MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin's divorce from his wife of nearly 30 years has broken a taboo for Russian officials, who almost never speak publicly about their personal life let alone their personal problems.
The Russian president also chose an unusual way to break the news. In an interview with state television late Thursday, he and his wife, Lyudmila Putina, engaged in polite chit-chat about a ballet they had just watched then dropped the bombshell, saying they haven't lived together for a while and are getting a divorce.
While divorce is common in Russia, it is still taboo for high-ranking public officials to dissolve their marriages. Russian politicians strive to project an image of having an impeccable private life, even though rumors are rife about some top officials being gay or dumping their wives.
RUSSIAN LEADERS & WIVES
The last Russian leader to get divorced was Peter the Great more than 300 years ago. Peter's mother forced the 17-year-old future czar into marriage with Yevdokiya Lopukhina in 1689. Nine years later, Peter divorced her and locked her up in a convent. He married again in 1711.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, shot herself dead in 1932, but the tightly controlled Soviet press issued only a terse announcement that did not mention the cause of death.
Mikhail Gorbachev's wife was the first spouse of a Russian leader to take on a role in the spotlight. A university lecturer, Raisa Gorbacheva accompanied her husband on state visits, delivered speeches and talked to journalists. This unprecedented publicity made her extremely popular abroad but incensed many Russians who thought she was "too showy." By all appearances, the couple had a happy marriage. Raisa Gorbacheva died of cancer in 1999.
The wife of Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, was far less visible, which seemed to please many Russians. Naina Yeltsina diligently carried out the duties of first lady but rarely played a bigger public role. She still regularly attends tennis tournaments in Moscow to support Russian players, maintaining a tradition begun by her late husband.
DIVORCE LAW IN RUSSIA
Divorce law is pretty straightforward in Russia. If both spouses want to get divorced and they don't have minor children, all they need to do is go to the state registry office, pay a fee of 400 rubles ($12) each and wait one month for the divorce to come through.
Property is divided in half unless they have agreed otherwise or one of them takes the other to court. There is no formal separation period, and spouses are not required to live separately before the divorce is final.
Although the Russian Orthodox Church does not encourage divorce, it readily grants it to church-wed couples out of compassion.
FAMILY VALUES FRONT AND CENTER
Putin has long promoted family values and encouraged Russians to have more children, handing out money and awards to parents with large families. When running for his third presidential term in 2012, he listed fostering "devotion to family" as among his top priorities.
As Putin has faced protests and discontent from Westernized, educated and urban Russians, he has worked to strengthen his base of support by appealing to conservative rural voters who value Orthodox Christian traditions.
NO OTHER WOMAN, THE SPOKESMAN SAYS
The divorce has fueled speculation that Putin is preparing to marry a rhythmic gymnast half his age. Rumors of their relationship have persisted for years, although some see the rumors as an effort to buff Putin's virile image. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday there is no other woman in Putin's life.
THE KIDS ARE A PRIVATE MATTER
Putin has kept his family out of the limelight ever since he first became president in 2000. His two daughters, now in their late 20s, have not been seen in public in the past 13 years.
Putin made a point of saying Thursday that Maria and Yekaterina are both well and live in Russia, countering speculation that they moved abroad after getting married. He insists that his family does not like publicity, which is why he has kept them out of the public eye.
BUT EVERYONE CAN SEE THE PETS
An animal lover, Putin has been much more eager over the years to show off his dogs or other pets. In October 2008, journalists from Putin's pool were summoned to his residence late at night for a special announcement: He wanted to show them a tiger cub that he had gotten for his birthday three days earlier.