Putin’s marriage is finished, but the rumours are far from over

World Focus

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At around 8pm on Thursday, the Russian news wires flashed up an announcement that Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila had gone to the theatre to see the ballet La Esmeralda.

When the Russian leader is filmed rolling in the snow with huskies, nuzzling a horse or guiding a flock of birds from a microlight, there is often an expression of unfettered joy and excitement on his face, and an easy swagger about his movements. In the few outings he has made with Lyudmila recently, most notably an excruciating televised appearance to fill out the Russia-wide census in 2010, he has exhibited all the natural ease of a Madame Tussauds waxwork.

These periodic Kremlin attempts to show that rumours of the couple’s separation and Mr Putin’s alleged extra-curricular activities were false backfired spectacularly. For some time, it has not taken a specialist in body language to observe that all is not well in the House of Putin.

The joint trip to the ballet appeared to be another attempt to keep the charade up, but then two hours later, its real purpose became clear. “Today, Yuri Bashmet put on a production of the ballet La Esmeralda in the State Kremlin Palace, based on Victor Hugo’s novel,” droned the presenter on state-controlled television, in a spectacular case of what journalists call “burying the lead”. She continued: “Among the viewers were President Vladimir Putin and his wife.” There followed clips of the ballet, and two minutes of discussion about the ballet techniques and how the couple had enjoyed it. Then, suddenly: “You so rarely appear in public together, and there are rumours that you don’t live together. Is it true?”

Mr Putin drew a sharp intake of breath, but he did not look surprised, mainly because the question clearly had been planted. Every Russian journalist has known for years that it would be the end of their career if they dared to ask this question. This time, however, Mr Putin nodded that yes, they were splitting up. In awkward responses, the couple said that they never see each other any more, and agreed that they had completed a “civilised divorce”.

The Russian blogosphere erupted in collective cackling. “The whole cabinet has announced they will be immediately divorcing their wives,” was one popular joke. There were some voices of sympathy. Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite turned opposition activist, said it was hypocritical to castigate Mr Putin for doing what many had said he should do all along. “For years, I’ve heard people say that it would be good if Putin told the truth and divorced,” she wrote. “And what now? Everyone is criticising him. It looks a bit pathetic.” Among the public at large, his ratings are not likely to be hit by the news. Although he has championed family values, divorce rates in Russia are high.

Indeed, if there was schadenfreude in the air, it was mainly over the absurdity of the charade that went on for so long. For years, Ms Putina has cut something of a tragic figure, and ever more extraordinary rumours began to surface about her – that she had been confined to a nunnery, or dispatched to a clinic in Western Europe to receive treatment for unspecified illnesses.

In official interviews, it was clear that all was not well. “I don’t make plans any more,” she said in 2001, the year after her husband first became President. “Before, I used to make them, and then when they didn’t work out, it was always very painful and depressing. Then I realised that it was easiest not to make any plans, and then you wouldn’t be disappointed.”

What is surprising is that the couple chose to announce their split publicly. Why now? Is he preparing to make public a relationship that he has denied existed with the former gymnast Alina Kabaeva? Rumours have long swirled that the pair have a child, or even two children, together, but the one Russian newspaper to publish a story on the alleged relationship was closed down soon after, and the only reporter to ask Mr Putin was told that journalists should keep their “snotty noses and erotic fantasies” out of his life. Ms Kabaeva turned 30 last month, and recently told a Russian television programme that she had found the man of her dreams, but refused to name him.