Like all the best pronouncements from a world leader, it began with the ballet Esmeralda.
Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila had just enjoyed a night at the Bolshoi – so, how did they like the show? “Excellent. Wonderful music and staging. They are very talented,” said Putin. “Our ballet has reached new heights of perfection,” added Putina with a shy flourish. Oh yes, and why do we never see you two in the same room any more? Is it true you live separate lives? “Yes. It is,” replied Putin, smiling sadly. And so the Russian President announced the end of his 29-year marriage to the world.
It is a first for the Kremlin, which has always kept the private lives of leaders strictly contained within its red walls. Although it is not quite the coup for the Vesti journalist that it seems. Putin’s iron grip on the media means that this casual Q&A with the state-owned broadcaster was almost certainly a set-up. For years, the Putins have made only rare, awkward outings together. Rumours of the President’s affair with the Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, 30, are rife.
It is still the strangest bombshell-drop I’ve seen – and this in the week of Michael Douglas’s thunderbolt about oral sex giving him cancer. Given Putin’s penchant for a stunt, we should perhaps be thankful that he didn’t leap into the orchestra pit and start growling out “D.I.V.O.R.C.E” at the piano. Next up, Putin pardons Pussy Riot during a spot of post-match analysis at Spartak Moscow.
The reality is hardly less bizarre. That ambush atmosphere – the Putins marooned in a marble hall, Lyudmila still clutching her handbag. The formal way they use each other’s full names like characters in Anna Karenina’s salon. Strangest of all, those baldly honest reasons. “All my work is linked to being in public. Some like that, some do not and some are completely incompatible with this,” said he. “We practically never see each other. I really do not like publicity. And flying is difficult for me,” said she.
None of the usual “we’ve grown apart” fudge. Simply – we do not and cannot share our lives any longer. “You can say it is a civilised divorce,” said Putina finally. No arguing with that and no questions please – this is a private matter. It is both oddly admirable and deeply sad to watch.
* On the topic of interviews, they have had something of a bad press this week, thanks to the actor Rhys Ifans who was rude, sweary and obstructive in one with The Times, finally dismissing the journalist with “I wanna end this interview now. I’m bored with you. Bored. Bored.”
Of course, a bad interview like this is anything but. It is newspaper gold. Bruising encounters, while not necessarily enjoyable at the time, are something to be proud of - battle scars from the feature-writing frontline. They certainly stick in your mind longer than the nice ones. My oddest interview to date was with the Hollywood star Tobey Maguire, currently on screen as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Ushered into a suite at The Dorchester on a Sunday afternoon for a precious 25 minutes of chat about Spider-Man 3, I was greeted by many flunkies and a tiny figure sitting on a giant sofa, with his eyes closed.
"I'm a little tired out", he whispered, peepers firmly clamped. "I'll answer all of your questions perfectly… I just can't keep my eyes open." It had been a long, hard day of questions about the new, Spidey suit and doing his own stunts, after all. And so we pressed on, me firing questions at the sleepy superhero’s eyelids, while trying not to laugh. I didn’t care – I had the opening lines for my feature right there. And now look, some closing words for a column, too.