social lift is first and foremost an opportunity to be heard and to influence the situation in the country.” User Natalya Pochinok, thank you very much for this comment.

Colleagues, could we now put through a call from Odnoklassniki? Our editors have contacted OK Live users. Let us continue looking at what people are writing on social media.

They will show us another #СмотрюЛинию [#WatchingLine] comment: “I am watching the Direct Line. The President started talking about the main things, but I think there is no topic in today’s Russia more important than fighting corruption; this disease has metastasised and hinders development in many areas.” Colleagues, you have the floor.

Dmitry Borisov: Another important issue that worries our TV viewers is the situation with the so-called optimisation of healthcare, Mr President. We have sent a film crew to one of the people who complained. We will now connect to Murmansk Region.

Oleg Shishkin: We are in the Arctic, in the centre of Kola Peninsula, the town of Apatity in Murmansk Region. The town appeared in the 1960s near a major deposit of apatite ore.

With a population of more than 50,000, the town, according to local residents, is currently struggling with problems of healthcare accessibility, which actually means the inaccessibility of healthcare. A clear example of this is now behind me – the unfinished building of a new hospital.

Physicians were to move here from the old building. This is an abandoned nine-storey building practically in the centre of town, with the walls deteriorating and the floors falling apart, and there is no way the construction could be resumed, but the local residents complain of a shortage of doctors.

I have here Darya Starikova. She is a very courageous young woman. Darya has a serious disease and practically lives off painkillers. Several days ago, Darya wrote to Direct Line, and it was a real cry for help. Naturally, we could not ignore her. So we are here for Darya to directly address the head of state.

Darya, please go ahead.

Darya Starikova: Good afternoon, Mr President.

I am Darya Starikova, and I am 24. I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Because the original diagnosis was intervertebral osteochondrosis, the time for effective therapy was lost.

As I received treatment for my back, with injections and massage, I ended up in hospital with a haemorrhage. The diagnosis was made at the hospital. Mr President, we have a lack of specialists who can make diagnoses in time.

Our maternity hospital was closed, our surgical department was closed, our cardiology department was closed, and everything was moved to the neighbouring city of Kirovsk. We have to go there to get medical care. On top of that, they send us for complicated operations and tests to the city of Murmansk, which is a five-hour drive from us. Not everyone can afford it, and not everyone can go there.

I am asking not for myself, I am asking for the city, for our residents, for all the people who live here. I am asking you to help restore the hospital, restore everything. You know, sometimes our “emergency medical service” arrives too late. We have only the admission department left. They bring people [to the hospital] too late.

My friend’s mother did not make it to the hospital. She died of a heart attack on the way in an ambulance. She was not even 50. People are worried. This has happened repeatedly. We have often raised the hospital issue.

We are asking you, please help. We want to live, not survive. We are pleading for help. We need everything in our city to get back to normal.

Vladimir Putin: Dashenka, look, I do not usually speak about my personal affairs and my private life, but now, looking at you, I feel that I must tell you that the same thing happened to my father.

He was being treated for back pain. They gave him massages, heat treatment and so on. My mother told me that my dad was crying out in pain at night. It was only then that I had him moved to another hospital. There, he went through everything that you are going through.

But even at that stage, treatment was found. This was many years ago now, but quite effective treatment was found, and he departed this life not because of the illness with which he was diagnosed. So, I urge you not to lose hope. For my part, I will give this my attention and look into what I can do to help you personally.

On the subject of medicine, I can say to you, to all present here, and to all of our citizens, that we are very well aware that there are problems with medicine everywhere, and patients everywhere are critical about what is happening in this area. This is the case practically all around the world.

It was for this reason that the previous US president began carrying out reforms in this sector and passed a law that drew a lot of criticism, and now the new president has essentially repealed this reform. Similar things are taking place in Europe.

Our problems are no fewer, and are perhaps even greater. Nonetheless, over these past three years we have built and opened ten times more new medical facilities, mostly medical centres, than over the previous period. We built 2000 medical facilities over the past three years. There are problems related to a lack of specialists in some areas, and this is why the waiting lists remain.

The queues look different now though, because it is not a case of people queueing up in the waiting room to see the doctor. Rather, they queue for numbers now. This is no better, though, and we need to move over to electronic queues, and make sure that they work in practice.

Finally, most importantly, we must ensure access. This is the top priority for medicine today – to guarantee access to medical aid. In your case, of course, we will take a very close look at the situation. I do not know what the healthcare managers were thinking in this region, including in Apatity.

Apatity is a mining town and it is clear that people work there in difficult conditions and require particular attention from medical personnel. They probably took the purely formalistic view that it was not far to travel from Apatity to Kirovsk.

Nevertheless, people are encountering problems that you have raised. We will definitely look into this. Either we need to build this hospital, or we need to upgrade and reopen the old hospital. I promise you that we will work on this.

Dasha, we will look into the situation with your problem too.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank you, Apatity. Let us wish Dasha a swift recovery.

Vladimir Putin: Best wishes to you and get well soon.

Tatyana Remezova: Messages and requests the call centre has received include those from people asking for assistance with joining the army. We have never seen such a surge in the number of people wishing to serve.

Volgograd is on the line but we will come back to it later. We are getting back to the studio and my colleague Nailya Asker-zade.

Nailya Asker-zade: Thank you, Tatyana.

We have young professionals from the WorldSkills movement in the studio. It is an international association that improves professional training standards.

For example, Arkady Bodryagin from Chelyabinsk is 19 years old. He has already received a medal for professionalism in hospitality at a European WorldSkills championship.

Arkady, what is your concern?

Arkady Bodryagin: Mr President, good afternoon. First of all, thank you for supporting our movement. We are cooperating closely with large corporations but we are also interested in working with small and medium-sized businesses.

Can you give us advice on how to establish a reliable channel with them?

And one more question. WorldSkills members are pragmatic people and we care about our future. In light of this, do you plan to increase the retirement age? If yes, when?

Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Answering the first question about building relationships with small and medium-sized businesses, you know our SMEs are developing despite all the issues that were mentioned before – the gentleman behind you pointed out business loans as one of them. However, they are developing, maybe not as fast as we would hope. It is particularly good that hi-tech SMEs are among them.

We have a new export item, IT technology worth $7 billion, which is unprecedented. Our IT exports used to be zero. This industry is developing at a rapid pace.

Here, first of all we need to pay attention to these successfully developing companies. We have some. This is my first point. They exist by themselves.

Secondly, there is something I would like to draw your attention to, something I could advise. I will say this, and they will now hear it too. Our large companies need to develop whole networks of small and medium-sized enterprises around them. They should not simply buy what they need abroad when they can rely on our small high-tech companies. Therefore, you need to reach out to small and medium-sized businesses through the companies where you work today.

As for the second question, you know that we are actively discussing the possibility of raising the retirement age. Some experts believe that increasing the retirement age is unavoidable, citing other countries’ experience, including neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, and nearly all the others, Belarus for instance, let alone Europe. With Europe, the comparison would be weak, bearing in mind the life expectancy there, so we had better take the neighbouring countries. But they have already made this decision, and we have not. I think the issue should be treated with great care.

