MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin’s divorce from his wife of nearly 30 years has broken a taboo for Russian officials, who almost never speak publicly about their personal life let alone their personal problems.
The Russian president also chose an unusual way to break the news. In an interview with state television late Thursday, he and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, engaged in polite chit-chat about a ballet they had just watched then dropped the bombshell, saying they haven’t lived together for a while and are getting a divorce.
While divorce is common in Russia, it is still taboo for high-ranking public officials to dissolve their marriages. Russian politicians strive to project an image of having an impeccable private life, even though rumors are rife about some top officials being gay or dumping their wives.
The last Russian leader to get divorced was Peter the Great more than 300 years ago. Peter’s mother forced the 17-year-old future czar into marriage with Yevdokiya Lopukhina in 1689. Nine years later, Peter divorced her and locked her up in a convent. He married again in 1711.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, shot herself dead in 1932, but the tightly controlled Soviet press issued only a terse announcement that did not mention the cause of death.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife was the first spouse of a Russian leader to take on a role in the spotlight. A university lecturer, Raisa Gorbacheva accompanied her husband on state visits, delivered speeches and talked to journalists. This unprecedented publicity made her extremely popular abroad but incensed many Russians who thought she was “too showy.” By all appearances, the couple had a happy marriage. Raisa Gorbacheva died of cancer in 1999.
The wife of Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, was far less visible, which seemed to please many Russians. Naina Yeltsina diligently carried out the duties of first lady but rarely played a bigger public role. She still regularly attends tennis tournaments in Moscow to support Russian players, maintaining a tradition begun by her late husband.