Direct Line with Vladimir Putin: The weird tradition of the Russian President's annual phone-in

 
Emma Haslett
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Last year, Putin took questions from guests including Edward Snowden (Source: Kremlin)

If you're into Russian politics, tonight is one of the highlights of the political year: Direct Line with Vladimir Putin will air on Russian TV - the Russian President's annual marathon chat show, during which he takes questions put to him by the Russian public for the 13th time.

It's an annual tradition dating back to 2001, although it was only in 2012 that Putin started taking questions via the internet. Beginning at noon Moscow time (Russia encompasses 11 time zones), the event is broadcast across three channels - Rossiya-1, Rossia-24 and Russia's Public Television channel, which provides sign language translation. As if that's not enough, it's also broadcast on three radio stations - Mayak, Vesti FM and Radio Rossii - so Russians can take part, whatever they're doing.

What can we expect this year? Here's what we know...

Get in the snacks

The Russian leader takes the process pretty seriously. He's been known to talk for as long as five hours - last year, he sat for four hours and 47 minutes, answering questions on topics ranging from Crimea to the annexation of Alaska (although he seemed evasive on that one. So Sarah Palin and friends are safe - for now), to how he planned to encourage children to take up sport. The year before that, it was just over three and a half hours. So if you're preparing to watch it, stock up on popcorn.

Questions will be many (but not that varied)

Last year, the Russian public submitted 2.4m questions, in the form of texts, calls, and (a new one for 2014), video questions. Although that was down from the 3m submitted in 2013. At the beginning of the session, the presenters said all the questions would be connected with Crimea. This year, there's likely to be a similar theme.


2014's Direct Line audience (Source: Kremlin)

It's an opportunity to make a point

For the first time last year, there was a special hotline for "residents of the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol".

"Many callers just say, 'Thank you for Crimea'," added Tatyana Remezova, one of the show's co-hosts. Indeed.

Look out for celebrity guests

In 2014, celebrity whistleblower Edward Snowden - who has spent the last couple of years exiled in Russia - popped up, asking a question about surveillance. Although there were initially some translation difficulties leading to confusion about what he was actually trying to ask, in the end Putin seemed to get the gist.

"Mr Snowden, you are a former intelligence officer, and I have worked for an intelligence agency, too. So let's talk like two professionals," said Putin - before adding that, yes, Russia does conduct surveillance on individuals, "but not on... a large scale and not arbitrarily". Of course.

There will be some awkward questions

The event may be heavily choreographed, but Putin does come up against the odd awkward question. As well as the Alaska question in 2014, there were also enquiries about whether Russia will get another first lady following his divorce from Lyudmila Putina, while a six-year-old girl asked whether Barack Obama would save him if he was drowning.

"I think that he is a decent man, and is courageous enough that he would certainly [save me]," answered Putin. Not sure that would be the case this year...

This year's topics of choice

Ukraine is sure to come up again this year: the website set up to allow people to submit questions reported the most popular foreign policy questions are around whether Russia will recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

Other questions are likely to cover utilities, inflation (currently a chewy 16.9 per cent), the rouble and pensions.

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