Putin’s divorce breaks taboo in Russian politics

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 lives 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.

Leaders and 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.

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 $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

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.

Kids are private matter

Putin has kept his family out of the limelight 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.