In case there are any rumours that the decision has already been taken: no, it has not. However, it is indeed being discussed; it is being discussed at an expert level and at the government level. Experts believe that if we do not do this, the level of pension coverage will go down, meaning pensions will shrink. At the same time, the workforce – workers having to collectively raise money to provide for the pensioners, so to speak – will decline due to demographic problems and structural changes. The number of unemployed will increase, and the number of people with jobs will fall.

These are the realities that we are facing. We must bear this in mind. Yet, such decisions should be made in a balanced manner, without any fuss or haste.

Dmitry Borisov: I must note another issue too. We have had many messages from pensioners who continue to work. They say that if the pension age is suddenly raised, whenever this may be, we should be aware that people are already facing problems now.

One person, aged 52, cannot find work anywhere. This is an appeal from Moscow, a message from a carpenter. Then there is a woman from the Kaluga Region who says that she is 42, but already at this age she is not getting any job offers and she is worried about her future employment prospects.

Vladimir Putin: In this area, we need to find solutions to a different issue, namely, the question of ensuring timely and high quality retraining programmes for people, human resource retraining programmes.

We need to ensure human resource mobility, in other words, give people the opportunity to move from one region to another. But they cannot just arrive and live at the railway station. We must think about where they will live and prepare the relevant infrastructure. This is a big, multi-faceted and multi-dimensional undertaking.

We are aware of this problem and are working on it. It is particularly important in the so-called single industry towns. Plans have already been drafted and are being implemented. Of course, it is clear that we must intensify our efforts in this direction.

Tatyana Remezova: Let’s move from the pension age issue to the question of the military conscription age. When we looked at the messages, we saw cases where people complain that they have been turned down for the military on the grounds of age, but they want to join the army. They ask you, what can they do in this case? There are many people who want to do military service.

We have Volgograd on the line now. Right at this moment, new recruits are taking their military oath, and our colleague Dmitry Petrov is there.

Dmitry Petrov: Hello. We are here at the Mamayev Kurgan, at the foot of the Motherland monument. The remains of 35,000 soldiers and officers killed during the Battle of Stalingrad are buried here. This is sacred soil and a sacred place.

Today, the new recruits of the 20th Guards Independent Carpathian-Berlin Red Banner Order of Suvorov II degree Motor-Rifle Brigade are taking their oath of loyalty. This is a decorated unit with rich military traditions, and, of course, it is a great honour for the young soldiers to take their oath at this site.

We see how the young men come forward and before the ranks pronounce the words of the oath before the Russian Federation flag and the unit’s banner. Gathered here are those who care most about these young men: their parents, relatives, loved ones and friends. They have come from various parts of the country, from wherever the young men have come from. This occasion is tinged with sadness for them, of course, but it is a celebration too.

Let’s meet them. Hello, please introduce yourself, which soldier is yours?

Question: Good afternoon, my name is Vladimir. Today is a notable day. Today, my son is taking the oath of allegiance at this great place. I have come from Sergiyev Posad in Moscow Region. My son made his own decision to serve in the Armed Forces after studying at a medical college – the Third Medical College – for two years, and he declared his wish to serve his Motherland. As a reserve officer, I welcomed his decision.

Dmitry Petrov: Vladimir, this is Direct Line with the President. Moscow can see and hear us, and you can ask the head of state any question.

Question: This is very unexpected, of course. Mr President, as a reserve officer, I am interested to know how our Armed Forces are doing in Syria and would like to ask what lessons our Armed Forces have learned and what the prospects are for our troops there.

Vladimir Putin: First, Vladimir, I would like to congratulate you and your son on taking the oath of allegiance today. This is a great event in the life of any man, any Russian citizen, especially those of us who voluntarily choose this path in life – serving in the Russian Armed Forces and serving our nation.

Now regarding your question. What lessons have been learned, and what have our Armed Forces gained from the operation in Syria? There are several aspects here.

Firstly, this is of great value for our defence industrial sector. The use of the newest weapon systems has made it possible for us to understand how they work on the battlefield and improve the quality of these advanced weapon systems.

We knew that our weapons are good anyway, but when we saw how they perform on the battlefield – this is an entirely different story.

Furthermore, representatives of the enterprises go to places where these weapons are used, see how they work, make adjustments, and this is not just some fine-tuning but serious, thorough work. This is as far as the defence industry is concerned.

Regarding the Armed Forces as such, I can say that this experience in using our Armed Forces in combat conditions and with the newest weapons is precious. I am saying this without any exaggeration.

You know, even our Armed Forces have acquired a new quality. Some subunits were created only recently and were employed for the first time, and they are very effective.

As for what we plan to do there, we are going to foster a peaceful political settlement between all the parties to the conflict. Our task in the near future is to upgrade the level and combat capability of the Syrian Armed Forces and proceed to the facilities that we have created in Syria, including in Hmeimim (Hmeimim airport) and the Tartus naval base, leaving the Syrian forces to operate effectively and achieve required results on their own. However, if necessary, we would be able to provide them with operational support in fighting terrorist groups, including by employing our combat aviation. These are our plans.

Tatyana Remezova: Ok, let us continue. It is time now to go back to the call centre. Maria, how many calls have you received so far?

Maria Gladkikh: As of now, we have received 1,345,000 calls and 474,000 SMS messages for Vladimir Putin. Twenty-five percent of the callers are aged 35 to 55 and 63 percent are over 56.

I do not know the age of the next caller but the editors are telling me he is from Crimea. Alexander Bochkarev has a question that bothers not only Crimean residents but also tourists.

Alexander Bochkarev: Good afternoon, Mr President. This is Alexander Bochkarev. My question is: will the Kerch Strait Bridge be built within the timeframe you promised? It is very important that by the time it is complete there are convenient access roads.

Vladimir Putin: Construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge is going according to schedule and even a little ahead of schedule. I will not go into how far ahead now, but at the moment there is no doubt that the project will be completed on time and with the proper quality, which is most important.

The cost of the bridge is known, it is a bit over 200 billion. But access roads are a separate and pressing issue. We need to make sure that roads are built on the Crimea side, the Kerch side and the Taman side.

The work has begun in general. We will keep a very close eye on it. I hope this project will also be finished successfully. Without access roads it would be ridiculous. The lack of access roads would create a bottleneck on either side. We cannot allow this to happen.

Dmitry Borisov: I see we got a question on Odnoklassniki. Irina Shpakovich from the Khabarovsk Territory is asking: “The bridge over the Kerch Strait is almost finished. Will the bridge to Sakhalin ever be built?”

Vladimir Putin: True, the speculation started long time ago, there were plans back in the 1930s and the 1950s. Under Stalin they were thinking about this and even drew up plans, but they were never acted on.

Now we are reviving these plans and thinking about this issue. Of course, connecting Sakhalin with the continent would be very helpful for restoring the territorial integrity of the country.

