Anatomy of Putin’s divorce announcement

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

The packaging of Russian President Vladimir Putin's impending divorce from his wife Lyudmila was a classic piece of Kremlin media manipulation. According to media analyst Andrey Miroshnichenko, it saw the Kremlin spin machine reach "new heights” with “large-scale reality laundering”.   

Using carefully staged interviews to broach delicate personal issues is a well-worn media tactic for public figures the world over. Remember the confessions of Prince Charles and Princess Diana ahead of their divorce in 1996?

For the Putins, the idea was to limit the impact of the story by presenting it as something routine, personal and of little interest to the public.

The recorded interview in which they announced their separation appeared first on the little-watched state news channel Rossiya 24, and not on one of the main state-controlled channels that are the usual outlet for the president's televised set pieces.

Moreover, the story was presented in such a way that only attentive viewers would have even picked up on it. Anyone watching Rossiya 24 with the sound down would have had little inkling that a global news event had taken place. The channel ran no captions or ticker tapes, either at the time of the announcement or during the subsequent few hours.

Rossiya 24's presenter led into the story by telling viewers that the Putins had been attending a performance of the ballet Esmeralda at the Kremlin State Palace theatre and that arts reporter Polina Yermolayeva had "asked them some questions".

The appearance of the Putins together in public is a rare event these days, but nevertheless nothing very exciting seemed to be going on as Yermolayeva asked them about the ballet. They enthused about the scenery, music and the prima ballerina. "You get the impression our ballet has achieved new heights," Lyudmila said. "Lovely, lovely," Putin agreed.

But suddenly and dramatically Yermolayeva changed tack: "If you don't mind, just one more question. You are rarely seen together. Rumour has it you don't live together. Is this true?"

Putin nodded, seemed briefly to smile to his wife, and said: "Yes, it's true."

For the next couple of minutes, he and Lyudmila explained that Putin's workload meant that they now lived separate lives but still remain "very close". Throughout, the presidential couple referred to each other by forename and patronymic - the Russian equivalent of ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’.

Yermolayeva tentatively ventured one more question. "Please, forgive me," she said, "but this word has not been pronounced and I fear to say it. Is this a divorce?"

"One can say it is a civilised divorce," Lyudmila replied.

"Yes," Putin concurred.

It appeared to be the ultimate act of heroic journalism - a young, unknown reporter had gone where others had feared to tread.

"Without declaring war, she hurled herself against the electrified barbed wire," satirist Viktor Shenderovich marvelled.

But of course, this being Russian state TV, the heroism was mock and the stunt staged.

Indeed, TV critic Irina Petrovskaya said it was one of the Kremlin spin doctors' outstanding creations "comparable in its fakery with the reports about the ancient urns". (In August 2011, Putin was shown on state TV diving into shallow waters near the edge of the Black Sea and apparently recovering a pair of Grecian urns that had lain there for 1500 years. Putin's spokesman later admitted the episode had been a set-up.)

The Kremlin spin doctors made sure the divorce announcement went out after the evening's main TV bulletins had ended. Brief accounts of the Putins' marriage breakup led state TV bulletins the following morning, but during the day the story slipped down the news agenda and come the primetime newscasts it had all but disappeared.

Coverage was similarly scant in most of the weekend's news reviews, and, of course, on state TV there was positive spin. "They were direct and open – to each other and the country. Not every family is capable of this kind of closeness and honesty in their relations," Rossiya 1 anchor Dmitriy Kiselev eulogized.

If Putin's spin doctors were trying to to minimize the impact on the president's core electorate, anecdotal evidence suggests they succeeded. PR manager Iveta Gulya told opposition weekly The New Times that her mother who "is never away from the TV,did not notice this news". Similarly, when the BBC's Steve Rosenberg quizzed passers-by in Moscow about the divorce he found a good deal of disbelief.

One aspect of the Putin divorce that has fascinated the foreign media and internet users in Russia is the president's alleged relationship with the 30-year-old former gymnast and MP Alina Kabayeva. But Kabayeva’s name has been almost completely absent from Russian mainstream media. Data from media monitoring service Medialogiya suggests that it has received just one mention in the printed media in the last few days.

Editors may be mindful of the fate of the paper, Moskovskiy Korrespondent, which closed down soon after running story about the Putin-Kabayeva rumours in 2008.

There’s just one piece of media evidence that sceptics believe may cast doubt on the idea that Putin's workload is the sole cause of his marital problems. On 24 May, state-controlled Channel One ran an hour-long documentary about Kabayeva, presenting her in a highly favourable light. The documentary was  made by the Masterskaya Movie Company, which in 2012 produced a series of films that were a key part of Putin's re-election campaign.


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