Vladimir Putin's Q&A session: A rare chance to question the President

Putin to answer Russian citizens' questions
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Story highlights

  • Putin to spend hours fielding questions from the general public on live television
  • Sanctions and Russia's deep economic crisis likely to be a major theme
  • Critics of the Kremlin slam event as Russia's imitation of democracy in action

(CNN)In Russia's tightly-managed democracy, where being an opposition politician can seriously damage your health, chances to question the country's leader are rare.

President Vladimir Putin cuts an isolated figure, closely guarded behind the walls of the Kremlin, traveling to-and-fro by helicopter or high-speed motorcade.
    His almost daily appearances on state television often show him in formal meetings with subordinates, or visiting dignitaries. Interaction with ordinary Russians is usually carefully controlled and fleeting.
    That is why this annual Q&A session -- in which Putin will spend hours fielding questions from the general public on live television -- is such a widely anticipated event which provokes such excitement. It is direct access to the Russian leader, or at least as direct as most Russians will ever get.
    In recent years, sitting in a shiny studio surrounded by a hand-picked audience of soldiers, doctors, teachers, factory workers and so on, Putin has held forth on subjects from parenting to food prices, to relations with America.
    Last year he spoke for three hours and 55 minutes. In 2013, it was a record-breaking 4 hours and 47 minutes. Organizers say this year, public interest is especially strong.
    At one call center in Moscow, where the public are encouraged to pitch their Putin questions, officials say more than 200,000 questions were submitted in the first hour after lines opened.
    The Kremlin says they will have to sift through well over 1.7 million emails, video messages and texts to decide who gets to ask what on the big day. A few would-be questions released ahead of the event give us a flavor of what's on Russia's mind.
    One man, who identifies himself as Vitaly from the Leningrad region, asks: "Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin's middle name), why are prices going up in the shops but wages are staying the same?"
    Sanctions and Russia's deep economic crisis, which saw the value of the Russian currency, the ruble, plunge in value by 50% against the dollar, is set to be a major a theme.
    So too is foreign policy. With Moscow at odds with the West over Ukraine, some of the released questions show how concerned ordinary Russians are about their country's place in the world.
    One unidentified schoolgirl asks: "Is there a threat to Russia's interests from the United States and Europe? And will there be a new Iron Curtain?"
    It's not just Russian schoolchildren who want to hear Putin's answer.
    Critics of the Kremlin, of course, slam this entire event as Russia's imitation of democracy in action. It's hard to imagine a truly critical question, they say, getting aired on national television here. In fact, its best not to look at this event as an opportunity for Russians to question their leader at all.
    Instead, it is more like a highly produced, highly choreographed chance for their leader to speak to them, and to the world.
    Sometimes, the Kremlin likes to throw in a nasty surprise, too. Last year saw NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, granted asylum in Russia, address Putin by videolink.
    Who knows who may pop up this time.