MOSCOW: Russians reeled Friday from the shock announcement by President Vladimir Putin that his 30-year marriage was over, a break-up that was long an open secret but few imagined would ever be made public.
In a highly choreographed joint interview with state television after attending a ballet together, Putin’s wife Lyudmila said they were having a “civilised divorce” and revealed that the pair hardly ever saw each other.
Lyudmila said she was grateful to Putin for supporting her, while Putin praised the fact she had “stood guard” for the almost nine years he has served as president.
“We are always going to be very close to each other. I am sure, forever,” said the Russian strongman.
It was an extraordinarily frank statement for any Russian politician, whose private lives are generally out of bounds. But particularly for Putin, who lives in such secrecy that he has never been officially photographed with his two adult daughters.
The announcement unleashed speculation about whether Putin is seeing another woman, a subject that has so far been taboo.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the 60-year-old president was planning to remarry, telling the Echo of Moscow radio station: “I can say for sure that this is more about rumours and tittle-tattle.”
The Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper, owned by tycoon Alexander Lebedev, reported in 2008 that Putin was about to marry Olympic gymnast turned legislator Alina Kabayeva, 31 years his junior. The paper then denied its own story and was closed by its owner.
Peskov said Putin’s packed schedule means “his life is not linked in any way to any family relations.”
The reason for the timing of the announcement is unclear.
The carefully choreographed revelation may be aimed at improving Putin’s image as a man wedded to his job at a time of challenges from opposition protests and increased Internet scrutiny of his life.
In May in a public phone-in, Putin said his work was his “whole life. I don’t know if that is enough for happiness.”
Lyudmila, 55, a former flight attendant, revealed in their interview that she disliked flying and was averse to publicity, factors that had made the marriage impossible.
Kommersant business daily headlined its story “Civilised divorce”, saying that the couple suffered from “incompatibility of life rhythms”.
His spokesman said the couple had not yet filed for divorce, asking for respect for their privacy.
On Friday the story dominated the Internet, with many praising Putin for speaking frankly.
“This is all honest, without falseness,” wrote Kremlin loyalist daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on its website.
“What is sensational is that what everyone guessed has been officially confirmed,” wrote Moskovsky Komsomolets daily on its website.
“Putin very rarely acts honestly. The announcement about divorce is honest,” wrote former cabinet minister turned opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on Facebook.
“For years I heard how good it would be if Putin told the truth and divorced. What now? Everyone is criticising him for divorcing. That’s low,” said television host and protest activist Ksenia Sobchak on Twitter. Her father was Putin’s mentor in politics while Leningrad mayor.
Putin is now “the country’s most eligible bachelor”, journalist Andrei Kolesnikov, who has close access to the Kremlin, joked on his Russky Pioneer magazine website.
Putin and Lyudmila have been seen together extremely rarely in the last few years and their last public appearance seems to date back to May 2012 after Putin was inaugurated for a third term in office.
In recent years Putin has usually appeared at official functions, including foreign visits, alone — even when the presence of the first lady was expected according to protocol.
Putin, who was then working as a KGB agent, married Lyudmila Shkrebneva in July 1983, before he started his posting as a spy in the East German city of Dresden in 1985.
They first met in Putin’s home city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) when Lyudmila came for a short visit with a girlfriend. A friend introduced them.
According to his biography on his official website, Putin proposed three years later.
“I knew that if I did not get married in two or three years, then I never would,” Putin is quoted as saying unromantically.