- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat for his nearly annual televised live-call-in show — which, this year, went on for nearly five hours. In addition to tackling some weightier questions about the Russian economy and the country’s hot-and-cold relations with the United States, Putin also addressed more casual inquiries, culled from millions of submissions.
At one point, Putin cited the Boston Marathon bombings as justification for taking a hard line in the Caucasus. "We have always said that action is needed and not declarations," Putin told viewers. "Now two criminals have confirmed the correctness of our thesis." At another, he displayed a rare flash of humor in discussing former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. "He’s a slacker and doesn’t want to work," Putin observed.
According to the Guardian‘s Moscow correspondent Miriam Elder — who deserves a medal for live-tweeting the marathon session — the Russian leader had a particularly pensive response to a question about whether he was happy. "Me?" Putin inquired. "This is a philosophical question." Responding to liberal journalist Aleksei Venediktov, Putin adamantly dismissed a comparison to Stalin. "Stalinism is connected with a personality cult, with mass violations of the law, with repressions and prison camps," he said. "There is nothing of such kind in Russia and I hope there will never be. Our society is different now and it will never let this happen again."
But even as Putin dwelt on the freedoms that exist in today’s Russia, the sheer length of time he monopolized on the airwaves seemed to undermine that assertion ("Putin sets new record for Q&A session: 4 hours 47 minutes, 85 questions answered," the Voice of Russia proclaimed after it was all said and done). These days, we tend to associate long-windedness with authoritarian leaders — be it Fidel Castro’s infamous four-hour, 29-minute speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 1960 or Hugo Chávez’s mesmerizing television rambles that went on for anywhere from four to eight hours … or until El Presidente was done talking. Why the correlation?
In 2009, after Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 96-minute speech before the United Nations, the BBC investigated this very question. The article notes that marathon speeches by democratic leaders — such as one Indian politician’s eight-hour Kashmir lecture in 1957 — are rare, and that applause (out of either genuine passion or fear for one’s life) often accounts for a substantial portion of history’s longest speeches. The BBC even highlights an amusing example from Russia’s own Stalin, who received a standing ovation that took up a whole side of a vinyl recording of one of his speeches. But another historian argues that long speeches haven’t always been the sole preserve of dictatorships:
"Now [a long speech] is seen as a sign of political weakness, for example Neil Kinnock or Gordon Brown when he uses too many words and too much jargon.
"But earlier generations, ending with Harold Macmillan, had a taste for very long speeches which demonstrated their learning. We have now less patience with people who show their authority by speaking at great length."
One could certainly devote an academic paper to the nuanced relationship between democracy and speech length, but perhaps a simpler explanation exists. As Robert Service, a professor of Russian Studies at Oxford University told the BBC, "You are only ever going to get long speeches when the speaker doesn’t have to worry about the audience running away."
Any other theories?
Update: A number of readers have weighed in on the question of why authoritarian leaders tend to talk for so long. Below are a few of the more interesting suggestions:
"only their opinion matters?" – Facebook user Charles Ursenbach
"Dictatorships also have fewer things competing for viewers’ attention, as the ‘running away’ joke denotes. While the State of the Union is going on, I can switch to a lot of other things, or even watch something in the DVR." – Commenter Pdubble
"It’s probably the most democratic thing Putin does. People call in, ask him questions, some easy to answer, others not so much." – Facebook user Pavel Shmelov
"Because brevity is the soul of wit – and they are, by and large, witless." – Facebook user Julian De Wette.
"Filibusters come to mind, and the[n] immediately the relationship between democracy and speech length mentioned above." – Commenter Zhangir K S
"Because they can." – Facebook user Rick Brandl