In general, the Russian press took a more cautious approach than English-language international media when covering Vladimir Putin’s announcement that his marriage was over.

Photo source: AP

The private life of Russian President Vladimir Putin has largely been a taboo subject for the Russian press, so when he appeared with his wife Lyudmila on June 6 to announce that their marriage was over, the local media seemed unsure of how to deal with the news.

The Putins’ appearance at a performance of the ballet “Esmeralda” was the first time they had been seen in public together since Putin’s inauguration in May 2012. Vladimir Putin, 60, and Lyudmila Putin, 55, broke the news of their divorce in an exclusive interview with the Rossiya-24 TV channel during intermission, saying that they have been living separately for a while now.

Eventually, two distinct approaches to covering the announcement emerged: some publications briefly mentioned the divorce, supplementing the news with a few very temperate comments; others spilled more ink, featuring the opinions of multiple experts ranging from political analysts to psychologists. However, neither approach delved too deeply into the president’s private life.

On the evening of June 6, Rossiyskaya Gazeta posted a video of the interview and the announcement along with a 130-word news brief on its website; it placed an even shorter version of the news brief on the third page of its June 7 issue.

However, the divorce was the front-page story for Kommersant that day. The Kommersant article, titled “A Civilized Divorce,” basically summed up the interview and put the news in international context, listing other recent high-profile political divorces, including those of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy.

Online, Kommersant did a companion piece on Russian leaders who have split from their wives throughout history, going back to the middle ages.  

Kommersant also ran a comment by veteran journalist Victor Loshak, who wrote in his column: 

“Putin oftentimes appeared alone lately where he was expected to appear with his spouse by protocol, and every time it added fuel to the flames of conjecture. Now there’s little to ponder, if anything. Many must be relieved that the president did this, instead of leading a double life for the sake of observing the artificial protocol.”

Weekly magazine Ogonyok, which is also part of the Kommersant publishing house, featured the topic of the divorce in an editorial, accompanied by a seven-year-old photo of Lyudmila Putin looking at Vladimir Putin as he frowns at a photographer outside a palace near St. Petersburg.

“In the photo taken in July 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, are shown together, waiting for participants of the G8 summit at Constantine Palace,” read the editorial. “The public appearance clearly was depressing the first lady. To quote Vladimir Putin, 'she’s done keeping watch.'”

Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), which appears in tabloid format and appeals to the mass market, covered the divorce much more extensively than broadsheets like Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Kommersant. KP ran over 30 articles on its website within the first week after the announcement was made. The main page of the KP website also features a special tab, “Putin’s divorce,” so readers could easily find the latest news on the subject.

Alexander Gamov, a KP reporter from the Kremlin pool who interviewed Lyudmila Putin several times, wrote, “In Soviet etiquette, first ladies were the home front of their husbands… Lyudmila Alexandrovna broke through the boundaries of a Kremlin wife going public but at the same time avoiding turning into a cocky and aggressive feminist – something the conservative Russian society is so much scared of.”

KP reposted these interviews, adding some parts that had not been included when the interviews were originally run. In 2003, for instance, Lyudmila Putin told Gamov: “Those who are against my husband are against Russia.”

KP rival Argumenty I Fakty also covered the news extensively. Its columnist wrote: “I never really liked Lyudmila Putin – a quiet, homely shadow that seemed to have neither an opinion of her own nor the will (or the right) to assert herself.” This op-ed was the most-read piece about the divorce on the Argumenty I Fakty website.

But the author admitted that what she saw in the televised interview on June 6 changed the impression she had: “We saw that someone who seemed a gray emotionless mouse is actually a touching and in no way embittered woman, who speaks in a nice and clear manner, has her style, and is smart and charming.”

