During his first two presidential terms, she was the self-effacing and modestly dressed wife, dutifully posing for photographs and hosting state visits but largely staying in the background. By the start of his third term, she was virtually invisible. One year later, she was gone.
On June 6, 55-year-old Lyudmila Putina took to Russian state television with President Vladimir Putin for a joint announcement about their upcoming divorce. The smile on her face was as happy as any bride’s on her wedding day. “It really was a mutual decision,” Mrs Putin said. “It is a civilised divorce.”
During her 14 years as wife of the prime minister and then the president, Putina remained largely in the shadows, her absence fuelling tabloid reports that she had either been stashed away by her husband in a convent, in the style of Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, or left by him for Alina Kabayeva, a former Olympic gymnast and Duma deputy 25 years her junior.
The Kremlin has always vigorously denied such rumours and so do those acquainted with Putina, who say she is significantly tougher and more strong-willed than many give her credit for. A person close to the president, who asked not to be named, says the Putins’ marriage fell apart over the past five to seven years largely because of Putin’s schedule and Putina’s uneasiness with the publicity required of the first lady.
According to Lyudmila Narusova, the widow of Putin’s first mentor, it was the first lady herself who pushed for the separation. “I know completely for sure that was Lyudmila Aleksandrovna’s initiative,” she told a Russian TV news station in November. “It was not easy for Vladimir Vladimirovich. It was her initiative and this was respected.” This assertive image fits with how those in her native Kaliningrad, the Baltic enclave north of Poland, remember her.
Born to a factory worker father and cashier mother, Putina grew up in modest surroundings but was a smart and ambitious student. “She was active and social, studied hard and was very capable,” said one former teacher. “She dreamed of becoming an actress.” After she finished school, Putina worked at a machinery plant before becoming a flight attendant for Aeroflot.
She met Putin at a concert in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in the early 1980s. Their relationship was never easy. “To say Vladimir Vladimirovich tested me throughout our entire life together is completely correct,” Putina told Oleg Blotsky, the president’s biographer. “I always had the feeling that he was observing me and what decisions I made … to see whether I could withstand any test.” She said she did not find out that he was a KGB officer until 18 months into their relationship.
They married in July 1983. “You know how you meet someone and fall in love with them immediately? Well, that didn’t happen,” Putina told Blotsky. “I grew accustomed to him step by step, and fell in love.”
Putina graduated in philology at Leningrad State University in 1986. She became proficient in Spanish, French, and German, gaining fluency in the last during her husband’s stint as a KGB officer in Dresden.
In Germany, Putina was left largely on her own with their two infant daughters, Masha and Katya. She recalled being seven months pregnant with Katya and climbing six flights of stairs up to their flat, the infant Masha in one hand and an overflowing bag of groceries in the other. On one occasion a neighbour lent a hand. The rest of the time she made do on her own.
When her husband was elected president in 2000, Putina was presented with a choice: to take a more active role as Russia’s first lady, as her peers had in the west, or maintain the more passive presence of her Soviet predecessors. She went largely with the latter option.
“The wives of Brezhnev and Khrushchev behaved very modestly and kept in the shadows,” says one political image consultant who worked with her just after her husband’s election. “Raisa Gorbacheva [Mikhail Gorbachev’s wife] represented a complete break from this tradition, but a lot of people were unhappy about it.” Specifically she was criticised for her constant presence on television, her travelling and lavish wardrobe at a time when many Russians were forced to wait in breadlines.
Putina was not given the opportunity to sit idle, however. A first lady “always has to have a smile on, take part in official events, always look good,” said the consultant. “It’s hard, unpaid work.”
Putina has not been spotted publicly since the announcement of the divorce. Those who knew her imagine that she is trying to get back to the normal life she always tried to live, even in the Kremlin.
One acquaintance recalls running into Putina, then still married to the president, on a commercial flight between Moscow and Europe. The first lady had disguised herself with dark glasses and was sitting, the acquaintance recalls, in economy.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s Moscow correspondent