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Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin taboo: Russian President announces divorce after 30-year marriage

Wife says President is 'completely overloaded with work'

In an awkward joint interview on state television, given after a rare public outing together, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila announced that they have separated.

The couple were interviewed by Russian state television at the Bolshoi Theatre, and after answering several questions about how they enjoyed the ballet they had just seen, the interviewer asked a surprise question: "You are so rarely seen together and there are rumours that you are no longer together. Is that true?"

"Yes, it is," answered Mr Putin, after a short pause. He added that his work as President meant he was hardly ever at home.

"I agree with the words of Vladimir Vladimirovich, and it was a joint decision," said Ms Putina, using the formal patronymic version of Mr Putin's name that is usually reserved for strangers or social superiors. Mr Putin referred to her in the same way, calling her "Lyudmila Alexandrovna".

That Mr Putin and his wife no longer live together came as no surprise to Moscow political circles, where rumours of their separation have been rife for years, but the public announcement was unexpected.

Mr Putin's private life has long been a taboo subject for Russian journalists and there is no doubt that the question was planted, rather than asked on the reporter's own initiative.

"Our marriage is over," said Ms Putina. "Vladimir Vladimirovich is completely overloaded with work, our children have grown up, each one of us has our own life… We almost never see each other."

"I'm scared to say the word, but is it a divorce?" asked the interviewer. Ms Putina said it was a "civilised divorce", though it is unclear if they have divorced on paper.

Ms Putina is a former Aeroflot air hostess, and married Mr Putin in 1983, shortly before he was posted to East Germany with the KGB. In recent years, the pair have been seen together more and more rarely. State television has aired occasional choreographed outings that the couple undertook in order to prove that they were still together, but they usually had the opposite effect, as the obvious awkwardness between them only prompted further speculation.

There has been repeated speculation that Mr Putin was engaged in an affair with the former gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who is now an MP for the pro-Putin United Russia party.

The Kremlin has always denied the rumours, but there was immediate speculation that the announcement might be the first step towards Mr Putin presenting a new wife or partner to the public. Ms Kabaeva turned 30 last month and was the subject of an hour-long documentary on Russia's Channel One recently, in which she said she did not have any children but would like to have them.

A Moscow newspaper owned by Alexander Lebedev, the current financial backer of The Independent, published a story in 2008 stating that Mr Putin had divorced and planned to marry gymnast Alina Kabayeva. Mr Putin vigorously denied the story, hitting out at journalists who "prowl into others' lives" with "snotty noses and erotic fantasies". The newspaper was closed down shortly afterwards.

The Putins said that they remain "close" to each other and Ms Putina thanked her former husband for his "support" of her and their two daughters, who are both in their late 20s. Their girls are meticulously shielded from the public limelight, though there are frequent rumours that both live abroad. But Mr Putin denied this, saying that both of them live in Russia.