A newspaper that defied the Kremlin by reporting that President Vladimir Putin was planning to marry an Olympic gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast half his age was shut down Saturday.
The closure of Moskovski Korrespondent, whose editor Grigori Nekhoroshev was forced to resign, was a sharp reminder of the perils of invoking Kremlin displeasure.
Rumors of a romance between Putin, 55, and Alina Kabaeva, 24, who is also an MP in his party, have been circulating in Moscow for months, but until last week no one had dared to print them.
The paper admitted there was no factual basis for its claim that Putin had already divorced Ludmilla, 50, his wife of 24 years, and would marry Kabaeva in June, shortly after stepping down as president and becoming prime minister. It cited information from a party planner who claimed to be bidding to organize the lavish reception.
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Both Putin and Kabaeva denied the report, which was followed up by European newspapers but ignored by Russia’s media, which do not delve into the private lives of politicians.
“I thought we should run the story to help break the taboo,” said Nekhoroshev. He paid a swift penalty for his daring: the paper, owned by Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire tycoon, ceased publication immediately.
Its parent firm blamed “costs” and “conceptual disagreements with the newsroom” but insisted in a statement that “this has nothing to do with politics and is solely a business decision”.
Few in Russia will believe that. The closure came a few hours after Putin had said during a visit to Sardinia that there was not a word of truth in the story and derided the “snotty noses and erotic fantasies” of the journalists concerned. So protective is the president of his private life that the Russian public has not seen his daughters since he came to power eight years ago.
“Our director came to the newsroom and told us we were being shut down,” said Nekhoroshev, who sounded shaken. “As far as the story is concerned I’ve full faith in my correspondents.”
Kabaeva, who is famed for her “extreme natural flexibility," had threatened to sue. Her high profile as a sporting pin-up has been enhanced by photographs showing her wearing nothing but furs, but she has spoken of her strong political ambitions.
During Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has brought all the television channels under its control and become highly sensitive to criticism in the press.
Lebedev, who had ordered his editors to stand up the story with some facts or apologize – they apologized – may now come under further pressure. He also owns Novaya Gazeta, a paper fiercely critical of the Kremlin.
“It just goes to show what a terrible state the Russian media is in after eight years of Putin’s regime,” said Oleg Panfilov, an analyst. “It is so cowed that one just needs to bark at it to see it hide under a table.”
At least Putin, who burnished his macho image by posing bare-chested on a fishing trip last year, saw the funny side of his new-found reputation as a ladies’ man. Relishing a question from a friendly reporter about his supposed engagement, he declared that he fancies all Russian women: “It won’t come as a surprise if I say that I like them all, the most talented and beautiful in the world.”