A three-person TV crew from Russia 24 standing in an empty Kremlin hallway, the black-suited reporter with her arms awkwardly crossed—that was the initial audience to Vladimir Putin’s announcement [ru] on Thursday, June 6, 2013, that he and his wife Lyudmila have split. The big reveal was preceeded in the TV news broadcast by footage from La Esmeralda ballet, which the couple had just attended together, as well as by Putin's ever-so-slightly breathless praise of the performance—“splendid execution, simply very talented”—as Lyudmila smiled shyly beside him, shifting her weight nervously.
The announcement made a predictable splash when it plunged into Russian cyberspace, though it surprised bloggers about as much as news of Berlusconi’s poolside escapades surprised Italy in the last months of his rule. Although Putin’s private life is shrouded in secrecy, rumors swirled for years that the first couple was dogged by family troubles, that Lyudmilla had been sent to live hundreds of miles away (to head a convent, no less), and that Putin had love interests on the side. Figuring prominently in the gossip was Alina Kabaeva, the gold-winning Olympic gymnast turned Duma parliamentarian, who is half Putin’s age, but when a Moscow tabloid investigated the alleged liaison in 2008, it was promptly shuttered.
Kabaeva’s name is now back on eveyone’s minds. Putin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, offered [ru] the Kremlin's official spin, speaking to the Russian outlet LiveNews, “It’s no secret and everyone knows that [Putin] long ago devoted himself to the country—as pretentious as that sounds.”
To which Fake_MIDRF, the spoof Twitter account of the Russian Foreign Ministry, shot back:
И мы точно знаем, как страна выглядит в купальнике, и сколько у неё олимпийских медалей!
And we know exactly how this country looks in a swimsuit and how many Olympic medals she has!
Blogger and video parody artist Sergey Meza quipped:
Людмила впервые заподозрила измену, когда нашла в кармане мужа хулахуп.
Lyudmila first suspected infidelity when she discovered a gymnastics hoop in her husband’s pocket.
No information has emerged to back up these conjectures, but one thing appears certain: the Kremlin press office already faces an uphill battle bolstering Putin’s image as a leader committed to family values—an image key to his government’s strong alliance with the Russian Orthodox church. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, Alexey Navalny (who intends to compete in Moscow’s mayoral elections and harbors presidential ambitions) sarcastically wrote:
Главой предвыборного штаба Владимира Путина стала Алина Кабаева.
Alina Kabaeva becomes the head of Vladimir Putin’s election campaign.
For all the taunting of Vladimir Putin, it is interesting how much sympathy the soon-to-be former first lady received from netizens, given that those within Putin’s circle are so prone to coming under Internet fire. For environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova, Lyudmila Putina’s misfortunes were symbolic of those of Russians at large:
Странно что все так удивляются на развод Путина. Разве кто-то сомневался в недостатке любви и способности к компромиссам?
It’s strange that everyone’s so surprised by Putin’s divorce. Has anyone truly doubted his lack of love and ability to compromise?
One image distributed online (see above) showed a composite of two screen shots: Mr. and Mrs. Putin at the post-ballet interview alongside a photo of uniformed FSB officers making an arrest. Fake_MIDRF wrote:
Судя по сайту Вести.Ру, Людмилу после развода арестовала ФСБ
Judging from the Vesti.ru website, following the divorce, Lyudmila was arrested by the FSB.
More than a few observers revelled in the delicious fantasy: Lyudmila signs her divorce, speaks out against her husband, or even—dream of dreams—joins the opposition. Blogger Dmitry Puchkov (famous for his “goblin” film translations), wrote on Twitter:
В келье Людмилы Путиной идут обыски. Главное, чтобы Людмила теперь не вышла за Навального.
Lyudmila Putina’s monastery cell is being searched. The key thing is for Lyudmila to not marry Navalny now.
On the same topic, Twitter user Mitya Aleshkovsky quipped, somewhat wishfully:
Людмила Путина эмигрирует из России вместе с Гарри Каспаровым
Lyudmila Putina is emigrating from Russia with Garry Kasparov.
Another prominent motif was speculation about Mrs. Putina’s claim to the President's allegedly vast private wealth. The Russian law entitles a wife to half the wealth accrued during a marriage—a fact which, coupled with Putin’s online image as the chief of “swindlers and thieves,” gave rise to its own burst of glee. KermlinRussia’s mocking post on the topic received more than 1,050 retweets:
Владимир Путин разводится. По закону его жене Людмиле перейдет в собственность половина страны.
Vladimir Putin is getting divorced. By law, the ownership of half the country will be transferred to Lyudmila.
Ridicule aside, there was almost unanimous if tacit recognition that, following the momentary pause to acknowledge the loss of the first lady, the Kremlin will soon be back to business as usual. Ilya Yashin voiced his frustration in a tweet that evoked Lyudmila’s praise for the split as a “civilized divorce”:
Вот бы он еще со страной “цивилизованно развелся”. А то пока в основном битье посуды, скандалы и рукоприкладство.
I wish he’d divorce the entire country in the same “civilized” way. But instead there is mostly dish-breaking, scandals, and battery.