This is how it happens: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila go out for a quiet evening at the ballet and, in an interview with a camera crew in a hallway with fake plants, announce that they have gotten a divorce, a month shy of their thirtieth anniversary.
And yet, it’s the happiest we’ve seen Lyudmila in years. In part, that’s because we haven’t seen much of her in years. She was conspicuously absent from this year’s official Easter service, prompting jokes that Putin had made the mayor of Moscow his wife. There were rumors that she had been locked into a convent in the western Russian city of Pskov, there were rumors that she was drugged, rumors that she was dead—which, when you saw her stand swaying and blankly blinking through Putin’s third inauguration last year, were more than believable.
For many years, it was an open secret in Moscow that Putin had taken up with former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. A few years ago, she had a son—which she recently claimed was her nephew—and there were reports in January that she’d had a baby daughter, presumably with Putin. Then, of course, there were the rumors that Putin had moved on from Kabaeva to a former basketball star. Putin’s athleticism, it seemed, knew no bounds.
It did not appear to have been a happy marriage. There were stories from Dresden, where Putin had been stationed as a middling KGB agent during the '80s, of abuse and philandering. When Putin was named Yeltsin’s successor in January 1999, Lyudmila was said to have cried through the night. Her fears seem to have been realized today when Lyudmila said that one of the reasons for the divorce was that “Vladimir Vladimirovich was always working” and that “we hardly ever see each other.”
An odd moment in the announcement came when Putin mentioned his confirmed children, two adult daughters whom we’ve never really seen, though there were reports in 2010 that one of them was marrying the son of a South Korean admiral. (You’ll notice that this very article is riddled with the words “rumors” and “reports,” which is indicative of how different a role—from our American expectations—the first family plays in Russia.) Putin volunteered that his children “got their education in Russia and live in Russia permanently.” It was a strange statement for the president of a country, unless that country is Russia, where children of the elites tend to live in Europe. Their fathers’ occupation—plundering the country—is a dangerous one, and tends to make Russia poor and thus not a great place to live for anyone. And it’s just more convenient to have your wife and kids living near your money, safely stashed in a Western bank.
Which brings me to my last point. By Russian law, half the wealth accrued in a marriage goes to the wife in a divorce. Vladimir Putin, by most accounts, er, rumors, is one of the wealthiest men in the world. But there are a couple sticking points here. A Kremlin pool reporter once told me that Russian oligarchs are not truly oligarchs, “they merely work as oligarchs.” Meaning, they are human offshores for Putin’s wealth. (They also pay dividends, but in a "Sopranos"-style fashion, buying him yachts and chipping in for his billion-dollar beach house. Rumoredly.)
Officially, of course, Putin made just $177,000 last year. And Lyudmila Putin, as the old Russian saying goes, will never see that money just like she’ll never see her own ears.