Russians asked president Vladimir Putin about the shrinking economy, rising inflation, the Islamic State, medicine prices, bad roads, and doping scandals during an annual call-in show on live television. But what they really wanted to know was when he would get remarried.
"The newspapers say that your ex-wife got married. When will you give our country a first lady?" a woman from Gatchina asked, referring to recent rumors that Lyudmila Putina, whom Putin divorced in 2013, had tied the knot with a businessman more than 20 years her junior.
"I don't know if we should put these kind of questions in the spotlight, how it might affect the currency rate or the oil prices," Putin joked, adding that although work was most important, "maybe one day I'll be able to satisfy your curiosity."
It was basically a non-answer, but the story nonetheless soon topped the news section of Russia's most popular search engine, Yandex.
Famously secretive of his personal life, Putin wouldn't say whether his ex-wife had indeed remarried. And he didn't address findings late last month that an employee of the president's judo sparring partner had given Moscow apartments to Putin's daughter and to the sister and grandmother of his rumored girlfriend, as well as to a buxom student who posed in risque photos for Putin.
It was one of several questions that Putin deflected during his 14th annual call-in show, which lasted for three hours and 40 minutes but produced few revelations. Another question he partially deflected was, "Who would be better for Russia, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (as US president)?" Putin said strained relations were due not to individual politicians but rather a belief America was "exceptional," warning that the United States should set aside "imperial ambitions" and "act respectfully toward all its partners, including Russia." He also said it was too early to answer a question about whether he'd run for his fourth term in 2018.
Although questions could be submitted by text message, email, or social media, the event was heavily stage-managed. According to a RBC newspaper report quoting sources among the event planners, the studio audience underwent a secret training session in a resort outside Moscow on Tuesday, and organizers selected those who would get to ask the president a question. A worker building the new Vostochny cosmodrome who complained to Putin about delayed wages last year — the workers still haven't been paid — was detained by police just before this year's show.
Nonetheless, Putin took several critical questions, including one about the "Panama Papers" leaked documents, which showed, among other things, that the godfather of Putin's daughter, his friends, and other companies had transferred $2 billion dollars to offshore firms. But the president dismissed the leaks as part of a smear campaign against the Russian government before parliamentary elections in September and warned that Russia "cannot be manipulated and forced to dance to somebody else's tune."
As for the surprisingly large transfers made by the godfather of his daughter, a classical cellist, Putin said his friend had bought rare instruments, including four valued at up to $12 million each.
"Here in Russia we can still imagine bribes in the form of Borzoi puppies, but in the form of violins and cellos? I haven't heard of that," he said.
But as opposition leader Alexei Navalny pointed out on Twitter, that calculation still left hundreds of millions of dollars in unexplained transactions.
Putin later returned to the offshore scandal to take a swipe at Ukraine's government, which elected a new prime minister and cabinet on Thursday, reminding viewers that the leaks had revealed that President Petro Poroshenko has offshore holdings.
He also commented on developments in Syria, where Russia began withdrawing some of its forces in March. He said the Syrian army was still "in a condition to undertake serious offensives with our support" and said he would not allow fighting in Aleppo to worsen the situation there.
Putin was also asked about Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov calling the opposition "enemies of the people" and posting a video of Mikhail Kasyanov, an ally of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, in crosshairs. Putin said he had discussed this with Kadyrov and that he hoped the Chechen and other regional leaders would realize that such speech "harms the stability" of the country.
The president answered 80 questions out of more than three million reportedly submitted, meaning participants had less than a 0.000027 percent chance to ask him something. Many of those who got through were able to plead with him to deal with local problems and punish officials, such as the first caller, who complained there was "one hole after another" on her road in the Siberian city of Omsk. By the time the call-in show ended, photographs were circulating on Twitter showing workman already laying asphalt on what appeared to be that same road.
The most memorable question was probably that of 12-year-old Varya Kuznetsova: "Last year, you said that you would save a drowning Obama. If Poroshenko and (Turkish president Recep) Erdogan were drowning, who would you save first?"
Thus asked to choose between Russia's top geopolitical foes of the past year, Putin cracked that "if someone has decided to drown, it's impossible to save him. But we're of course ready to put out a hand of help and friendship to any of our partners, if they want that."