MOSCOW -- As a legal dragnet began to close around figures in Russia's political opposition, President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday returned to the Kremlin stagecraft that has served him for more than a decade, engaging in a live televised question-and-answer session that lasted for a record-breaking 4 hours 47 minutes.
Mr. Putin skipped the annual "Conversation With Putin" last year, when a protest movement was swelling in the capital, and his appearance Thursday served to prove that he was once again confident of his popularity.
He pledged help for retirees and factory workers, and he benevolently granted petitions, like one from a pigtailed girl in Russia's far east who asked for a playground. (He was still speaking when word came that the regional authorities had already begun a construction project on his orders, and the audience applauded.)
Mr. Putin also sent serious messages about how he intended to govern Russia after the jolt of the protests. As he spoke, the blogger Aleksei A. Navalny was in court in Kirov, facing a possible 10-year sentence on politically tinged embezzlement charges, and a Moscow court handed down a two-and-a-half-year sentence to an activist accused of "inciting mass disorder" at a march last May. The nonprofit organization Golos, an election monitoring group, was fined $10,000 for failing to register as a "foreign agent," as a new law requires.
Mr. Putin was asked about "Stalinist tones" that have emerged since his return to the presidency, and he said he was simply holding the activists to account for violating Russian law.
"Stalinism is connected with a cult of personality, mass violations of law, with repressions and camps, and there is nothing like this in Russia," Mr. Putin said. "We simply have a different society, which will never allow this. But that does not mean that there should not be order and discipline."
He addressed Mr. Navalny's embezzlement case at some length, but seemed intent, as he has in the past, to avoid pronouncing the protest leader's name in public. One questioner asked, "Do the authorities fear him?" Mr. Putin said that was not the problem.
"People fighting against corruption should be absolutely pure themselves, otherwise it all looks like political self-advertising," Mr. Putin said. "If someone loudly shouts 'catch the thief,' it does not mean they are allowed to steal themselves. But at the same time, it does not mean that, if a person has views that differ from those of the current authorities, it is necessary to find any pretext to drag them to court and to jail."
He said he had personally ordered the General Prosecutor's Office to approach Mr. Navalny's case objectively.
Mr. Putin addressed a simmering economic debate over monetary policy and wages, and he sent foreboding signals about the future of Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, who stepped down from the presidency last May. Igor M. Bunin, the director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said the relationship between the two men had deteriorated badly, and Mr. Medvedev is no longer mentioned as a candidate to succeed Mr. Putin in 2018.
"The goal was not to fire Medvedev, the goal is to reduce him to zero," Mr. Bunin said. "That has already been done, and now he is trying to reduce him to a negative quantity."
As if to underscore that rift, Mr. Putin engaged in prolonged, affectionate banter with a guest who had been planted in the audience: former Finance Minister Aleksei L. Kudrin, who left his post in a public spat with Mr. Medvedev. In an odd, scripted exchange, Mr. Putin was asked why he had not given Mr. Kudrin a government post and said that he had tried to.
"He doesn't want to, he refused -- that lazybones does not want to work," Mr. Putin said. Mr. Kudrin responded that he would not agree to work under the current leadership, saying that "today's system of half-measures and half-reforms will not work, and Russia will not ever wean itself off oil dependence."
Mr. Putin retorted that Mr. Kudrin's tight fiscal policies had come with heavy social costs, a choice "not always justified, especially in our country, where individual incomes remain quite modest."
When Mr. Putin first took power in 2001, his marathon television appearance lasted only two and a half hours. The sessions have increased in length every year, stretching significantly since 2008. Mr. Bunin said the length served as a form of "self-assertion," noting that Mr. Putin "has not yet exceeded the record set by Fidel Castro, who could speak for six hours." The average age of viewers hovers around 60, according to RIA Novosti, the state news agency.
As the show ended, in line with tradition, Mr. Putin fielded some softer questions, like whether he is happy. "This is a philosophical question," he said. "I am endlessly grateful to fate, and to the Russian people, for trusting me to be the head of state. That is my whole life."
He added: "Whether that is enough to be happy, I don't know. That is a different subject."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.