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Married to Vladmir Putin: What’s it like?

The Kremlin confirms that Russian President Vladimir Putin's divorce from his wife Lyudmila has been finalized. (Reuters)

If you look up Vladimir Putin’s wife on Wikipedia, you’ll find 439 words under five sparsely populated sections.

By way of comparison: Michelle Obama’s page has 4,427 words. Laura Bush has 3,877 words. And even Valerie Trierweiler, who until recently was the partner of French President Francois Hollande, has 564 words.

Such disparity could mean any number of things. Americans are enamored of celebrity. Wikipedia is a Western construct. The Kremlin has totalitarian control over state media, so there has perhaps been less scrutiny.

But it also speaks to a reticence in Lyudmilla Putina, which hints at why her 30-year marriage to one of the world’s most powerful — and notorious — men has now ended. “Our marriage is over due to the fact that we barely see each other,” Putina, draped in a white shawl, said last June when she and Vladimir Putin first announced their separation, finalized on Wednesday. “Vladimir is completely submerged in his work. Our children have grown up, each of them is living her own life…. I truly don’t like publicity.”

She added: “Flying is difficult for me.”

It hasn’t always been that way. Once, she was a cherub-faced stewardess selling sandwiches, hopping from town to town. The life she had then couldn’t have been more different than the one she has now — one of fame, power and money.

Everything changed when she met Vladimir Putin in the early 1980s. She first saw him in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. He was thin and fair-haired. A mutual friend had invited Putin to a play, and all of them went together.

On the president’s Web site, Putin left out most of the details of their ensuing three-year courtship in a passionless account. “I started dating one of them,” remarked Putin, who reportedly didn’t spill the fact he was a KGB spy. “I became friends with Lyuda, my future wife…. I understood that if I don’t marry for another two-three years, I will never marry. Though, of course, I had made a habit of leading a bachelor’s life. Lyudmilla uprooted it.”

Pictures of their wedding day on July 28, 1983, show Putina draped in a long white shawl and Putin squeezed inside a black suit. They soon had two children in the mid-1980s — Maria and Yekaterina — and eventually moved to Germany where Putin worked as a Soviet spy.

It’s unclear when, precisely, their marriage began to fray, but every account suggests it emerged from their diverging personalities. Putin was driving and ambitious. Putina was more self-conscious, academic and believed in reading astrological signs, according to the Moscow Times. She speaks fluent German, Spanish and French, and when the family returned to Russia, she taught German at Leningrad State University, her state biography shows.

Putin’s steady rise through Russia’s bureaucracy — not to mention the growing amount of attention he drew — discomforted Putina. Putin allegedly refused to stop with his spy activities, which upset his wife, according to the Moscow Times. The newspaper, which has published the most thorough look into their troubled marriage to date, unearthed a German-language book called “Fragile Friendships.” Written by a German friend, it proved to be a fecund source of material.

“It’s terrible,” Lyudmilla told the German author.  “This awful isolation. No more traveling wherever we want to go; no longer able to say whatever we want. I had only just begun to live,” she said.

“Unfortunately, he is a vampire,” the author claims she once jokingly said of her husband.

The Moscow Times says he retorted: “Anyone who could put up with [Putina] for three weeks [is] heroic and deserve[s] a monument.”

After Putin ascended to the highest levels of the Russian government, his wife eventually disappeared from the public eye. During his first Kremlin stint between 2000 and 2008, she was present, but there was a sense of unease about her. ” She was not ready for this role,” one friend told Reuters. “Being a president’s wife came down on her unexpectedly.”

Then, after Putin was inaugurated for a third term on May 7, 2012, she completely vanished. She wasn’t seen at his side again until their divorce announcement.

Putin said she had “done her shift” as Russia’s first lady.

The Russian president said then their split would be “civilized.” But today, his official Russian biography suggests otherwise. Every mention of her has now been erased.

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.



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