It would be possible in this case to organise the movement of goods from Asia to Europe via Russia and thus to enhance the importance of the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, building a bridge is not enough. In this case, it would be necessary to expand the Trans-Siberian Railway although it needs expansion anyway.

Naturally, it is necessary to involve the interested states – and they exist – in funding the project. In general, in tentative estimates the cost should be lower than that of the Crimean Bridge – about 286 billion. These are preliminary estimates. However, this is not enough because apart from a bridge crossing, it is necessary to build access routes and the entire road interchange.

By the way, there were proposals, which are being studied now, to build a tunnel rather than a bridge, and this is also possible. A decision has not yet been made but we are thinking about this.

Dmitry Borisov: Irina got her answer.

Let us continue talking about the issues raised by our television audience

We will now hook up to the remote city of Nyagan in Khanty-Mansi Area. Our TV crew went there in response to a message from Enzhi Barsukova.

Anton Lyadov, please.

Anton Lyadov: Good afternoon, Moscow!

We work in a shift camp in Nyagan. It is hard to believe, but these trailers built for workers in Soviet times as temporary accommodation are not being used as sheds or shacks. They have become permanent homes for whole families. For instance, this one has been here since 1979, that is, for almost 40 years. There is no indoor plumbing. There is an outhouse and the residents had to build each one themselves. They used washtubs or went to their friends’ place for a shower. Today some of them have baths in their trailers but not all. However, there is no sewerage and when they take a shower the water goes right into the ground through wooden boards and their trailers are gradually sinking into the ground.

We are entering this 40-year-old trailer. It has no hot water in summer – only cold water and if you have no filters, it is brownish with rust. Conversely, there is no cold water in winter. The problem is that the two pipes – the heating main and the water pipe – run alongside each other and one warms the other, so sometimes we get boiling water from the tap. Anastasia has lived here since she was two. Recently she gave birth to her baby Arseny. Vladimir and Irina have lived here for 35 years. Enzhi Barsukova who sent the message to you has lived here for 30 years.

Ms Barsukova, in winter temperatures fall to minus 50 C. What do you do not to freeze to death?

Enzhi Barsukova: Come on, I will show you. Residents of our shift camp put blankets on doors, insulate doorways with blankets and old clothes. They use everything they can to keep it warm.

Tatyana Remezova: Unfortunately, we got disconnected.

Vladimir Putin: The equipment fails under the impact of this report.

Tatyana Remezova: Yes, the equipment could not cope with this shocking story but we can see what is happening there. Vladimir Putin: Wait, maybe we can get connected again. No?

Tatyana Remezova: We will try to fix it.

For now, let us switch to another city, where our film crew is also working – they travelled there in response to a complaint sent to you, Mr President.

So, here is Izhevsk and our colleague Pavel Krasnov.

Pavel Krasnov: Good afternoon!

This is the city of Izhevsk. One of the many questions concerning housing and utilities services in general or dilapidated housing in particular arrived from here. How old this housing is, you can see for yourself.

This is a wooden barrack, of which Russia, unfortunately, still has thousands. But this particular barrack in Izhevsk’s Proyezd Chapayeva is really in a terrible state. I think that the camera, the video does not even fully convey how it all looks in reality. This barrack has already been listed as dilapidated, but people still had to complain to Direct Line, to the head of state.

Anastasia, hello!

You asked your question. Please tell us what happened. The President is listening.

Question: Hello, Mr President!

My name is Anastasia.

You can see the conditions we live in. These apartments are damp in the summer and cold in the winter. We have to keep the heating stove going around the clock, but warm air still seeps out through the cracks in the walls. Children are constantly ill, and in each apartment there are two or three children. But the worst thing is, we are afraid that the ceiling will collapse, God forbid, on the children, and on adults. Our house was already classified as dilapidated and put on a waiting list for demolition and relocation in 2029. Mr President, how can we live in such conditions for another 12 years?

Vladimir Putin: What can I say? Ridiculous, of course.

Appropriate resources have been allocated from the federal budget for relocation; we have extended this programme for relocating people from dilapidated housing, and yours is clearly dilapidated, so what could I say. I can imagine what is happening in your region, and I know the amount of money allocated for relocating people from dilapidated houses. On the whole, the programme is progressing well around the country, and at a good pace, but it is completely ridiculous and unacceptable to postpone relocation for decades.

I will visit your place. I plan to be in Izhevsk, and I will drop by and see what is happening. We will talk in person there, ok? Agreed. I have a business trip to the region planned, so I will drop by. I was in such houses, as you know. This is a big problem, but for me there is nothing unusual there. This is why we developed the programme for relocating people from dilapidated housing. By the way, we have many such houses, unfortunately. They make up approximately two percent of the country’s total housing stock, about 80 million square metres, as much as the area of new housing built in the whole country every year. This problem is huge and painful, but it needs to be dealt with. And we will continue dealing with it.

I will drop by, and we will talk.

Dmitry Borisov: Such reports are coming not only from Izhevsk, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: I am aware of it.

Dmitry Borisov: We have many from different regions. People live in hazardous wooden houses in Kirov Region, and many others.

We are now back to Nyagan in Khanty-Mansi Area. Let us try again. Are you back, Anton?

Anton Lyadov: Hello, colleagues.

Yes, we can hear you. Indeed, the connection is unstable here.

Ms Barsukova was just telling us how the people manage to survive in 40-year-old trailers in -50C during the winters.

Please continue.

Enzhi Barsukova: We use sawdust as insulating material for our houses. This is our way of keeping the cold out.

Anton Lyadov: You have been trying to resolve this issue for many years now. Now, the President can hear and see you. You can talk to him directly.

Enzhi Barsukova: Thank you.

Mr President,

We have a programme in the area to demolish the trailers and resettle their residents, but it is a fairly drawn-out process. I came here when I was young. I am now retired but still do some work for a living. I raised two children in these harsh conditions. How much longer will the people in the North live in such conditions? We ask you to speed up the demolition and resettlement programme in Nyagan.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I am aware of this problem. You may have noticed that the issue of relocating people from these trailers in the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) area was raised for the first time in 2010, when I was Prime Minister, and then we even had a direct conference call with Tynda. The resettlement programme was adopted, and we resettled, I believe, 9,000 families. Suddenly, we found out that there were 10,000 more. That is the way we crunch the numbers, I guess. Nonetheless, we will continue with this programme.

With regard to trailer parks, the snag is, and you are aware of it, that they are not counted as housing in the books, and that is why they did not make it into the run-down housing relocation programme. Nonetheless, such a programme was put together, and local authorities came up with about 1,500 families. According to my information, more than 500 families have been relocated, and 1,000 plus families await their turn.

