THE BIG READ: Russia without love
Lyudmila Putin once described her husband as a vampire. He suggested that anyone who could put up with her for three weeks deserved a national monument. What could go wrong for Russia's first couple?
While the announcement last week that they are to divorce had the surprise quotient of a snowfall in Red Square, many Russians were intrigued by its timing. The Putins have scowled and borne it for the best part of 30 years, gamely adhering to Tolstoy's maxim that what counts in a marriage "is not how compatible you are, but how you deal with the incompatibility", and even making the occasional joint appearance.
One was last Thursday evening at the State Ballet's performance of La Esmeralda. As they emerged into the Moscow night, the pair were approached by a TV reporter who asked whether it was true that they had separated.
"That's right," the 60-year-old president replied perkily, while Madame Putin, appearing faintly dazed, added: "Our marriage is over due to the fact that we hardly see each other."
The episode was so clearly staged - so tasteless in its execution - that it has merely fed the sense that something else is going on.
The prevailing theory is that both Putins, particularly Lyudmila, thought it was time to clear up things. The gossip at Moscow dinner tables had reached an embarrassing pitch, with stories of Mrs Putin living in an underground nunnery on the Estonian border, and her husband supposedly involved with Alina Kabaeva, a 30-year-old, half-Tatar gymnast, said to be possessed of "incredible flexibility."
Not that Lyudmila hasn't bent in every direction to accommodate her difficult and despotic husband.
Their fateful first encounter happened, improbably, at a comedy show in St Petersburg (then Leningrad), when she was a student and he a KGB goon.
The farmer's daughter and the policeman's son married in 1983, and soon afterwards were posted to the KGB station in Dresden in East Germany. This seems to have been when Lyudmila first questioned whether she had made the right choice of husband.
In the only known biography of her, by journalist Oleg Blotsky, she fumes that Vladimir thought a wife "should know her place and do all the housework herself". Seven months pregnant with the couple's second daughter, she was expected to lug all the shopping and supplies up several flights of stairs to their dingy tower block apartment.
Things didn't improve greatly when the Putins returned to Leningrad, with the old Soviet Union collapsing around them. In 1990 Lyudmila was involved in a car crash that left her in agony with several fractures. Vladimir - by now the city's deputy mayor - was busy showing US television tycoon Ted Turner around, and allegedly sent a junior aide to the hospital with a bunch of flowers.
He wasn't entirely without good points. According to Irene Pietsch, a German friend of Madame Putin, who has written an account of their conversations, Lyudmila listed them as: "He doesn't drink or beat me up." She nevertheless described him as "a vampire who has sucked the juices out of me".
With Putin's rise to power, the strains in the relationship became ever more obvious. The Russian "first lady" has no formal or constitutional role and, according to Sergei Markov, a Moscow University lecturer and adviser to Putin, most Russians find the Western habit of having leaders' wives trailing around summits and conferences embarrassing. "The further they are in the background and the less we know about them, the better," he says.
So Lyudmila stayed out of the limelight, and, until last week, Putin, too, stuck to the agreed script - telling journalists to keep their "snotty noses" out of his private affairs.
Yet it was clear that the pseudo-personality cult he was building around himself - strutting bare-chested and heavily armed around the grounds of his dacha, skiing down volcanoes and squaring up to polar bears - afforded little room to his wife. As well as Alina, he was linked with photographer Yana Lapikova, and former Kremlin spy-turned-lingerie-model Anna Chapman. The rumours swirling around Moscow last week suggest that a new match will soon be announced, and even that a baby Putin is on the way somewhere.
If life has been difficult for the president's wife, it is unlikely to be much easier as his ex. Tatyana Ogorodnikova, author of the bestselling novel A Marriage Contract, about Russian women abandoned by their powerful husbands, says the perils include poverty, boredom and loss of freedom.
"Very often," she says, "these women have been treated as baubles. Their husbands effectively owned them, and used them as stage props for their own interests. They were not allowed to have any lives of their own, and then they are dumped in favour of younger, more beautiful or more interesting replacements, given miserly divorce settlements, and left to get on with it."
Lyudmila's appearance at the ballet is almost certain to be the last she makes in public. If there's one last thing the ill-starred couple can agree on, it is that there's only room for one Putin on the big stage. - ©The Daily Telegraph