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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Joking With Blondes, Sparring With Critics

MTA journalist from Kamchatka waiting to be called on at the news conference.
During some of the lighter moments of his news conference Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin sent his greetings to all blondes, confessed that he liked audio books, agreed to lend a journalist his vintage car for a test drive and wrapped up by wishing Russians a happy Lunar New Year.

For most of the news conference, as he fielded 64 questions over the course of 3 1/2 hours, Putin was in a cheerful mood, from time to time cracking jokes with female journalists. But on a few occasions he raised his voice in anger, particularly when asked about the gas dispute with Ukraine and Russia's relations with Uzbekistan, and used salty language to make his point.

During the first 2 1/2 hours, presidential spokesman Alexei Gromov picked journalists from the audience, many of whom he knew personally and called by their first names. Others had to hold up signs with the name of their city or region to catch his attention. Some wrote the name of their publication in big letters in their notebook and displayed it in front of them, but not all of the 650 journalists seated in the Kremlin Palace Round Hall got a chance to pose a question.

This was Putin's fifth such news conference in six years, and for the third time it started with the same harmless question from a reporter for Vashi 6 Sotok, a Moscow newspaper for gardeners. The reporter asked when the bureaucratic barriers to privatizing dacha plots would be removed, and Putin replied that he had asked the Cabinet to look into it last year.

Putin, who was formally dressed in a black suit and red tie, first showed his annoyance when answering question No. 6, which was about the Kremlin's support for an Uzbek government that, as the U.S. reporter put it, "does not share European democratic values."

Uzbek President Islam Karimov came under wide criticism in the West after a popular uprising in Andijan in May that was brutally crushed by the police.

"We know better than you what happened in Andijan," Putin said, as he lashed out at Associated Press reporter Steve Gutterman.

But it was when answering questions on Russia's gas partnership with Ukraine and Europe that Putin became the most emotional, raising his voice several times while meticulously explaining why Russia increased the cost of gas for Ukraine.

"We did not pull this price out of our nose," he said.

Putin resorted to strong language just once more, when talking about some foreign critics of Russia who, as he said, were still living in the Cold War and mistaking Russia for its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

"There are devoted Sovietologists who do not understand what is happening in our country, do not understand the changing world. There is no need to argue with them. They deserve a very brief remark: 'To hell with you'," Putin said, responding to a question about Russia's image abroad, asked by a television journalist from the city of Vladimir.

"I like the name of your city," he said when taking the question.

After the first 2 1/2 hours, Gromov remarked that it was time to wind up, and Putin hinted that perhaps some of the journalists had a more pressing place to go. "I do not think that any of you put diapers on when dressing for this meeting," Putin said.

But the president continued calling on the journalists himself, stretching his tired face muscles and exhaling noisily before each new question.

Alla Semenysheva, a journalist from Nizhny Novgorod, rose and said that she had meant to ask "a clever question," but being exhausted, she could think of nothing better than to ask Putin what he did to stay fit and young, presenting it as "a question from all blondes."

"Well, I love sports and I work hard. It always supports the kind of internal psychological condition that, in my view, is very important for each person," Putin said.

"And greetings to all blondes," he added.

Putin then took questions from at least two more female blondes, one from Tyumen, the other from Poland.

The Polish reporter, Barbara Wlodarcyk of TVP television, rose and said that had she believed she would really get a chance to ask her question, she would have made a bet with her fellow journalists.

"Well, you should have made it and perhaps shared your winnings with us," Putin said.

"Poland is not a very rich country," she said.

"Do not try to pretend to be poorer than you are," Putin said, offering statistics on the growth of Poland's gross domestic product in 2005.

A journalist from the Volga River city of Tolyatti, the capital of the Russian automobile industry, asked Putin to lend him his car for a test drive.

"Which car do you mean?" Putin asked, and he agreed when the journalist said he meant the 1956 Volga that Putin owns.

Putin refused to name the films he watches or books that he reads, but said that he is fond of listening to audio books while in the car.

"For example, I am now listening to lectures on Russian history by [19th-century historian Vasily] Klyuchevsky," he said.

Taking a question from a Kultura television journalist, Putin confessed that lately he had been watching that channel more than the others.

Unlike during previous news conferences, when almost each regional journalist invited Putin to visit his or her region, Putin received just one invitation Tuesday -- to visit Buryatia, a Buddhist region he has never been to. The reporter congratulated Putin on the Year of the Dog, which began Sunday.

"I would like to congratulate all those who celebrate the Lunar New Year and I know that there are many of them in our country," Putin said to applause before taking just one more question.