Firstly, the Housing programme is properly funded for this, including for 2017. We will keep allocating these funds until we achieve our goal. We will absolutely achieve it, and, of course, we will try to speed it up. What do we need to do, and what will I ask my colleagues in the regions to do? We need to have an accurate assessment of the scope of this plight, and how many people need to be relocated. One and a half thousand is an understatement, I think. We should avoid the situation we had in the BAM area where we originally had 9,000 families and then 10,000 more appeared as if out of nowhere. The funds must be set aside in advance. So, please make sure we have accurate estimates of the number of people who need help and support.

We will continue this programme and try to speed it up. To reiterate, the funds have been allocated.

Dmitry Borisov: Thank you, Nyagan. This city is far away but Channel One viewers, for example, know one of our best KVN (Club of the Happy and Inventive) teams. It competes despite the conditions people live in, and it is one of the jolliest and funniest teams. It has made it to the finals. Evidently our people make very good jokes when life is not so easy. Also, by the way, Maria Sharapova was born there, in Nyagan.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, but I understand she lived mainly in Sochi.

Dmitry Borisov: But she was born there. Nyagan is proud of Maria.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, we are all proud.

Dmitry Borisov: As a matter of fact, this year, our channel has received a lot of complaints about dilapidated housing and generally the condition of residential buildings from various regions, and you know what, some people say it in so many words, comparing their problems with what is going on in Moscow.

Some of them write directly, frankly: “We are envious of Moscow’s programme of tearing down five-story walk-ups from the Krushchev era.” As we know, yesterday, the State Duma approved the housing relocation draft law on its third reading. In keeping with your directives, Muscovites’ proposals were taken into account. What do you think about this programme as it stands now?

Vladimir Putin: It is important for me what Muscovites think about it. This is what matters. It is important what people who live in these buildings think about it. And how can that be found out? Through a poll. That is my first point.

Second, it is important for me that citizens’ rights are not violated during the programme’s implementation – above all their property rights.

Third, it is very important how it will be done. The Moscow city authorities tell me they have planned out everything and new buildings will be built within walking distance, practically in the same spots, literally next to them.

However, we know what often happens in practice: the floor is wrong, the windows are on the wrong side, and so on. Of course, you cannot foresee everything. A flexible approach is called for here.

This is what I think and what I urge my Moscow colleagues to do. I get a sense that this is the line the Moscow Mayor intends to take. It is important that he gets his subordinates to follow precisely the same approach.

What about the renovation in general? By the way, I perfectly understand people’s sentiments in other regions. I know this. While preparing for today’s Direct Line I saw many questions from residents of other regions, I have not heard them yet, but maybe I will. I can say even now that I know the sentiment, “Please do it here, Muscovites do not want it, but we do.” This is what it is like. I want it to be clear.

This is about the housing stock in Moscow; 10–15 years from now, it will definitely turn into hazardous housing, and Moscow will be in the same amount of trouble as many other regions.

If we do not start doing this on time, we will face a problem that will be very difficult to resolve, maybe even impossible, and then people will really start to suffer.

We will get a problem right in the centre of Moscow, and it is a huge one. We need to do this in a timely manner. Once again, I want to emphasise, I hope that the programme will be implemented within the framework of the adopted law, and with consideration for people’s specific interests.

However, in some buildings, the majority of residents refuse to participate in this programme. They do not want to, and it is impossible to force people – they cannot be dragged into this programme by force. Where the overwhelming majority agrees, those who disagree should respect the opinion of the majority, I repeat once again, with due respect for their rights and legitimate interests.

Tatyana Remezova: The guests of our studio are ready to join the discussion on renovation. I give the floor to Olga Ushakova.

Olga Ushakova: Thank you. We will gladly join the conversation, because we have among our guests State Duma deputy Galina Khovanskaya who heads the committee on housing policy and housing and utilities services, and sits on a working group that directly monitors the situation around relocation.

In addition, as far as I know, you are a fourth generation Muscovite; you were born here and lived all your life in Moscow. Yet, the Russian capital is not the only place your heart bleeds for.

Galina Khovanskaya: Of course not. Good afternoon, Mr President.

Still, if renovation in Moscow is a success, do you think we need to draft a similar law for the whole country? It could be helpful for those regions that completed the move-out from hazardous housing ahead of schedule, and there are such requests already. What do you think?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, I would like to do this. But as I said, and you also know what the volume of our hazardous housing is – two percent of the total housing stock, a huge, colossal problem. This is my first point.

Second. Moscow is funding this programme out of its own budget and will spend 100 billion roubles a year. We could tell the other regions: we agree, you go do it. But they would not be able to afford it, since they do not have that kind of money. Therefore, simply saying yes, we agree, just do it, would mean giving people hope and never backing it up with real resources. It would not be fair to people. But it still needs to be done. We need to think about how to approach this. After dealing with the move-out from hazardous housing – and for that we most allocate federal money – we certainly need to think about what you said.

Galina Khovanskaya: I would like to thank you for keeping the renovation issue under control. This would be good for the regions that complete it fast, and yes, we have such top regions. So I will think about this bill.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, you are right, and I am asking you to do this. Only we must bear in mind that your “top regions” have solved the problem with federal money, and we immediately transfer this money to those regions where this problem has not yet been resolved. That is, the money is not released, but transferred to other regions. We just need to keep it in mind. Otherwise, you are right; we do need to think about this.

Dmitry Borisov: Another pressing issue in this field is the work of managing companies in the housing and utilities sector. We have received many complaints. “For the last seven years, our managing company was bankrupt and changed its name three times,” Yelena Ivanova from Irkutsk wrote. “There has been no hot water in 20 buildings for a year already,” Svetlana Kudryavtseva from Murmansk wrote. “We addressed the managing company in 2016, but they did not take any measures and just said that repairs are scheduled for October 2017.” How can we restore order and improve oversight of managing companies?

Vladimir Putin: The problem does exist, and the Government is trying to resolve these issues and improve the entire system. A few years ago, we, including me personally, decided that these companies must undergo certification to get a license.

But the problem is that they should have been licensed by a set deadline, but only 13 percent managed to get a license in the end. It turned out that these managing companies were not ready to properly organise this work.

The first thing to be done is to ensure that the quality of their work meets the requirements. This is the first thing to be done, and it should be done persistently. This applies to the regional, local and federal levels of government. This should be closely monitored. That is my first point.

Second, we even introduced criminal liability for falsifying the minutes of general meetings. So, we introduced criminal liability and imposed big fines for substandard work. And this needs to be followed through on.

But the agenda also includes a number of other issues that should be resolved through governmental instructions and adjusted at the legislative level. I think that we will resolve these issues in the near future. We will not leave this problem without attention and will definitely see it through.

Dmitry Borisov: It is time for us to speak to the westernmost location of our Direct Line – Kaliningrad, where Nikolai Dolgachev is working now.

Nikolai Dolgachev: We are inside the largest and most modern facility of Kaliningrad Region – the centre of the stadium that is being built for the FIFA World Cup. Football matches will take place here in exactly a year.

We see stands seating 35,000 people. Equipment is working on a football field that is covered with a multi-layer fabric. There is a layer of chippings at the bottom, it will be like a layer-cake on the outside, and pipes will be laid inside.

