MOSCOW — Talk about a tabloid dream. The president of your country goes splitsville right on national television after years of scoffing at rumors that his marriage has turned colder than Siberia. Stop the presses and pull out the big headline type.
On Thursday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin provided just such news, telling a national television audience as he was leaving a ballet performance with his wife that, by the way, they had stopped living together and were divorcing.
But the presses didn’t stop. Vladimir Sungorkin, editor in chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a tabloid that has a circulation of up to 2.4 million some days, was on his way home when the news hit just before 10 p.m. His paper’s deadline was 8:40 p.m.
“Put it on the Web,” he told his editors.
“It was very well known and obvious that they had split,” he said in a telephone interview Friday, “because they were not seen together. He attended events alone where he should have been with her. People were used to the fact that the president did not live with her.”
Just last Easter, a major religious holiday, Putin turned up at church services with Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow.
Vladimir and Lyudmila Putin have been married nearly 30 years. Putin is an ardent supporter of the Orthodox Church, which frowns on divorce. His government has promoted family values, and just a few days ago an official committee recommended a tax to discourage divorce.
Yet while there was plenty of coverage of the announcement by Friday, there was little sensation or even disapproval.
“Thank God that Putin decided to tell the truth,” Tina Kandelaki, a celebrity PR executive and Putin supporter, told Komsomolskaya Pravda.
“I have been hearing for years how great it would be if Putin could tell the truth and divorce,” said Ksenia Sobchak, a glamorous TV personality who participated in anti-Putin demonstrations.
Titillation was left to Western news organizations, which referred to reports, beginning in 2008, that have alleged that Putin, now 60, was involved with Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast who is now 30. The Russian newspaper that reported that rumor as fact quickly shut down, and Putin denied any connection to Kabaeva — including that she had given birth to his son. In January, the New York Post reported she had given birth to a daughter.
“There is no other woman in the president’s life,” Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said on Ekho Moskvy radio Friday. He declined to speculate on a future presidential wedding — Putin’s term extends until 2018. “I don’t think answering such questions is within the presidential press secretary’s responsibilities. But I can say for sure that these are mere speculations and rumors rather than anything else.”
The message: So what? No one heard what Putin’s daughters, Maria, 28, and Yekaterina, 26, had to say. No one even knows what they look like — no pictures have been published of them for years — or where they live or what they do. No one knows where Lyudmila lives.
Maybe people care about a politician’s private life in America, said Alexander Oslon, an influential sociologist, but not here.
“This will have no effect on his popularity or rating,” said Oslon, director of the Public Opinion Foundation. “Here, personal life is very closed. It’s not interesting for people.”
Putin’s approval rating is much higher among women than men, he said, but added that women are unlikely to consider he has done his wife any injustice by divorcing her — feminist feeling runs low. That could change if the president became publicly involved with another woman.
“If he remarried, that would cause lots of different emotions and might influence the rating,” Oslon said, “but I don’t think that will happen.”
The revelation was stage-managed, as is much reporting about Putin. The news was delivered deferentially on state-owned Rossiya 24 television, the medium where most Russians get their news. No hard or embarrassing questions were heard. Instead of “Why now?” people said, “At last.”
Sungorkin said he was naturally frustrated not to get the story in his paper, but he said Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Web site draws 1 million users a day. So word got out. One paper, sober-sided Kommersant, a business-oriented daily with late deadlines, had a big picture and short story above the fold with the headline: “Civilized divorce.”
Of course, there were jokes. “How will the Putins divide their property?” went one, widely quoted on the Web. The answer? At the Urals, the mountain range that divides the country.