MOSCOW -- Fish.
The issues raised by journalists at President Vladimir Putin's hours-long press conference were predictably eclectic, ranging from his upcoming reelection campaign to the war in Ukraine; from the economy to GPS trackers on cows.
But it was one man's emotionally charged question about fish that stole the show at a sometimes surreal but generally humdrum event that saw Russian journalists occasionally applauding the president and at one point jeering a Ukrainian colleague.
Over two hours into the proceedings, Mikhail Zub's long, impassioned question about fish processing drew on extraordinarily detailed industry statistics and culminated in a call to the president to create the conditions for cheaper consumer fish prices. The monologue and accompanying question were made all the more memorable by its juxtaposition with one of the few genuinely tough questions of the day.
Just moments before, Ekho Moskvy deputy chief editor Tatyana Felgengauer, who was recently attacked in her newsroom by a knife-wielding intruder, had asked why Kremlin allies and the opposition are treated entirely differently in the eyes of the law.
Citing a string of resonant cases, she noted how a key witness in the murder of slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov has not been questioned by police and state oil-company chief executive Igor Sechin last month was able to repeatedly ignore court summonses to testify at a major corruption trial.
She contrasted that with the jailing of the brother of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and the charges against a Moscow theater's prominent, opposition-minded artistic director, as well as a string of cases of Russians being jailed for sharing posts on social networks.
Although the question received a ripple of applause, Putin rejected outright the notion of "different legal realities," quickly declining to go into most of the cases, which he passed off as a matter for Russia's courts.
Now Let's Talk Fish
Enter Zub, who was given the microphone after being picked out of the crowd by Putin.
The gray-haired Zub, in a smart suit and casting himself as a journalist for the publication Consumer, thanked Putin for the government's "systemic approach" to fish exports and for a congress in 2015 in which he said fish were recognized as a "national treasure."
But, moving along with dismay, he noted perceived "contradictions" in the fish industry, becoming increasingly worked up as he spoke over the course of four minutes.
Referencing highly obscure regulations and official resolutions governing the fish-processing sector, Zub asked about limits imposed on fishing investor quotas for processing companies.
He then reached beneath his seat to produce a 400-page tome that he had brought to flesh out his question.
Next, he confessed theatrically that he was not a journalist but actually chairman of the board of directors of a Murmansk fish factory and therefore an interloper at the conference.
As Putin replied that "that is bad," Zub grew louder and more emotional, agreeing that it was "bad." Finally, as the audience began to clap at the surreal episode, he shouted: "Fish costs 300 rubles! Fish should cost the same as chicken! Why are we tormenting people?"
"Do what you like with me! Yes, I came here illegally!" he shouted, before sitting down to a hall full of applause.
In response, Putin politely joked he would avoid the details of the fishing industry so as not to bore the audience.
A Fishy Performance?
Some Russians on social media praised Zub but suggested his appearance looked like a setup, considering the great difficulties journalists endure getting past security and asking questions.
"Well done.... But it's a bit suspicious.... He made it in not as a journalist.... And managed to ask a question.... Doubly lucky?? Hmm.... Really lucky?!?"
One Twitter user posted video of Zub's question, writing: "The real hero of the press conference. BRAVO!"
Meanwhile, elsewhere on Twitter, Felgengauer was posting a photograph of her face after receiving Putin's seemingly evasive reply to her question with the caption: "My face when I'm told that everyone is equal before the law and let the courts decide."