Good afternoon. What are you doing now? Why will pipes be inside?

Remark: We are making a drain system to keep the field dry during matches.

Nikolai Dolgachev: What stage are you at now? When will you finish this work?

Remark: We have done over 80 percent of the total work. I think we will finish it for sure by the end of the year, considering that all that you see now has been done in 18 months.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Thank you. We would also like to talk to the workers.

Good afternoon. Your bosses say that the stadium will be completed soon. What will you do next?

Remark: It would be good to continue working here, to maintain such a great stadium.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Are you from Kaliningrad?

Remark: Yes, I am from Kaliningrad.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Do you have many workers from other regions?

Remark: No, we are all from Kaliningrad.

Nikolai Dolgachev: Thank you.

Indeed, this stadium will create jobs and become one more link for the region that is geographically far from Russia’s mainland.

Today we have invited a volunteer of the future FIFA World Cup who sent several questions to Direct Line.

Good afternoon. Tell us about yourself, please. What are you doing besides being a volunteer?

Andrei Voronin: My name is Andrei Voronin. I am a futsal coach for children with disabilities and orphans. We have been champions at a special futsal tournament for two years running. We won second place at the European futsal championship, representing Kaliningrad Region. As of today, four members of my team are on Russia’s national futsal team at LIN sport [sports for people with intellectual disabilities].

Nikolai Dolgachev: Do you have training facilities? Is the infrastructure ready?

Andrei Voronin: In spring and summer, we have places to train but getting into gyms is not easy.

Nikolai Dolgachev: You can ask the President your question directly. He can see and hear you now, just as the whole nation can. Go ahead.

Andrei Voronin: Mr President, good afternoon. I have a question which concerns not only myself but probably every other resident in the Kaliningrad Region. We are going to host the FIFA World Cup, and we have a wonderful stadium here. Please, tell me what will happen after the World Cup? Will my students also be able to come to the stadium to practice?

Nikolai Dolgachev: To train or to play?

A. Voronin: To train, to play or at least to see the three matches that will be played at the stadium. To come and see them, at least.

Vladimir Putin: You see, first of all, I am confident that you will build the facility and you will do it on schedule. By the way, regarding Kaliningrad, we initially thought that the price tag was too high. It is understandable that the leaders of Kaliningrad and the Kaliningrad Region wanted not just to build up the stadium but also develop all the adjoining infrastructure: to erect a new township, a whole residential area, but ultimately, we agreed on the cost of the stadium as well. Everything is going according to schedule, as far as I know. But to be honest, your question is odd. The answer is yes, because the stadium is being built for people to play sports, for fans to come there. I hope we will never allow stadiums to be turned into shopping markets. On the contrary, even in Moscow everything is going back to its normal course. Thank God, sports facilities are being used the way they were intended.

Concerning the facilities and buildings for the Olympics in Sochi, practically everything is being used effectively. We have probably better results than anywhere else, when it comes to the use of sports facilities after large-scale international competitions. The same is true of Kazan after the competition were held there, I mean the Universiade. As for stadiums, they must and can be used as athletic facilities only. This is why I am sure that children will able to practice there. I am sure that fans can rejoice. And the key thing is we will finally be developing football. I hope our players will also perform at a high level, which everyone expects from them.

And I would just wish you success. Thank you very much.

Dmitry Borisov: Nikolai, let us take another question from Kaliningrad.

Andrei Voronin: The Russian national team has not been at its best lately, and no one knows how it will perform during the upcoming world championship. I have a proposal. Perhaps, you could use your influence on them? Perhaps, you could tell them to start really playing ball?

Vladimir Putin: I prompted this question, I think. I am not going to rant and rave or criticise anyone, although, of course, the Russian football fans are expecting a better performance from our national team.

When I speak to specialists at the international level, I ask whether our athletes will play or not. They say no, they will not. I ask them why. They say because … followed by complaints that there are too many foreign players and too little attention paid to training young players.

In other words, very little attention is paid to promoting children’s and youth football. True, there are positive developments. I was in Krasnodar recently, and Mr Galitsky is doing a great job there. It is a private project. He has built a stadium and put together a football school with remarkable students who play not only football, but chess as well. All major clubs have created such systems for training young football players. If this continues, and I believe it will, we will definitely have an efficient national team that will make its fans proud.

Dmitry Borisov: Thank you, Kaliningrad.

Mr President, I would be remiss not to ask you a question today. There is a crisis underway, difficult times for everyone, clearly. The number of disgruntled people is on the rise. Some are protesting in social media, others are taking to the streets. Is that an opposition? Are you prepared to talk to anyone among them?

Vladimir Putin: I am prepared to talk to everyone who really aims to improve people’s lives, to resolve the issues facing the country, but not the ones who use existing difficulties – and there are always enough difficulties anywhere you go – to promote their own political agenda. Using difficulties as a tool for self-promotion and in order to cash in politically, only aggravates them.

We spoke about managing companies. What is one of their key problems today? They are intermediaries in the movement of funds from the state to those who provide additional services. They should be denied the right to mediate cash flows. The same applies to the opposition. Some of them in this sense are no better; they are using difficulties to their own advantage. Instead, they should offer solutions. Those who offer solutions deserve our closest attention. They are entitled to maintain a dialogue with the authorities. This is what we are going to do.

Tatyana Remezova: Mr President, schoolteachers and former students in the village of Krasnopolka in Ulyanovsk Region addressed Direct Line, and our film crew, led by Maria Bondareva, went there.

Maria Bondareva: Good afternoon, Mr President.

How can we possibly do without the topic of education? We are now in Krasnopolka, a village with a population of just a little over 500. Naturally, like in any village, there is just one school here. Such schools are called undersized. There are only 46 students there – up to grade nine. On my right, you can see all those who finished it in 2017 – just four young men. On my left is School Principal Alexei Malin, and he sent in a question, Mr President, to your call centre, because he is concerned not only about his school but also about his students’ future or to be more accurate, about where they will study and according to what curriculum. So we decided to give him an opportunity to ask his question directly.

Alexei Malin: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, Mr Malin.

Alexei Malin: The fact is that Russia lacks a single educational space. Because there are so many textbooks and so many teaching and methodological systems, sometimes students in different regions or even in different districts of the same region study certain school disciplines according to absolutely different programmes. And when they move, they experience considerable difficulties.

So, here is the second part of my question. Textbooks have an established lifespan of five years and have to be discarded while they could still be used, which increases budgetary spending on the procurement of new textbooks even though an old textbook is still good enough. Therefore, I wonder if it could be possible to extend the life of school textbooks and reduce the number of teaching and methodological systems, thus unifying Russia’s educational space.

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: First of all, I would like to say that we are probably one of the few countries where – strange as this may seem to you, even though I largely agree with you, but nevertheless, our single educational space is stronger than elsewhere, than in many other countries. For example, in the United States, almost every state and every university has its own curriculum, and the same goes for Europe. We are probably one of the few countries where we try to preserve this single space even though the problem that you have raised does exist.

