Putin divorce sparks denial and disbelief in Moscow

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

media captionThe couple revealed their decision on divorce on state TV

Vladimir Putin and his wife had gone on national television to tell the world their marriage was over. Yet on the streets of Moscow today I found many Russians still refusing to believe that a Russian president could even contemplate getting a divorce.

"I don't believe it," Valery told me, "I don't. Our leaders just don't do that sort of thing. They never have."

Nadezhda wouldn't believe me, either.

"It's nothing more than gossip," she snapped, "That must have been a clown on TV last night posing as Putin!"

I spent five minutes trying to convince Nadezhda that there was no clown, that it really had been President Putin on TV. But she wouldn't believe me. She told me that Vladmir Putin and his wife had "responsibilities to the Russian people and to God" and could never divorce.

Such disbelief is understandable.

After all, it's 300 years since the last time a Russian leader annulled his marriage.

That was Peter the Great, who despatched his spouse to a nunnery. Had television existed in Tsar Peter's day, I wonder if he, too, would have chosen to announce his separation in a joint appearance on state television, like Vladimir and Ludmila.

image captionPresident Putin dismissed divorce rumours in 2008

The D-word

Their interview, during an interval at the ballet, was the strangest affair and came across as highly stage-managed.

Up until this interview, the private life of the Russian president had been taboo for Russia's state media.

Reporters would never dare to ask the Kremlin leader about his marital problems.

On Thursday night, though, a state television correspondent posed the hitherto unthinkable questions: was it true that the president and his wife were living apart? Were they divorced?

It's hard to believe such uncomfortable quizzing could have gone ahead without official say-so.

The reporter sounded nervous; at one point she apologised for mentioning the D-word - "divorce".

So why is the marriage over?

Judging from what was said in the interview, it comes down to Vladimir spending too much time at work and Ludmila's loathing of being in the public eye. But could there be another reason?

On Moscow radio, Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked about "rumours" that another woman had come into the president's life. Mr Peskov denied it, dismissing claims as "gossip, rumours and speculation".

It's unclear how the divorce will affect Russia's perception of their president.

Some Russians - like Nadezhda - will clearly be disappointed that the Kremlin leader is pushing ahead with plans for a divorce.

Today's edition of Izvestia warns that President Putin risks alienating a key section of his supporters - married women.

And yet there has been a degree of sympathy and support for him in the media and in blogosphere; some Russians praise him for being honest about his private life and his marital problems, and for showing that a Russian president is no demigod: he's just human, like everyone else.

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