From Russia, Without Love: Vladimir Putin Divorces Wife Lyudmila

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On Thursday evening, the Russian public got the news of President Vladimir Putin’s divorce the same way they have gotten every fact about his private life — spoon-fed to them in tiny, measured and rather tasteless doses. The First Couple of the Kremlin made the announcement on national television while dressed in formal wear, with the stiffness of wax statuettes and the careful orchestration of the ballet they had just finished watching. It was meant to be a rare bit of candor from a man whose government has guarded his family affairs as closely as the codes in his nuclear suitcase. But it mostly served to reaffirm the rule Russians have long gotten used to: everything about Putin’s life is a secret unless he dictates otherwise.

The scripted statement, which Putin made alongside his former wife Lyudmila, was broadcast on the Kremlin’s mouthpiece television channel, Rossiya 24. It was made to a lone reporter who acted as though she just happened to catch them walking out of a performance of the ballet Esmeralda at the Kremlin’s private theater. The reporter rattled off a few questions about what they had thought of the music, the dancing and the choreography, and Putin answered as if himself eager for her to get to the point. Finally, she did. “You show up in public so rarely, and there are rumors that you don’t live together. Is that true or not?” The couple exchanged a knowing glance before Putin stated. “Well, it is so.”

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The reason, he said, was the overwhelming limelight that comes with public office and which “some people” simply cannot bear. He made it clear that it was his wife who could not bear all the publicity, although Putin has always been the one to snap like a bulldog when journalists pry into his love life. The first and clearest lesson on that score came in April 2008, when a Russian newspaper ran a story claiming Putin had left his wife to marry a 24-year-old Olympic gymnast named Alina Kabaeva, a member of the parliament for Putin’s political party.

The newspaper, Moskovsky Korrespondent, cited a source close to the wedding planner, who claimed that Putin had officially divorced his wife two months before. Asked to respond to the claims at a press conference, Putin went on one of his most often cited tirades. “I am, of course, aware of the hackneyed phrase and stamp that politicians live in a glass house,” he said. “But even in these cases, there must be some limits … I always thought badly of those who go around with their erotic fantasies sticking their snot-ridden noses into another person’s life.”

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Within hours, the publisher of Moskovsky Korrespondent shut the paper down, claiming it had been “loss-making,” and the Russia media learned a none-too-subtle lesson about violating Putin’s privacy. That lesson has been so effective that to this day, the Russian public does not even know what Putin’s adult daughters look like. Forget the chatty TV appearances and photo shoots of Sasha and Malia Obama, the daughters of the U.S. President. The Kremlin has never released a single picture of Putin’s daughters in adulthood. All we know for sure is that they are named Maria and Ekaterina and were born in 1985 and 1986, respectively. It is not even known whether they are married or to whom, and that is no trivial piece of information in Russia considering the corruption scandals that surrounded the son-in-law of Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

But that does not mean the Russian masses have muddled along in total ignorance. Within the vacuum left by Putin’s silence, an entire ecosystem of rumors and unconfirmed reports have taken shape, forming the basis of Putin lore. Central to these fables for years has been the assumption that Putin is a lady’s man, who separated from Lyudmila years ago. All of this was based on circumstantial evidence and speculation. For instance, the last time Putin and his wife appeared alone before a television camera, during a census count in 2010, Lyudmila meekly identified herself as Putin’s wife but was clearly not wearing a wedding ring.

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And so the rumor mill churned away until Thursday evening, when Putin’s moment of grudging truthfulness arrived. “Lyudmila Alexandrovna mentioned our children,” he said, tellingly using her name and patronymic, the formal manner of address more often used for elders and strangers. “We love them very much. We are very proud of them. They have indeed grown up. Their lives are unfolding. And by the way, they got their education in Russia and live in Russia on a permanent basis.”

This last point was perhaps the funniest to politicos watching at home. Hardly a week goes by without another member of the Russian political elite having to defend the fact that his or her children live or study abroad, an indictment of the motherland that can be costly for a patriot’s career. On that score, Putin’s announcement was meant to budge the mountain of suspicion that his daughters have long shipped out to greener pastures. So then, any more doubts? Any more questions? Whom is Putin seeing now? Any new love interests? Any more children we should know about? Maybe years from now, if Putin feels he’s ready to share, the world might learn a few details. Until then, the old lesson for the Russian public holds: pry at your peril, and know what you’re told.

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