An enormous number of new textbooks appeared in our country, especially in the 1990s and 2000s. It almost became a business based on budget funds. Colleagues told me a child switches to another school, and even in Moscow has no idea what materials to study to prepare for exams as there are different textbooks and requirements. Of course, requirements can always differ, yet a single textbook allows a teacher to take a certain creative approach to the learning process. In the Soviet Union, there was a standard textbook, then there were experimental ones and one other, three categories in total. Overall, as experts say, this experience could be used to create a standard textbook. We have to consider this. These decisions cannot be voluntary, but we definitely can consider this. Once again, experts believe that this is quite possible and will not cause any damage to the learning process; it will not worsen its quality.

Should we – and can we – prolong the textbook use period to exceed five years? First, as you know, textbooks must be provided for free. I ask heads of municipalities and regions to carefully monitor this.

Can the five-year period be extended? You know, for some textbooks it can be done, and for some it cannot. I mean, for instance, currently we have in fact an established textbook on physics by a single author. The period of its use could probably be prolonged. I had a look at other textbooks – say, on history and geography. The latter was created in the late 1990s, and it cites data on agricultural development. Today, this is an advanced sector of Russia’s economy, with a three-percent annual growth rate, and it satisfies our needs – as I have mentioned, in poultry, for instance. We have become leaders in producing and exporting wheat, which is unprecedented in Russia’s history, maybe only prior to 1913. Yet, this textbook says our agricultural industry is in decline. What nonsense! What kind of textbook is that and what are they teaching our children there?

By the way, the same applies to housing construction. In 2015, a record 83–85 million square metres of housing was completed, yet the textbook claims the construction industry is in a difficult position. What is written in the textbook in no way reflects reality. So, can the period of using such textbooks be extended beyond five years? Actually, it has been reissued this year the way it was, word for word. One name has been eliminated from the list of its authors, maybe to show that this is a new edition, and the rest remained as it was. So this all has to be closely monitored. I think the use of some textbooks can be prolonged, while other textbooks should be updated.

I want to wish success to you and your graduates.

Tatyana Remezova: Maria, you can ask one more question.

Maria Bondareva: Mr President, having heard that they will be with you today, the guys standing next to me decided to use this opportunity and also ask you a question or rather make a request, if I understand correctly.

Remark: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon.

Remark: We are graduates of the ninth form. We are taking part in the 2017 Graduates contest. We are eager to win it. Could you wish us good luck and give us some good advice?

Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I wish you good luck and victory in this contest, and here is what I would like to say.

I do talk with people of your age and students, though not as often as I would like to. I know that our young people have enormous potential, really huge. Very many young people understand all the advantages of our country that are embodied in its immense size, incredibly rich cultural code, long history, the unity of our people that we see whenever the nation is facing serious difficulties. This is what our people relied on for centuries if not millennia, and I can see that young people cherish all this. They cherish the diversity of our culture and nature.

I hope you make full use of these advantages upon graduation, to work in order to enjoy life and contribute to Russia’s progress.

Dmitry Borisov: Thank you, Krasnopolka.

Before we move on, here is one more question from children, from among those that were collected before Direct Line. It comes from 12 year-old Veronika Titova from Solnechnogorsk. This is her question: “If you had a time machine, where would you like to go?

Vladimir Putin: Actually, this is not a child’s question although it seems to be from the realm of fantasy. We know of many works that involve a time machine. It is essential to decide for oneself: does this time machine go backward or forward? Can you interfere in events and change the future, that is, our present, or is this not allowed?

Dmitry Borisov: And what would you prefer?

Vladimir Putin: I think it is better not to touch anything because whatever will be will be but with unknown consequences. This is the first thing. Most likely, this applies to the past. Although, it would be very interesting to see how our country developed, how St Petersburg was built and how our fathers and grandfathers won the Great Patriotic War…

You know, sometimes tears fill my eyes when I watch documentaries. Do you understand me? Of course, I would like to see this with my own eyes.

I would like very much to feel, hear and see how fateful decisions determining Russia’s path were made.

As for the future, we have a time machine. We do. It is called “history.” We should thoroughly and objectively study history so that we can understand how to act in order to build our future. The future is being created right now. Therefore, if we want to have a prosperous future we must work efficiently today, sparing no effort.

Tatyana Remezova: Now back to our studio. Vera Krasova has the floor.

Vera Krasova: Thank you, Tatyana.

We have representatives of the younger generation in our studio – finalists of the National Engineering Olympiad from Nefteyugansk. I had a chance to talk to them yesterday; it was very interesting. Danila Prilepa has a very serious question. Danila, you have the floor.

Danila Prilepa: Hello, Mr President. The fact that corrupt officials and ministers are in the Government is not news, has not been for a long time; putting them under house arrest for show does not produce results, and you undermine people’s trust by doing so. How are you dealing with this problem now?

The consequences of negligence affect the majority of our country’s population, including my family. Federal Law No. 247 states that every police officer is entitled to a subsidy for the purchase of their own housing.

In Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, only 90 families have received the money over the past five years. The waiting list includes thousands, and there is practically no progress.

Vladimir Putin: Danila, did you read your question? Did you prepare it in advance or did someone recommend it to you?

Danila Prelepa: Life has prepared me for this question.

Vladimir Putin: Well said!

Let us begin with the provision of housing for the Interior Ministry employees, as I understand, this is what you are asking. I would need to look up how much money is specifically allocated for that purpose, including in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area. I cannot tell you now, but I promise that I will look it up.

The housing issues of Interior Ministry personnel are probably not being solved as quickly as one would like. I am not ready to tell you right now how much housing was actually acquired, but this is one of the most urgent issues. We will see what happens in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, what else can be done, and increase the funding accordingly.

Now, about corrupt officials. We are aware of this issue, and I believe it is a pressing one. However, the list of questions – I mean the analysis of the list of questions raised during today’s cooperative work, including with you – shows that compared to past Direct Lines – and we are on the 15th event – this issue is not among the top.

Nevertheless, I believe that this issue is important, acute, and it is not a matter of house arrest, not even jailing people, the point is– I sense your family is involved in law enforcement – the point is that no offence should remain without the authorities’ attention and without punishment. That is the most important thing. We need to arrange this mode of operation.

As for house arrest or actual prison terms, this is a question that must be determined by court depending on each specific situation and the guilt of the person who committed the offence. The most recent example is a conviction brought against a former head of the Federal Penitentiary Service, that is, a person who headed the entire correctional system, that is, the system that manages people serving sentences for crimes committed.

However, he broke the law himself, and as far as I know, the court yesterday rendered its verdict. A real term of 8 years in prison is a serious punishment. So, let us rely on the work of the judicial system, which, of course, needs to be improved, but nonetheless, there is no other institution under the Constitution that determines the punishment for those who have committed an offence.

Dmitry Borisov: I see the neighbouring section of our studio with Nailya is ready to join us.

