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Hello President Putin, It's Arizona Calling! American Had 'No Idea' Russian Leader Would Take His Question

Arizonian Jeremy Bowling says he was just as surprised as anyone else when the Russian president answered his question during a TV phone-in.
Arizonian Jeremy Bowling says he was just as surprised as anyone else when the Russian president answered his question during a TV phone-in.

Sprinkled through the four-hour spectacle that President Vladimir Putin's nationally televised call-in show was this year were the usual bread-and-butter questions from Russians: about potholes, delayed salaries, meager pensions, corruption, and the economy.

And then there was "Jeremy" from Mesa, Arizona.

"Hello Mr. Putin," the man, later identified as Jeremy Bowling, said in the video shown during the broadcast that was seen by millions of Russians. "I'm a big supporter. I am pro-Russian. And I wish you health and success in your life. As an American sitting here in America who sees racist Russophobia running crazy in my country, my question is: What advice can you give me to clearly help my fellow Americans understand that Russia is not the enemy?"

For veteran watchers of the show known as Direct Line, which is broadcast almost every year, it was one of the stranger moments in what is already an exercise in odd stagecraft: seemingly the first American since Edward Snowden in 2014 to ask a question of Putin during his TV Q&A.

Speaking to RFE/RL not long after the Russian broadcast finished, Bowling said he had no idea that his video, which he said was prerecorded on June 7 or 8, was being included in the production. No one contacted him from Russia, and he only learned of his appearance when a friend started texting him before dawn, as the show aired half a world away.

'Just Some Dude'

"I'm just some dude in Mesa, Arizona, who's angry and has some things to say," Bowling said. "No, I'm not working for Putin."

A married 46-year-old who has a son and an eclectic online presence of blogs, videos, online radio, and other projects, Bowling said he does not speak Russian, and he's never been to Russia. He said he was brought up, like many Americans coming of age in the 1970s and the 80s, on a typical diet of Cold War stereotypes: a T-shirt that said "Better dead than red;" another that said "Kill a commie for mommy;" and cheering on American boxer Rocky Balboa as he defeated the Russian Ivan Drago in the 1985 Hollywood film Rocky IV.

In 2014, he launched Movie Community College, a video blog on YouTube that for the most part does first-person critiques of various films. Most of the videos have an unmistakable homegrown quality: shot in front of a computer, on a table in what looks like a living or dining room, curtains drawn in the background, Bowling's face prominent on the screen.

A fan of Bollywood cinema, he became drawn to Russian cinema after someone pointed out the historical connections between the two countries' film industries. He said he started watching various Russian films online, including films about the Soviet fight in World War II. He was astounded, he said, by what he didn't know.

'Starting A Dialogue'

Bowling said he "started a dialogue" with people online, first through Facebook, later through the Russian Facebook equivalent VK.

"I started meeting average people. I realized they're just the same as us. They want the same things as us," he said. "I started scratching my head and saying 'Wait a minute, this propping up of Russia as the superpower enemy? I feel like I've been lied to.'"

WATCH: Jeremy Bowling's Question For Vladimir Putin

Bowling, already had a vibrant online presence. A series of podcasts and videos that he hosted was called Remnant X Radio, mixing discussions of religion, history, music, and other subjects. One video from 2012 has him sitting on a couch wearing a T-Shirt, discussing whether it was possible to be a Democrat and a Christian, citing passages from the Bible.

The Movie Community College YouTube channel has 40,000 subscribers. A more recent video posted on June 13 extolls a documentary film about Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula whose annexation by Russia in 2014 sent U.S.-Russian relations into a tailspin. The film, shown on Russia state television, is widely considered a propagandistic whitewash of the events leading up to the annexation.

'Swinging For The Fences'

Facebook page lists Bowling's employer as "revolutionary at Revolutionary movement." He asked not to reveal his real employer fearing harassment from those opposed to his views on Russia. He also has an online radio station called Dark Sky Radio, which is co-hosted by a Russian online station called Radio Trassa.

Bowling said he has been having more and more discussions with Russians via VK and Facebook, and in recent weeks, he said he was encouraged to send a message to Putin, for the upcoming call-in show. His question, submitted via the Kremlin website, was rejected, because he was an American citizen.

A man in an electronics shop in Moscow watches Russian President Vladimir Putin's televised question-and-answer session on June 15.
A man in an electronics shop in Moscow watches Russian President Vladimir Putin's televised question-and-answer session on June 15.

His contacts on VK, meanwhile, seized on the video, which he recorded and posted to his YouTube channel, and, Bowling said, they promised to bring it to the Kremlin's attention.

"I never thought it would, it was like just swing for the fences. I was completely shocked," he said. "The Russian people are incredible."

"Russia is probably now, on a daily basis, half my life, dealing with Russia, with messages or videos or what not," he said. "Russia is part of my everyday life, I guess."

'Treated Unfairly'

In the broadcast, Putin used Bowling's prerecorded question to cast doubt on the growing consensus in Washington and elsewhere that Russia is a strategic threat, or competitor, to the United States.

"I know the mood of our people, we do not consider America to be our enemy," he said. "We see that Russophobia is now developing in the United States. We believe that this is the result primarily of an escalating internal political struggle."

Bowling shares some of that sentiment: He said he believed President Donald Trump was being treated unfairly in the media, and in Congress, mainly because he is "an outsider, a common man"

"I'm just a common dude, I'm not a scholar, I'm not a politician, what I can see is I can see someone who's being treated unfairly," he said.

As his views on Russia have gained attention, Bowling said he has gotten grief and criticism, people asking if he's secretly a Russian agent, or if he's concerned he's on a U.S. government watch list.

Despite this negative reaction, however, he says he intends to keep nurturing his newfound interest in Russia.

"I want to go to Ufa, I want to go to Siberia," he said. "Great people. I know some great people in Ufa."

NOTE: This article has been amended to clarify the fact that Jeremy Bowling is only the second American to have asked Vladimir Putin a question on his phone-in.
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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