In a separate piece, Argumenty I Fakty quoted a psychologist who said that Russians generally disapprove of divorce and that in their heart of hearts many will denounce the Putins’ decision. Family therapist Svetlana Klyuvayeva was quoted in the article as saying: “The figure of the head of state – the tsar, the president or the prime minister – is perceived as the figure of the father, and part of society may feel orphaned, frustrated or sad.”

Unlike much of the Russian press, Argumenty I Fakty addressed the question of Putin’s romantic future. “Putin’s divorce will certainly revive speculation about candidates for the role of the first lady,” read a text from the tabloid. “This chart is topped by Olympic champion Alina Kabayeva. It’s been rumored for a few years now that they have been in a relationship and that the former gymnast gave birth to two children of the president.”

One host of the recently launched Russian Public TV channel announced that he was leaving after an episode of his show, featuring a spoof online dating profile for Vladimir Putin, was pulled off the air.

Putin’s dating profile, however, was a hot topic online: the post “16 Photos Vladimir Putin Should Use on His New Online Dating Profile” at went viral on social networks.

Generally, English-language media were not so cautious in their coverage of the Putins’ divorce. In its main story about Putin’s divorce, The New York Times mentioned the rumor about the president’s relationship with former gymnast Kabayeva, now a deputy in the State Duma for the United Russia party, in the second sentence: “He was in love with an Olympic gymnast half his age, some said.”

The article went on to state that “in 2008, after a newspaper, Moskovsky Korrespondent, reported that he planned to marry Ms. Kabayeva, publication of the newspaper was suspended abruptly for what its parent company said were 'financial reasons.'”

The story also mentioned a recent program honoring Kabayeva that was broadcast on Russia’s largest TV channel, Channel One.

“On the program, she indirectly addressed the rumors about her and Mr. Putin, saying with a laugh that she has no children, though 'everyone in Russia, and perhaps in other countries as well, writes that I have two or three children,'” the story reads.

In a column also published in The New York Times, Russian journalist Masha Gessen, who is also the author of a book about Putin, pointed out that the announcement was made during a week in which the State Duma released the Concept of State Policy on the Family that proposes imposing an extra tax on divorcing couples.

“Some observers soon quipped that he was rushing to get divorced before the new tax is effective,” Gessen wrote.

The Washington Post questioned the reasoning behind the split-up, particularly Lyudmila Putin’s assertion that she doesn’t like publicity and flying.

“'I don’t like flying’ is a strange rationale for divorce after three decades of marriage to a man who spent five years as prime minister and nine as president, not to mention a career in the KGB, all of which has presumably involved a great deal of flying,” wrote a Washington Post blogger. The post added that before her marriage, Lyudmila Putin worked as a flight attendant for Aeroflot, and in the early days of her courtship with Vladimir Putin, she would take a flight from her native city of Kaliningrad to Leningrad, where he was based, every time they had a date, according to Putin’s official autobiography.

British broadsheet the Telegraph ran a total of eight articles on the Putin divorce.

One article in the Telegraph read, in part: “The prevailing theory is that both Putins, particularly Lyudmila, a 55-year-old former airline hostess, thought it was time to clear things up. The gossip flying around Moscow dinner tables had reached an embarrassing pitch, with stories of Mrs. Putin living in an underground nunnery on the Estonian border, and her husband Vladimir supposedly involved with Alina Kabayeva, a 30-year-old, half-Tatar gymnast, said to be possessed of ‘incredible flexibility.’”

In a story headlined “Vladimir Putin marriage break-up: was the Russian gymnast to blame?” The Telegraph recalled Kabayeva’s interview with Russian Vogue in January 2011, in which she denied being a mother.

”My sweet little nephew Arsenio has joined my ever-extending family in Moscow. Everyone, of course, thinks that he is my son,” Kabayeva was quoted as saying.

“The interview certainly did little to dampen speculation as to her growing role,” The Telegraph said. “In January it was claimed she had had a second child, and that Mr. Putin moved her into his retreat on the Black Sea coast in Sochi. Once again, Mr. Putin said nothing.”