Vladimir Putin’s Potemkin Love Life

MOSCOW – From Russia with love? Not in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In recent days, Putin decided to reaffirm the Russian-Syrian geopolitical marriage of convenience by following through on a sale of deadly arms to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, enabling Assad’s army to slay his opponents with greater precision and resolve. Putin then decided to disavow his own marriage to Lyudmila Shkrebneva, his wife of 29 years, announcing the divorce in as publicly humiliating a way as possible – his wife was standing by his side – for a reserved Russian woman.

For years, rumors had persisted about the failed state of Putin’s marriage. His alleged mistresses were named and proclaimed; one, it is said, sits in the Duma (parliament) as a member of Putin’s tame political party United Russia. But, until now, it was taboo to discuss Putin’s private life publically. A few newspaper editors, indeed, have been known to lose their jobs for publishing even the slightest hints about Putin’s family life.

Vladimir and Lyudmila have rarely been seen together over the past decade, so there was plenty of gossip in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. A few years ago, social media stoked rumors that Putin was in fact already divorced and had remarried the gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who had given birth to his son. (He has two grown daughters, twins, with Lyudmila.)

So the appearance of the couple together at a ballet in the Kremlin was a unique event, and Putin milked it for all it was worth. A journalist, probably in connivance with Putin, had the temerity to ask him about the state of his marriage. He said it was over, with his stone-faced wife on hand to confirm with a silence that spoke louder than words.