'Nervous' Putin tells Russia he has separated from his wife

President gives rare insight into his private life, but speculation about his 'mistress' won't go away

LAST UPDATED AT 09:37 ON Fri 7 Jun 2013

IT was awkward and unprecedented. Russian president Vladimir Putin – a man whose private life is a closed book – has appeared on state television with his wife Lyudmila to announce their 30-year marriage is over.

The announcement has shocked many Russians because it goes against "Orthodox and Soviet traditions", says Bloomberg. Putin has presided over a resurgence of Orthodox Christianity in Russia and it is "highly out of character for Putin, a devout churchgoer, to flout the Orthodox creed so publicly".

As a rule, Russian leaders do not separate from their wives. Indeed Putin, 60, will be Russia's first divorced leader since Peter the Great forced his wife to become a nun in 1698. Putin insists his split is considerably more "amicable", saying that his gruelling schedule had caused him and his 55-year-old wife to drift apart,

"Everything I do is connected with the public sphere," Putin told a journalist in a carefully staged interview with the state-owned TV network Rossiya 24. "Some people like that, some people don't. There are some people who are completely incompatible with that."

The Putins are not yet legally divorced, a Kremlin spokesman told The Guardian, adding that he did not know when the separation would be formalised.

The interview – which took place after the couple watched a Moscow performance of the ballet La Esmeralda - was so "stilted" it made for uncomfortable viewing, the Daily Telegraph says. Putin and Lyudmila appeared nervous and she "seemed dazed, and uncertain how to react in the presence of her husband". Putin did most of the talking explaining that the couple no longer lived together and "we practically don't see each other".

If Putin was hoping the interview would draw a line under his private life, he will have been disappointed. News of his separation has triggered intense speculation about his love life and the possibility of a second marriage.

It has long been rumoured that the Russian president has enjoyed "dalliances with other, much younger women". In 2008, he publicly denied claims that he was about to divorce his wife and marry Alina Kabaeva, a 27-year-old rhythmical gymnast with "incredible flexibility". The Moscow tabloid that broke the story was shut down by its owner, Alexander Lebedev, soon afterwards – a move widely interpreted as an attempt to appease Putin.

The New York Post says Putin has fathered two children with Kabaeva, claims hotly denied by the Kremlin.  

The president is routinely portrayed on state TV as an action man who loves rugged nature almost as much as he loves ditching his shirt. But the non-stop coverage of his exploits – riding, shooting, flying – does not extend to his private life. There are "practically no photos" of his two adult daughters by Lyudmila and Putin's closest companions appear to be his beloved dogs.

Still, as The Guardian points out, Lyudmila's confirmation that she and her husband have split is the rarest thing in "Moscow's twilight informational world: a genuine fact". · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.