Feature

Russia: The Putins call it quits

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife announced they were getting an amicable, “civilized” divorce.

Why now? asked William Langley in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). In a stilted, obviously staged encounter with a journalist at a ballet performance last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, announced they were getting an amicable, mutually agreed upon, nobody’s fault, “civilized” divorce. It’s not news that the two aren’t happy—after all, Lyudmila once described her husband as a vampire, while Vlad said that anyone who could last three weeks with his wife deserved a monument. In their stiffly rehearsed announcement, Lyudmila noted that the two barely saw each other anymore since, she said, “my husband is completely immersed in his work, and the children are grown up.” Yet that just avoids the question. After all, the Putins “have scowled and borne it for the best part of 30 years, gamely adhering to Tolstoy’s maxim that what counts in a marriage is not how compatible you are, but how you deal with the incompatibility.” So what has changed to make them suddenly crave the single life?

Lyudmila Putina hated being First Lady, said Tatyana Stanovaya in Politcom.ru. The role isn’t hugely taxing, but you do have to show yourself occasionally. Naina Yeltsina, Boris Yeltsin’s wife, chose to simply act as “a loving comrade in arms,” while Svetlana Medvedeva, Dmitry Medvedev’s wife, “demonstrated a certain amount of public activity”—even though neither approached the dynamism of Raisa Gorbacheva, who was a Western-style First Lady doing charity work and giving speeches even back in the Soviet era. Putina, by contrast, “doesn’t exist as a presence in Russian politics.” Still, the real reason for the divorce may be Putin’s supposed relationship with Alina Kabaeva, a 30-year-old former Olympic gymnast who is now a member of the Duma from Putin’s party. There are rumors that Putin already has one or more children with her, and many believe he wants to marry her in order to have a dynamic young beauty by his side to co-host the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Putin’s spokesman, though, said there are no such plans. “The president is married to the country,” he insists.

It will be fascinating to see how the Russian Orthodox Church “will contort itself to approve” this divorce, said Stanislav Belkovsky in Moskovsky Komsomolets (Russia). While the church doesn’t absolutely prohibit divorce, it does require a very good reason for one; “Lyudmila was sick of all the rumors” doesn’t quite hack it. But in the end it will approve. Putin’s Kremlin has been a powerful ally to the church, which looks favorably on his campaign to return the country to traditional values.

Meanwhile, Russians are enjoying the gossip tremendously, said Victor Davidoff in The Moscow Times. Twitter feeds are clogged with jokes. One holds that every delegate from Putin’s party “decided to follow the president’s example: All members filed for divorce from their wives.” Another said “Medvedev will marry Lyudmila but will divorce her after four years, and Putin will remarry her,” a reference to Medvedev’s brief interlude as placeholder president so Putin could run for another term. More stinging was this one: “Lyudmila is the only Russian who managed to liberate herself from Putin.”

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