MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin pulled off one of his most audacious pieces of stagecraft, attending a ballet with his rarely seen wife and then announcing their marriage is over. But how will it play to his audience of 143 million Russians?
The end of the marriage of the Russian president and Lyudmila Putina less than two months shy of their 30th anniversary came on state television after a Thursday evening that started out like a model of domestic contentment — a devoted husband taking his wife to the ballet.
But after the performance of "Esmeralda" at the Great Kremlin Palace, the two came into a luxurious room to speak to a reporter.
"Excellent. Great music, excellent production," Putin said and Lyudmila echoed his praise.
After about a minute, the reporter asked about rumors that the two didn't live together. Putin smiled slightly, like a boy caught misbehaving, and turned his head toward Lyudmila. "This is so," he said.
It wasn't immediately clear if that meant just separate domiciles. After a few more comments, the reporter gently prodded: "I am afraid to say this word 'divorce'."
"Yes, this is a civilized divorced," Lyudmila said.
The peculiar format for the announcement appeared aimed at underlining that this wasn't just a powerful man dumping his faithful helpmate. That's a potentially important strategic move for Putin, who has based his public image on rectitude and support of traditional values.
Tabloid reports in 2008 claimed that Putin already had divorced Lyudmila and planned to marry a gymnast less than half his age.
The Interfax news agency cited presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying the divorce has not been formalized and that the televised comments were only an announcement of the decision to divorce.
Divorce is common in Russia, and nearly 700,000 pairs dissolved their marriages in 2009, according to UNICEF. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia's political elite, said the divorce probably won't hurt Putin in the public eye — as long as he doesn't take a trophy wife.
"If a young wife appears, then the reactions in society may be very different," she said in an article published by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on its website.
For some of his detractors, the move even seemed to earn some grudging approval.
"For years I've heard that it would be good if Putin told the truth and divorced. And what now? Everyone's criticizing him for the divorce," Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and supporter of Putin's opposition, wrote on Twitter.
Russian leaders, unlike their American counterparts, generally keep their domestic lives well out of public view. Lyudmila Putin was rarely seen in public during her husband's long tenure at the top of Russian politics.
"I don't like publicity and flying is difficult for me," said the former Aeroflot flight attendant.
"All my activities, all my work, is linked with publicity. Absolute publicity. Some people like it, some people don't. But there are people who absolutely can't stand it," Putin said.
The Putins married on July 28, 1983, and have two daughters, Maria and Yekaterina, whose lives get little public view.
There have been hints that Lyudmila Putin was unhappy. In a 2005 interview with three Russian newspapers, she complained that her husband worked long hours, forgetting that "one needs not only to work, but also to live."