MOSCOW — The discontent thrumming just below the surface in Russia was on clear display Thursday as President Vladimir V. Putin spent the bulk of his annual marathon, televised call-in program trying to convince the country that life was improving.
The president’s answers to 75 of the more than 2.6 million questions submitted were perhaps less compelling than the steady stream of text messages popping up on the bottom of the television screen, some of them surprisingly critical.
“You have been in power for longer than Brezhnev,” read one, referring to Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule is remembered as the era of stagnation. “But we continue to live in poverty as we used to live.”
“When will serfdom be restored? We’re waiting for the lord of the manor who will buy our village and organize jobs.”
“Just one question: when will you leave?”
During the 4 hours, 16 minutes of the session, Mr. Putin occasionally interrupted the two anchors curating the questions to respond to the texts, but he skipped the outright negative ones.
His basic message was that he understood that many of Russia’s 145 million people were troubled by low wages, uneven medical care and poor infrastructure, but that things were far worse before he came to power in 2000 and, trust him, he’s working on it.
“So when are we going to feel the results?” asked one anchor.
“You should start feeling them this year, next year, soon,” Mr. Putin responded.
In truth, this was Mr. Putin’s 17th such show, and the same problems come up every year. If anything, economic conditions have decayed recently, with real income falling since 2014. He typically scolds a few governors who then scurry to the side of aggrieved citizens, expresses surprise that some teachers earn as little as $160 a month and fields a few foreign policy questions.
Mr. Putin was asked to respond to an article in The New York Times this week reporting that the United States had hacked the Russian electric grid as a kind of warning against cyberattacks against the United States.
Russia was bound to take such threats into account, whether the story was confirmed or not, Mr. Putin said. “We need to insure that this system is safe and sound,” he added. “We need to protect it from any attacks, we are not just thinking about it, that is what we are doing.”
The annual show, called “Direct Line,” has become a repetitive set piece that allows Mr. Putin to play a favorite role: reassuring father to the nation.
“This is the phenomenon of the good czar,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, the deputy president of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. “You can turn to him and he might find time, he might solve your issue. In the ancient times, there was a special box near the czar’s palace that people could put complaints into.”
If there were such a box today, it would be filling up more rapidly than in past years. Things have gotten rocky enough domestically that Mr. Putin has felt compelled to intervene on the side of protesters in at least three separate disputes.
He put on hold plans to build a cathedral in the last prime downtown park in Yekaterinburg, one of Russia’s largest cities, and postponed construction on a massive dump for Moscow’s garbage in the northern Arkhangelsk province.
In Moscow, after spontaneous street protests, obviously faked drug charges leveled against an investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov, were dropped with uncharacteristic speed, and two senior police generals were fired.
Such unexpected outcomes could reflect concerns in the Kremlin about Mr. Putin’s sinking popularity ratings, which have never recovered from a highly unpopular decision to raise the pension age in 2018. That, Mr. Makarkin said, has made the Kremlin more attentive to public opinion.
“The feeling that any decision can be pushed through at any price is fading,” he said. “The pension reform was pushed through, but the price was quite high. So today, when the situation concerns questions that are not connected with the fundamental nature of the political regime, the government tries not to irritate people.”
As a result, the Kremlin is markedly more willing to intervene on the side of protesters if there are no high-profile opposition figures involved and when the focus is on a local issue.
The president also faces the problem of extending his own rule past 2024, analysts say, when term limits would ordinarily end his time in office.
From a high of about 85 percent following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Mr. Putin’s approval rating has dropped to 66 percent in the latest figures from the Levada Center, an independent pollster.
Handicapping any Kremlin decision involves many theories and much speculation. There is a sense, however, that both the sweeping powers of the security services and the growing role of the church are making even some high-level bureaucrats uneasy.
The feeling that no one was safe became especially acute after a former economy minister, Aleksei V. Ulyukayev, was jailed in 2017 for eight years on bribery charges that many suspected were manufactured.
That sentiment helps explain why the Golunov case erupted into a public outcry against police overreach.
The police officials, who were annoyed by Mr. Golunov’s exposure of corruption in Moscow, seemingly blundered in announcing his arrest on fabricated charges on the same day that Mr. Putin was addressing the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia’s main international conference for investors. With investor interest already at a low ebb, analysts said, Mr. Putin could not abide such a distraction.
During the call-in show, Mr. Putin answered a question about the case by saying the police should not abuse their powers.
The Yekaterinburg cathedral issue was also about limits, in this case on the state-backed Russian Orthodox Church.
In a country where religious sentiment is weak, there is unease about the church meddling in school curriculums and building churches nobody wants. Patriarch Kirill recently announced that three new churches are opened daily. Stopping the erection of a cathedral in Yekaterinburg — virtually across the street from another one — was a popular move.
But the callers on Mr. Putin’s Direct Line broadcast knew better than to attack the system or, worse, criticize Mr. Putin directly, since the condition of the country is such a measure of his record.
“They understand pretty well that they should ask the czar for the favor, and if he is kind enough and they are lucky enough, their problems will be fixed,” said Mr. Petrov. “If they do something against his will and they blame him, they will never get their problems fixed.”