Thursday saw Russian President Vladimir Putin conducting his “direct line” public question and answer session for the first time since the start of his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. All of the received text messages and questions to Putin have typically gone through several levels of scrutiny and censorship before they are unveiled and answered publicly.

Hundreds of written questions were put forward for consideration via a website moskva-putinu.ru, the social networks VK and Odnoklassniki, with text messages and calls through a free hotline. Most questions came from outside the major cities and mainly drew attention to the failure of local authorities to deal with parochial issues.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that Putin had attended a briefing prior to the meeting during which he claimed citizens had asked questions about the “difficult international situation and the ‘special military operation.’” There were not supposed to be any hidden shocks.

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It caused some surprise among commentators, therefore, when several apparently unregulated, angry text messages flashed up on the big blue screens behind Putin as he spoke. He seemed unaware that irate Russians had broken through the Kremlin’s firewall.

The texts included questions such as:

“When will Russians stop killing Russians?”

“How long will we tolerate Gazprom’s corruption?”

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Putin last week said Moscow would only join peace talks if Ukraine gave up four of its regions, effectively demanding that it surrender.

“How do we get to the Russia they keep telling us about on Channel One?”

“Why is gas getting more expensive?”

“Who will be president of the Russian Federation after you?”

“Why does your reality differ from ours?”

At one point during the press conference, an AI image of Putin appeared and asked a question that referenced claims that doubles were standing in for him: “Mister President, good afternoon, I am a student studying at St Petersburg Institute. I’d like to ask you if it’s true that you have many doubles?”

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The question was met with laughter and after a brief pause Putin replied: “You may resemble me and speak with my voice. But… there is only one person who must speak with my voice – and that’s me.”

Speculation began immediately about whether one of the censors had gone rogue and was letting messages that seemed to criticize the government through. Peskov and his team claimed that the appearance of awkward questions was evidence that Russia was not the dictatorship the West claimed.

“This clearly shows that the organizers are trying to minimize any censorship,” said Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin speech writer.

Others believe it was yet another example of the regime’s use of disinformation directed at ordinary citizens to show their president is a “true democrat” ahead of the March presidential election – since Putin especially wants to be loved by his people.

The same sort of thing happened during his 2017 Q&A when critical messages were posted on the live feed which then, as now, focused on domestic issues and policies. The BBC quoted several individuals who worked for the Kremlin at that time, and they all said the questions and “complaints” had been pre-approved.

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The dictator’s love of duplicity is well known, suggesting the criticisms during Thursday’s session were simply part of a Kremlin disinformation ploy. If not, then some Russians may be receiving a knock at the door shortly with some difficult questions of their own to answer.

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