The relationship between Russian Prime Minister and probable future President Vladimir Putin and his wife of 28 years, Lyudmila, has been alternately portrayed as a nightmare union
and a love story
for the ages.
While the truth probably lies somewhere in between, new revelations about Putin's KGB career in East Germany suggest marital harmony was not high on the future leader's agenda.
Erich Schmidt-Eenboom, a journalist and expert on German intelligence, says he has proof a female West German spy was able to infiltrate the Putin household during the family's five-year stay in Dresden, East Germany. Her discovery? That Putin was an enthusiastic womanizer and a violent bully who beat his wife.
Schmidt-Eenboom, who has written numerous books and papers on Germany's BND foreign intelligence agency, maintains that the agent, a young woman operating under the name Lenchen, or Lenochka, was tasked with digging up information about the KGB's military and economic activities in southern Germany.
"But she quickly became friends with Lyudmila Putina and became a kind of trusted confidante for her," he says. "Lyudmila told her that Vladimir frequently beat her, and often cheated on her, that he had had trysts with other women."
Vladimir Putin walks along a street in Dresden, where he was stationed from 1985 to 1990.
Schmidt-Eenboom, whose revelations were first published in the German newspaper "Berliner Zeitung," has dismissed suggestions that the information was given to him in order to discredit Putin as he prepares to resume his role as Russian president next year.
The reporter claims he first heard the story of Lenchen -- who also went by the nickname "Balcony" because of her buxom chest -- while talking to a former senior BND official earlier this year.
"Of course, as a journalist, I needed to find a second source," he says. "Several weeks ago, I managed to meet with a contact at the Verfassungsschutz, the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, who also had this information at his disposal."
Lenchen, he says, was a Baltic German who spoke Russian and German with equal fluency -- a skill that made her ideally suited for her work in Dresden's small KGB bureau, where she officially worked as a translator for the Soviet Union's Western Forces based in East Germany.
An Uncompromising Patriarch And Red-Hot Lover
Lenchen eventually asked to be removed from her post after a romantic relationship with the KGB colonel heading the bureau left her pregnant and susceptible to the psychological stress of spying on the Putin family.
Her handlers recalled her to West Germany, where she was given a new identity and released from service. "She was compensated handsomely," Schmidt-Eenboom says. "She now lives a carefree life in southern Germany."
The new allegations are unlikely to tarnish Putin's image inside Russia, a country where marital indiscretions are considered both unremarkable and private.
Former Olympic gymnast and Russian Duma deputy Alina Kabayeva has been romantically linked with Putin.
If anything, the image of Putin as an uncompromising patriarch and red-hot lover are likely only to bolster the image of a leader whom "Forbes" magazine recently named as the world's second-most-powerful man.
In recent years, joint appearances by the couple have become as rare as Siberian yeti sightings. Putin has occasionally sought to brush off rumors that he and Lyudmila, a former Aeroflot stewardess, are in fact divorced.
The 59-year-old prime minister -- who is expected to return to the presidency next year after bumping incumbent Dmitry Medvedev out of his spot -- has been frequently linked to Alina Kabayeva,
a former Olympic gymnast and one of the more toothsome members of the Russian Duma.
Awkward, Unflattering Moments
The Kremlin has, at times, set out to paint a rosy portrait of the Putins' marriage, at one point even producing a feature film -- "The Kiss is Off the Record," portraying the couple's early romance -- for a Valentine's Day release in 2008.
But such moments are far outnumbered
by the times the couple, who have two daughters together, have frequently been caught in awkward or unflattering moments.
Putina, 53, is known to refer to her husband as "the Freezer" for his unemotional personality. Putin, in return, has remarked that "Anyone who can spend three weeks with Lyudmila deserves a monument."
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said he has no comment on the reports. A spokesman for the BND likewise declined to make a statement, saying only, "We do not discuss our methods or our investigations."
Schmidt-Eenboom notes that it was extremely rare for German intelligence agents to infiltrate KGB structures to the degree that Lenochka did with the Putins in Dresden, and that only one other agent -- a "Colonel Viktor" -- achieved similar success in the 1980s.
All of Lenochka's reports were passed on to the Verfassungsschutz as well as Germany's NATO allies. For all Putin's transgressions, however, Schmidt-Eenboom maintains that there was little in the Russian leader's file to interest the Western intelligence community -- at least, until he became president.
"Putin's dossier from the time would have been destroyed if he hadn't suddenly made such a dizzying political career for himself," he says. "After that, every tiny detail about his life suddenly became interesting."