Nailya Asker-zade: Thank you, Dmitry.

Mr President, you have been asked a number of times today about protests in social media but the internet is also used by entrepreneurs. In this connection, Ildar Neverov, chairman of the environmental committee of Delovaya Rossiya has a question to ask.

Ildar Neverov: Good afternoon, Mr President.

Last year I was able to ask you a question about waste, and it is meaningful that we are speaking about it in-depth and constructively during the Year of the Environment. However, today my question is not about solid waste but about a different sort of rubbish – information rubbish.

Information war in the business world is a tool of unfair competition. It is hard to treat it with impartiality. At the same time, recently we have seen and heard increasing information attacks on people in power. What do you think about this? Do you look at such materials?

Vladimir Putin: You know, as a rule, I do look at those materials, especially if they concern my colleagues; of course, I have no choice. As well as other information coming not only from the internet but also from TV, newspapers, radio, I always look at it carefully and – I would like to say and assure you – respectfully.

However, a person in my position necessarily has to double-check everything and draw final conclusions relying on objective data only. You and I know only too well that, unfortunately, the media as a whole and the internet are used for fakes, information attacks or just for political combat.

But what can we do about it? This is life; there is nothing unusual about it. However, I always have to crosscheck it with the resources at my disposal, and I have many of them. There is the Prosecutor’s Office, the Interior Ministry, the FSB, monitoring agencies, the Presidential Control Directorate, which are all agencies, engaged in overseeing the use of budget funds.

So I have plenty of such resources, and before making any conclusion, I always, let me emphasise this, always try to treat people with care, and I first always double check any information.

Tatyana Remezova: Here is an SMS question: “Have you as president ever been cheated? What action did you take against the cheaters?” The question comes from Vladimir Novikov (Krasnoyarsk Territory, the city of Uzhur).

Vladimir Putin: I am looking around at what is coming via SMS and MMS. One question was, should we not reinstate the death penalty and hold a referendum on the issue? I can imagine what the result of that referendum would be. However, the question was, should the death penalty not be applied to murderers?

As for those who cheat or try to cheat. You know, I think everyone among those sitting here has some experience in being a target of cheating. This applies to you, Tanya, and you, Dima, and generally to all – practically all of our country’s citizens. No cheating – it simply does not work that way.

I am also human and sometimes also become a target of such attempts. However, even when I see it I try not to make a fuss. Even if I am certain that there was an attempt to cheat me, before I respond, I will always look to see what that person’s motives are, what they are after, why they wanted to do so and what they were trying to achieve. But I will not forget it.

Tatyana Remezova: Well, it has been a long time since we last heard from our call centre. Natalya Yuryeva please.

Natalya Yuryeva: Thank you, Tatyana. We have been on the air for 3 hours and 40 minutes. We have received 2.6 million calls. Even though during your previous Direct Line, Mr President, you issued orders that something be done about the deplorable condition of roads in many regions, the number of questions regarding this woe has not declined.

We have received hundreds of MMS graphically demonstrating the sordid condition of roads. There is endless mud and enormous potholes in Samara Region while in the Dagestani village of Madzhalis, despite the fact that there is an asphalt-making plant there, locals say there are practically no paved roads.

Vodyanaya [Water in Russian] Street in Kostroma really lives up to its name: it is full of puddles. I suggest we watch the video question that came from Valery Lebedev in Krasnodar.

Valery Lebedev: Good afternoon, Mr President. This is Valery Lebedev. I am 20. I am a third-year student. I have two and a half years of driving experience. I would like to ask you a question.

I am an ordinary Russian citizen. I always pay my taxes and would like to know why the roads in Krasnodar (Novorossiiskaya Street) are in such a state? Please look at this.

Here is my car and here is the road surface. Is this surface acceptable? Is it up to standard or not? I urge you to take measures. Thank you very much. And all the very best.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, Mr Lebedev, for your question and for your account.

You asked whether this could really be so. We can see that it can because we have seen it with our own eyes, but this must not be so, and here is what I would like to say in this context.

What is going on with our road construction? Federal roads are being developed and built. About 77 percent of federal roads have already been brought up to standard, and this is appreciable growth. As for local roads, regional roads, unfortunately, growth there is almost negligible: from 36 percent to 42 percent.

Unfortunately, recently, the situation with road construction at the regional and municipal level has deteriorated. This has to do, among other things, with a shortage of resources. I will not go into detail now. We once discussed and did it – we raised excise taxes to improve road construction financing. Some of these resources go to the federal level and some go to the regional level. Just recently, not so long ago – although I assure you, we regularly revisit this issue – I spoke to the Finance Minister. As usual, the Finance Ministry is very careful about the federal part but we will have to take some decisions to boost financing of road construction at the regional and municipal level.

Nevertheless, I would certainly not let regional and municipal authorities off the hook. It is up to them to get their priorities right in allocating financial resources to address particular issues. Still, I promise that we will pay special attention to this at the federal level.

Dmitry Borisov: Mr President, during preparations for Direct Line and even during this show, questions kept coming in. We selected several questions that we would like to ask you in a quick round of questions.

Vladimir Putin: Surely, we will not keep going until morning?

Dmitry Borisov: Not until morning, that is why it is a quick round, so it will be short.

For example, “You often say you grew up in an ordinary family. Do you know how ordinary people live in Russia today?”

Vladimir Putin: I certainly do.

Firstly, we still communicate. Secondly, I recently told my colleagues about my family’s life. I told them how my father would go and read the electric meter, how he counted every kopeck so as to pay for electricity in full and on time. I still have that habit: I cannot leave the lights on. When I leave the room, I always turn the lights off. This is why I know it so well.

Can I ask one lightening round question? I see Mr Gazzaev sitting in front of me. Football is a concern for me too. Will we play football or not? Let him have a microphone, please.

Dmitry Borisov: Valery Gazzaev answering.

Valery Gazzaev: Thank you, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: In advance of the World Cup.

Valery Gazzaev: First of all, thank you for the wonderful infrastructure that will be built, for paying a huge amount of attention to healthy lifestyle and the health of the nation.

As to football, I am myself very much concerned about it. Let us hope the new young national team will play well at the coming Confederations Cup, and we will all enjoy it.

Thank you very much. I know, I recall 2010 when it was you and your authority and attention alone that got us the right to host the World Cup. And now I would like to share something with you, now that I was given a chance to speak.

I have the following question. I wanted to say that ahead of the World Cup the Russian Football Union declared that the success of the national team is impossible to guarantee in football, so it seems reasonable to set the next target – the popularisation of football regardless of the national team’s results.

I think if we set such tasks, then we will definitely achieve nothing. Moreover, this a home World Cup, and I believe we must achieve the best possible result. As it was said here, of course, I would like you to have an impact on the result, especially on the national team.

What do you think, Mr President, what kind of results should our team have and how should it perform at the coming home World Cup?

Vladimir Putin: Mr Gazzaev, I wanted to hear it from you. You are smart to pass the ball to me.

