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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Be a Star at a Meeting With Putin

Ask President Vladimir Putin a sharp question, and you are a star, no matter what he mumbles in response.

Vladivostok journalist Maria Solovyenko won the loudest applause at Thursday's news conference in the Kremlin when she expressed fears that state funds for a new investment program in her native Primorye region would be stolen. She started her request by calling Putin "incomparable."

"You confuse me," the president replied, feigning meekness.

To the other journalists' delight, Solovyenko immediately laid into Putin, telling him that Primorye's top officials were contrabandists, thieves and bandits and asking him to introduce direct presidential rule over the region.

Afterward, television reporters from the national channels lined up in the lobby of the Kremlin's ornate Round Hall to interview Solovyenko, as tired journalists streamed past to the exit.

Putin's sixth annual news conference, which state television referred to as "the big press conference," beat the previous record set last year in attendees, length and questions. A total of 1,232 journalists, including 262 from foreign media, got accredited, while 1,150 showed up, said a Federal Guard Service officer who cleared arriving journalists at the hall's entrance. The Round Hall, with only 800 seats, was crammed beyond capacity, with dozens of late-coming journalists having to stand in the back. The news conference lasted three hours and 30 minutes, four minutes longer than the previous one. Putin answered 65 questions, compared with 64 last year.

"The record is not beaten yet," a group of journalists from provincial newspapers yelled 2 1/2 hours into the news conference when Putin said he was ready to leave.

Not everyone was pleased that he stayed on. "Putin is just dragging out the time to set a new record," moaned a Moscow radio journalist when the Q&A session passed the three-hour mark.

Having initially pounded the audience with a rapid fire of statistics about the economy and social spending, Putin loosened a bit toward the end of the news conference, frequently resorting to demotic expressions and cracking jokes.

Perhaps the loudest laughter came when a reporter asked for Putin's opinion about Mayor Yury Luzhkov's recent decision to label gay parades as "satanic." "My attitude toward gay parades is simple and relates to my official duty, and I believe that the biggest problem in our country is demography," Putin said with a slight smile. Putin, however, added that he respected "man's freedoms, whatever forms they take."

The annual news conferences show how Putin has learned to handle media attention and likes it, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a public relations consultant with Mercator think tank. This may be why his annual news conferences are growing, from 40 minutes with 400 journalists at the first one in 2001, he said.

Putin avoided answering personal questions.

Asked to identify his friends, he would not give any names, saying only that they included former colleagues, including those from his years in the KGB.

Asked about how he relaxes, Putin said he was reading a book by the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, a recent gift from his wife, Lyudmila. "And I also take advice from Connie, my Labrador," he said.