Last year the Moscow tabloid “Moskovsky korrespondent” got itself into hot water by reporting that Putin planned to divorce his wife, Lyudmila, and marry State Duma Deputy and former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva.
Putin categorically rejected the report, but the rumors continue to crop up now and again.
The supposed Putin-Kabayeva connection made the news again earlier this month when it was reported that Kabayeva had given birth to a baby, although the sex of the baby and the name of the father have not been released.
(Apropos of nothing, a recent poll by the Russian edition of “Reader’s Digest” found that Russians think Kabayeva is “the best possible mother” and she placed first in the category of women “who should be picked to carry on the human race.” Putin came in first place among the men folk.)
One reason why such rumors persist is that Putin is rarely seen in public with his wife. The two were seen together on March 2, 2008, when they both showed up to vote for Putin’s handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev.
About a week later, they attended a play in Moscow. In April 2008, they attended Easter services together. A month later, they both attended Medvedev’s inauguration, and in June 2008 they had dinner together with the Medvedevs and with former French President Jacques Chirac.
Since then, the pickings have been slim. Lyudmila was notably absent from the Easter service this year, when television showed Putin standing together with Medvedev and first lady Svetlana Medvedeva.
In fact, she has only appeared in public twice since dining with Chirac -- for the funeral of Patriarch Aleksy II in December 2008 and at the enthronement of the new patriarch in February.
Her vanishing act was so disturbing that RFE/RL’s Russian Service on May 19 broadcast a program called “Lyudmila Putina Is Missing."
So imagine everyone’s surprise when she appeared on May 24 together with Putin at a church service to congratulate Patriarch Kirill on the occasion of an Orthodox holiday. State television even caught her uttering the single word “congratulations” as she greeted the patriarch.
You can never tell what prompted this rare sighting, but Russian media were quick to link it to the RFE/RL story and other media reports expressing concern for her whereabouts.
“Apparently, Kremlin image makers decided not to spoil the prime minister’s image as a family man and to show his wife to the public and end talk about her disappearance,” the northwest branch of the APN news agency wrote.
In another seemingly image-related move, it was announced that Putin this week will publish his first-ever signed article in the Russian media (in 2006, he published an op-ed on Russia-EU relations in the “Financial Times.”
His new column deals with unemployment and will appear in the weekly “Russky pioner” (it is already posted on the journal’s website, but apparently the rush to read Putin’s prose has crashed the site).
-- Robert Coalson