Offer to Eat Dirt Captures the Verbal Earthiness

MTA reporter from the Far East trying to get Putin's attention. She told him that her salary was too low to have a child.
Even though he said his wife neglected to give him a Valentine this year, President Vladimir Putin was covered for the holiday. One of the record 1,368 journalists at his annual press conference gave him a card.

And, from the number of other women present with cards sitting ready on their desks, there was little chance he was going to get away without one.

Among the other records set Thursday was the duration of the event, which lasted four hours and 41 minutes, topping last year's three hours and 20 minutes, and the 81 journalists called on to ask questions.

The young female reporter from Radio Shanson was No. 33.

"My wife congratulated me this morning, but stiffed me on the Valentine," Putin said, after the reporter asked him whether she gave him a gift.

Unlike last year's event, where Putin was energetic and almost oozed confidence as he received repeated ovations, he was lower-key this time, seeming fatigued as he worked through many of his answers.

He warmed up most when questions concerned relations with the West. It was then that he was at his colloquial, colorful best.

"Let them teach their wives how to make cabbage soup," he said, quoting a well-known line from the gang lord Karp in the popular criminal television drama "Mesto Vstrechi Izmenit Nelzya." Putin was referring to the refusal on the part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's elections watchdog to send observers to monitor the presidential election on March 2.

Posed a question about U.S. concerns that Gazprom was "sinking its teeth into Europe's body," as phrased by a journalist, Putin seemed to savor the fleshy metaphor.

"Americans are concerned over Europe's body? Maybe because they don't want to disentangle themselves?" he grinned, generating giggles from the audience. "The body is really good."

Asked about claims in some Western media that he was the richest man in Europe, Putin said he gladly admitted to being even the richest man in the world.

"My wealth is that the Russian people and, perhaps, God, have twice entrusted me to lead such a great country as Russia," Putin said.

"The rumors of my material wealth are nonsense," he added "They picked everything out of someone's nose and smeared it on their little papers."

What was possibly the president's most colorful foray into colloquial Russian came in answer to a question concerning a possible redenomination of the ruble.

"Listen, do you want me to eat soil from a flowerpot?" he asked, offering a folk manner of swearing an oath to demonstrate there were no such plans.

He also aimed barbs at Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Unified Energy System chief Anatoly Chubais, who have recently commented that Russia's assertive foreign policy was harming its economic development, suggesting that the two "cut their singing."

"Let them take care of their own business. Everyone should hoe his own plot, like St. Francis -- boom-boom," Putin said, making a chopping motion with a smile.

But he softened, adding that it was "good that they have their own opinions and can express them openly."