Valery Gazzaev: I can say in earnest that I have the same opinion as you do, Mr President.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. Let us hope that the boys will give it their all like real fighters and athletes, so as to make our fans happy at least by striving for victory. By the way, the recent matches show that the national team still has potential.

Tatyana Remezova: We continue our quick round of questions: “They say you literally lost your head over digital economy. Is that true?”

Vladimir Putin: My head is okay.

Tatyana Remezova: Thank God.

Vladimir Putin: But the digital economy – without it, we will not be able to move on to the next technological level. And without the transition to a new technological model, the Russian economy, which basically means Russia, has no future. Therefore, this is the number one goal in the economy that we must achieve. The main thing is that we do have all the prerequisites in place for this. Thank God, we have preserved a very good school of mathematics; our computer programming is developing very intensively, we just need to provide a market for our software engineers. We have many good technological projects. We can do this.

Dmitry Borisov: We have received texts like this: “Do you really think that people believe these fabricated questions?”

Vladimir Putin: Believe what?

Dmitry Borisov: “Believe fabricated questions.”

Vladimir Putin: “Let us free the world from this evil!” It is not clear what evil. Is this a fabricated question?

“What do you do in your spare time?” I work.

“Why do wages for the same work often differ across the regions, even in public institutions?” Because the subsistence level varies across the regions and local production facilities have been developing at a different pace for decades. In one place, the cost of living is higher than in another, I am talking about the subsistence level. These are interrelated things that have evolved over decades. However, we have to even out the incomes and certainly federal employees have to make roughly the same money across the country. All these questions are always at the focus of our attention. And we will continue working on them.

Therefore, these questions are clearly not prepared in advance. Nor are all the others that were asked here today.

Tatyana Remezova: “Which world leader has the strongest handshake?”

Vladimir Putin: You know, the strength of a leader is not measured by their handshake; it is measured by their attitude towards the work they do, towards the fate of their country and their people, and by their personal commitment and dedication while exercising their powers.

Dmitry Borisov: Another urgent question: “Do your words about ‘never ratting on friends’ apply to bribe takers and corrupt officials?”

Vladimir Putin: I do not consider them my friends.

Tatyana Remezova: “It is rumoured that there will be no indexation of pensions until 2030. Is that true?”

Vladimir Putin: No, it is not true, it is rubbish. We have a law, and in accordance with this law, we will index pensions at least according to the previous year’s inflation rate.

Dmitry Borisov: “How many languages do you speak?”

Vladimir Putin: Russian, thank God, I am also fluent in German, and I can speak a little English.

Tatyana Remezova: “How do you feel about jokes about you?”

Vladimir Putin: It depends on the joke.

Tatyana Remezova: Is there a favourite?

Vladimir Putin: No, I never remember them. Do you think I keep them in mind or something? I have not read a single book about myself, and I certainly never remember jokes.

Dmitry Borisov: Another question: What is the biggest fish you have ever caught?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, I know this is a matter of interest for professional and amateur fishermen, I read about it and see it on the internet. Honestly, the fish was weighed in my presence, it was 20 kilograms, although many believe it did not look big enough to weigh 20 kilograms. But this is what I saw. Maybe somebody was standing near with a finger on the scale, but I did not notice anything.

Tatyana Remezova: At Direct Line, we have a tradition we will not break. Usually you yourself pick out some questions you liked or you want to answer, so we are giving you this opportunity.

Vladimir Putin: You know, I do have such questions, I selected them, but I did not take them with me. They are not even questions per se but requests, and sensitive ones. I will not say what they were, but I will do my best to respond to them, all the more so as such requests come from people with special needs.

These requests are not huge, but they are very specific. I will try to do this. However, while I was talking here with you, I looked around, and some questions appeared universal to me. I mean, not universal but important, and some were regional but serious as well.

Here is one of the questions, not a serious one, but nevertheless: When will the Russian President drive a Russian-made car? I hope this will happen soon. This not an idle question.

I once asked the head of a western car manufacturer what car he drove. He said: ”Why, …, of course“ and named the company he worked for. This is natural.

And of course, a country like Russia must produce a line of cars that the country’s top officials will use. We are working on this. I hope that by the end of 2018 this will materialise, and this will be a line of cars not only for top officials, like limos, but it will also include SUVs, minibuses, hatchbacks, and others – that is, it will be a brand new line of domestically produced cars.

”Will the Armed Forces service period be extended?“ The question is not quite clear. If the person asking means conscription service, then of course not; but if the period of service for officers was meant, then this has to be considered.

I know that many officers would like the service period to be extended. This issue has to be examined and taken seriously, with all the pros and cons analysed. Overall, this is possible.

Another question: ”Who do you plan to choose as your successor?“ Firstly, I am still in office. Secondly, I want to say that this is a choice for the voters – the Russian people. Of course, I made my choice a while ago, and I see nothing dishonourable in saying that my preferences are such and such; but ultimately, we should not forget that Russian citizens are the ones to vote, and it is only up to them to determine who will lead a region, a district, a city, an area or the country.

You know, this is a strange question: Governor Merkushkin deprives federal veterans of some allowances. I do not even understand what this is all about. How can any governor, not only Nikolai Merkushkin but also others, stop making payments to federal beneficiaries? I do not get this. I will check on this, by all means. I want you to know that I paid attention to this question.

Finally, this is not a question but a statement. I read it. It says, “Everything will be fine.” This is true. I can confirm it.

Dmitry Borisov: You said that the voters would decide who would be the head of state. Could you predict what challenges the head of state whom they will elect for the next six years will be facing? What priority tasks will the president have to focus on?

Vladimir Putin: We have many tasks. The first and the most important one is to ensure that people’s incomes go up. It is necessary to eliminate poverty, shacks and hazardous housing, but we can achieve this only if we grow our economy at the necessary rates.

In this context, it is necessary to pay attention to labour productivity and increase it, but this is impossible without transitioning to the next technological level, and at this point, we need the digital economy and properly organised work.

We must make substantial adjustments of administrative forms at the level of municipal entities, regions and the entire country.

It is perfectly obvious that we need a serious transformation of management at this point. This is not a big but a very important list of tasks that will be raised in the near future.

Tatyana Remezova: And the final question: Will there be one more Direct Line with Vladimir Putin or is this the last one?

Vladimir Putin: If there is any line, it will be only direct, just as today.

Dmitry Borisov: Thank you. We received answers to a majority of questions. We hope that today’s session will also help resolve many problems raised by our audience.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, thanks to the anchors and thanks to all citizens of our country who took part in our joint work today.

I would like to apologise if I did not answer all of your questions. Please do not be cross with me. That is impossible to do, and that includes questions from our audience.

However, it is very important for me to hear your opinions, to see what you think about events in the country. It is important for all of us – for the Government, the Presidential Executive Office and for me – to analyse the incoming questions, proposals, requests or critical remarks.

We will take all of them into consideration in our practical work. In any event, we will do so to the best of our abilities.

Thank you very much!