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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petitioning Tsar Vladimir for Help

APMironov, the head of the appeals office
Across the street from the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial authority in the nation, dozens of people are jostling to enter the agency they trust to solve their bureaucratic problems: President Vladimir Putin's Office for Citizens' Appeals.

"I place my hope in God and Vladimir Vladimirovich," says Raisa Gorelova, 75, clutching a bag full of family photos, ID papers and a few yellowed pages from a book on Soviet heroes of World War II, including one of her brothers.

She has traveled 30 kilometers on a bus to deliver her petition at the office on Ulitsa Ilyinka. She is seeking a grant so she can afford to move to a town where her relatives live from the city where the government assigned her housing 12 years ago when she fled ethnic tension in Central Asia.

As a guard nudges open the office door and the crowd surges inside, some shrieking and pushing, Gorelova hangs back calmly.

"I'm No. 120 on the list today," she says. "But I think I'll get help -- even if I'm just one of the millions who need it."

For centuries, Russians have brought their problems large and small straight to the top -- petitioning the tsar, then the Communist Party, now the president. The tradition reflects public frustration with low-level officers dominated by bureaucrats indifferent or on the take and with the country's underdeveloped administrative legal system.

"People don't turn to the president because they've already knocked on every door and been turned away," says Mikhail Mironov, head of the Office for Citizens' Appeals. "People turn to him because he's been elected by the people, and the Constitution says that the president is the guarantor of basic rights and freedoms in Russia."

This president in particular seems to inspire hope. In addition to seeing 120 to 150 people who visit the office every day, Mironov and his 25-member staff handle reams of letters. Putin got 565,000 letters last year -- about twice the annual average for President Boris Yeltsin.

In addition, some 492,000 people telephoned or sent Internet messages just during the week preceding Putin's televised national call-in show in December. That public outreach effort was part of what appears to be a concerted Kremlin effort to project an image of Putin as a caring leader.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich reacts and responds to people's problems more actively, whether they be schoolchildren, veterans or workers in various enterprises," Mironov says.

Putin was especially touched by essays on Russia's future sent by a group of schoolchildren in the central region of Mordovia, and he personally drafted a response, Mironov says.

Asked for a similar example of a letter that particularly affected Yeltsin, Mironov recalls a group of workers who requested a special presidential greeting to their colleague, a woman driver who was celebrating an important anniversary. Yeltsin sent a car as a gift.

Mironov and his staff spend much of their day meeting with supplicants. Once the petitioners get inside the door and go through the metal detector, they line up quietly at two windows, where clerks enter into a computer their names, other personal information and the reason for the visit. Then they sit in a corridor waiting to be called into a private office for a conversation with a staffer. Most meetings take about 15 minutes, Mironov says.

"From the homeless to academicians, they all come to our offices," he says. "We have to find not only a common language, but solutions to their problems."

Mironov has spent part of this morning giving advice to a depressed philosopher, providing a long list of suggested reading, and met with a woman who was concerned she was being unfairly cut out of her share of a family inheritance.

"I said if you're not satisfied, take your case to court, but she said, 'I don't really trust the courts,"' Mironov says.

Every Saturday, Mironov sends Putin and his key aides a two-page summary of the letters and visits the office received the previous week. About 70 percent of the letters concern complaints about social rights such as housing and pensions, and less than 10 percent contain policy proposals, he says. Many letters are forwarded to lower-level agencies responsible for the issues raised. Others prompt phone calls to government offices from Mironov or his aides.

The office also prepares briefing material before Putin's tours around the nation. When Putin sits down with a regional governor, for instance, he has a thick file of popular comments on the governor's performance.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich very clearly has put an accent on increasing government officials' personal responsibility: 'You've been elected, you should answer to the people,"' Mironov says. "He talks to them already knowing what problems they face." The visitors to Mironov's office are indifferent to their role in shaping Putin's vision of the nation. What they want is a solution to their problem, whether it's a new apartment, higher pension or citizenship, the latter one of the few issues that fall directly within Putin's responsibility.

The appeals office decides on every appeal for citizenship -- a potentially huge job, considering the millions of ethnic Russians who have arrived over the past decade from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Other former Soviet citizens, too, are pleading for citizenship in Russia, where the economy is stronger and political life more stable than in many other former republics.

"I'm 99 percent sure my appeal will be answered positively," says Sergei, a 50-year-old construction engineer from Armenia who spent 11 years building gas pipelines in the Far North.

Others have no faith they will succeed. Lena Yersh, a 30-year-old ethnic Russian from Kazakhstan, says she's been living in Russia for eight years. She says she has visited the office repeatedly, only to be sent away. She's back seeking a final, written rejection she can present to the Canadian Embassy to back up her family's application for emigration.

"You get the feeling they don't read the letters," she seethes. "They mock us."