MOSCOW Dec. 19, 2013— -- A brassy anthem blared through the hall, like the opening credits of a popcorn movie, and Russian President Vladimir Putin strode out onto the stage. Hundreds of smartphone-toting journalists bent over each other to get a better picture as applause rang out.
It was a fitting start to what would be a raucous, four hour press conference. The marathon event is a Putin year-end tradition and before it began today, his spokesman Dmitri Peskov suggested the president might try to break his record by going longer than ever.
Journalists from all over Russia's far-flung corners competed for Putin's attention, holding up signs, shouting, even jumping in the aisles. A sober White House press conference this was not.
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There appeared to be no science to how Putin chose who to call on.
A loud yellow and blue sweater helped identify a journalist as Ukrainian, and Putin called on him to ask about unrest there and whether there were any strings attached to Russia's recent financial bailout.
A uniformed Cossack, who kept his ornate hat raised in the air the entire time, had no luck.
But stuffed animals seemed to catch Putin's eye.
"There's a woman there with a bear, can you please give the mic to her," he said at one point.
"It's not a bear. It's a Yeti, and it's a gift for you," the woman responded, before inviting the president to her region.
Later Putin spotted another teddy bear in the crowd.
"My bear joins me in wishing you a Happy New Year," the young woman told him as she launched into a rambling monologue about how she had previously met the president and then asking him to support struggling newspapers.
When she finished, Putin told her he'd grant her an interview. She began to cry.
For many of those reporters, this was their one shot to ask Russia's most powerful person (and according to Forbes, now the world's most powerful person) a question.
Many of the lucky ones who were called on used the opportunity, not to press Putin on an issue of national or international interest, but to ask for help with very local problems. A faulty boiler in one village. A shuttered factory in another.
Outside of the major cities, this is still a very poor country. Corruption and centralization of power mean presidential attention is the only sure way to get a problem resolved.
Putin patiently sat through the monologues. When they ended he often promised help on the spot. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for a missing machine part? Done. A damaged home? We'll find a way to fix it.
He made sure that as much of this vast country as possible was represented, often choosing journalists based on their location.
"The Urals, that's an important region," Putin said, pointing at a journalist. "And now some from our cities. Novosibirsk!" he said later, calling on another.
The approach tried the patience of Moscow-based press corps, who audibly sighed when their rural colleagues spoke too long.
"Colleagues, why discriminate against the regions?" one rural reporter shot back before continuing her request.
Not all of the questions were softballs. One prominent reporter asked if he has a successor chosen. (Putin demurred) Others asked about amnesty plans for a group of detained Greenpeace activists or about Edward Snowden and American spying.
Some were not shy about challenging the president.
One reporter named Masha is infamous for her eccentric exchanges with the president.
Last year she complained about corruption in her hometown, the far east city of Vladivostok, and challenged Putin to justify the massive expenses of hosting the APEC summit there.
This year she pushed him on why the group of wealthy men who control Russia's extensive mineral wealth, known as the oligarchs, were allowed to make so much money when, according to the Russian Constitution, those minerals belong to the Russian people.
Another woman, from a small village, complained about corruption and infighting between police forces in her small town.
By the end of the press conference, Putin announced to the crowd that Interior Ministry was already on their way to the village to sort things out.
The journalists were impressed, letting out a loud "ooooh" and applauding.