"He can already see the history textbooks: Catherine the Great took Crimea, Vlad (the Great?) won it back. Not bad for a 19th-century man."
In his thirteen years as Russia’s most powerful political figure, Putin has appeared around wild animals from tigers to polar bears; at the wheel of all kinds of vehicles, from a military vessel to a strategic bomber; fighting on tatami and riding on horseback. He was an athlete—macho. We’ve seen him on vacation swimming in an energetic butterfly stroke and and in the pool as a daily exercise, with his dog or around other people’s children. On one occasion, he kissed a little boy on his belly for the cameras. What he was not was a family man.
Putin never appeared in public with his family; the Russian people have never even seen either of his two daughters. On the very rare occasions that he even mentioned his daughters, Putin hasn’t said their names—he just refers to them as “they”. His wife Lyudmila barely acted as the First Lady. After the first years of his tenure she stopped accompanying him abroad, and more or less disappeared from the scene. A common half-serious suggestion was that Putin had had her locked in a nunnery—just as the Russian tsars did when they sought to get rid of unwanted tsarinas. Lyudmila Putina’s absence was especially striking at a recent Easter church service, where Putin stood with Dmitri Medvedev, his substitute President and current Prime Minister, and Medvedev’s wife. The trio was then joined by the Moscow mayor Sergei Sobianin. An unknown Photoshop master promptly covered Sobianin’s head with a lacy scarf—so he and Putin would look like a couple. The image was a great hit on social networks.
There has been no traditional role for a leader’s wife in either the U.S.S.R. or the new Russia. Yet some rulers have been more open about their families than others. Coincidentally or not, those leaders who presided over softer or more open regimes were also more likely to show their families to the public. Joseph Stalin addressed the family question in a most radical way: he drove his wife to a suicide and had her relatives executed. He went on with his rule by terror, and was never seen around women. Nikita Khrushchev, who condemned Stalin and released his victims from labor camps, dearly loved his wife. She accompanied her husband on foreign trips, though she could hardly compare with her Western counterparts in elegance. (A joke of the era: “What would happen, if Khrushchev were assassinated instead of Kennedy?…Like hell would Onassis marry Nina Petrovna.”) Their children—a son, a weapons engineer, and a daughter, a journalist—grew up to be modest, decent people. Leonid Brezhnev launched a creeping re-Stalinization; his tenure was associated with persecutions of dissidents and the use of punitive psychiatry. His wife, much like Putin’s, was hidden from public view. Their daughter came to be known for her passion for jewelry and alcohol, and ended her days in a psychiatric asylum. Raisa Gorbacheva was Mikhail Gorbachev’s beloved wife, his friend and his most trusted adviser. She was Russia’s first true First Lady, and an elegant one at that. She was also widely resented by the Soviet people for everything—her outfits, her assertiveness, her influence over her husband. But even the most resentful couldn’t help being moved by Gorbachev’s deep grief over her death. Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first President, who gave his nation a promise of democracy, had a large and loving family. His wife wouldn’t interfere with government affairs, but her charm on some occasions worked to soften the hard public feelings toward her husband.
Putin came in, and the promise of democracy is all but gone. As the regime hardens and elements of Soviet-style governance are brought back, the leader’s family is no longer in sight. But Putin’s cultivation of a virile image, combined with his de facto singlehood, soon generated rumors that he was involved with a younger woman—a former rhythmic gymnastics champion turned lawmaker. A Russian tabloid that dared publish this gossip, was promptly forced to close. But foreign tabloids (the New York Post among them) have also reported that Putin has had a child, and perhaps two, with the former gymnast.
Asked about such rumors by an Italian reporter back in 2008, Putin said they were an outright lie, adding an angry remark about “those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others’ lives.” The TV journalist who on Thursday got the first-hand information about Putin’s divorce did not ask an obvious question: Are you seeing somebody else? This was not part of the script. (Putin’s press spokesman said on Friday that Putin does not have any new marital plans; he went even further to say that there’s no other woman in Vladimir Putin’s life.)
A dramatic toughening of Putin’s anti-liberal policies in recent years has given a boost to social conservatism in Russia. As it happened, just as Putin made public his plans to divorce his wife, a Duma lawmaker, Elena Mizulina, came up with a new legislative initiative: to revive traditional family values, she suggested a kind of “immorality fee”—a federal tax on divorce. What Mizulina most likely thought of as a timely and loyal act—she is a Putinist—suddenly looked like a faux pas.
Photograph of Putin and former gymnast Alina Kabayeva by ITAR-TASS/Presidential Press Service/Getty.