As Russian president Vladimir Putin takes flack at the G8 Summit this week for his controversial international positions, his country is still in shock over one recent domestic decision. On June 6, Putin and his wife Lyudmila Putina announced on national television that they’re getting divorced. While a separation was long suspected, their divorce news is both unprecedented in Russia’s political history and entirely unexpected for a couple as personally reserved as the Putins. After 30 years of marriage, 55-year-old Lyudmila is now beginning a new life as a divorcée. Kremlin-watchers around the world are guessing where she’ll go from here — but first we have to figure out, quite literally, where she’s been.
Lyudmila Putina has been notoriously absent from the political stage. For months after Putin was named Boris Yeltsin’s successor to the presidency, Lyudmila did not once speak publicly. Joking about her lack of appearances, Putin pointed out, “[Tony Blair] brought his spouse over here [to Russia], whereas I am taking key ministers to London.” The Putina biography Fragile Friendships, published in 2001 by former confidante Irene Pietsch, reported that Putina has no desire to take an active role in her husband’s politics. “I will never be like Raisa Gorbacheva,” Putina told Pietsch, referring to the unusually outgoing first lady of the Soviet Union who was admired abroad but criticized domestically. She followed through on that promise — the couple’s divorce pronouncement was one of only three times Putin and his wife appeared together over the past few years. Her absence has been so pronounced that many in Russia theorize she’s been cloistered in a monastery.
Pietsch’s book also offered a rare glimpse into the couple’s strained private life, as Putina confessed about her husband, “He is a vampire.” Putin, meanwhile, told Pietsch that she deserved a monument for surviving three weeks with his wife. In the decade since Fragile Friendships’ publication, Russians have relied on word of mouth to keep them informed of their president’s private life. Citizens have gossiped for years that Putin was sleeping with his lingerie-model personal photographer Yana Lapikova, had an affair with notorious spy Anna Chapman, and fathered children with gymnast Alina Kabaeva. The rumor mill sped up this winter, when the Putins spent both Christmas and Lyudmila’s birthday apart. (Gossip like this stays whispered, not printed, in Russia. In 2008 when daily newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent claimed Putin left his wife for Kabaeva, Putin responded, “I always thought badly of those who go around with their erotic fantasies sticking their snot-ridden noses into another person's life.” The Korrespondent was shuttered by its publisher that same day.)
In the wake of the Putins’ unprecedented news, many Russians have scorned the president and sympathized with his ex-wife in the same breath. “Poor Lyudmila — if you read her biography, you understand that Putin is incapable of love,” said one young man from St. Petersburg. “He lives in a terrarium full of snakes.” A man from the provinces put his reaction to the news more plainly: “Lyudmila bore his children, fixed his breakfasts, and did everything for him, but still Putin threw her away. By announcing this divorce, Putin took a shit as big as this country.”
So where will newly admired Lyudmila go? Perhaps she’ll move to the Netherlands, where, it’s said, her elder daughter Maria lives. Perhaps she’ll go to Germany, where she and Putin started their family in the 1980s. Perhaps she’ll go back to her roots as an Aeroflot stewardess: the Soviet national airline she served on before marrying remains contemporary Russia’s largest airline, and her distaste for public niceties will serve her well as a member of its notoriously unfriendly team. Or perhaps she’ll simply return to her rumored home in that monastery, where she won’t have to bother with state visits, G8 summits, or “snot-ridden” press conferences ever again.