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Putin divorce announcement takes Russia by surprise

Russians reeled Friday from the shock announcement by President Vladimir Putin that his 30-year marriage was over, a break-up that was long an open secret but few imagined would ever be made public.

In a highly choreographed joint interview with state television after attending a ballet performance together, Putin’s wife Lyudmila said they were having a “civilised divorce” and revealed that the pair hardly ever saw each other.

Lyudmila said she was grateful to Putin for supporting her, while Putin praised the fact she had “stood guard” for the almost nine years he has served as president.

“We are always going to be very close to each other. I am sure, forever,” said the Russian strongman.

It was an extraordinarily frank statement for any Russian politician, whose private lives are generally out of bounds. But particularly for Putin, who lives in such secrecy that he has never been officially photographed with his two adult daughters.

The news came too late for most of the daily newspapers on Friday or for the main evening news on Thursday. Those newspapers that did run the story gave it muted coverage.

Kommersant business daily headlined its story “Civilised divorce”, saying that the couple suffered from “incompatibility of life rhythms”.

Lyudmila, 55, revealed she disliked flying and was averse to publicity, factors that had made the marriage impossible.

State newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta relegated the story to three paragraphs on an inside page, headlined “The marriage is over.”

Nevertheless, on Friday morning the story dominated news radio and the Internet, with many praising Putin, 60, for speaking frankly.

“This is all honest, without falseness,” wrote Kremlin loyalist daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on its website.

“Putin very rarely acts honestly. The announcement about divorce is honest,” wrote former cabinet minister turned opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on Facebook.

“The news about the break-up of the presidential marriage is at the same time absolutely predictable and a bolt from the blue,” wrote Moskovsky Komsomolets daily on its website.

“What is sensational is that what everyone guessed has been officially confirmed.”

It added the piquant detail that Putin apparently took off his wedding ring while watching the ballet, “Esmeralda”, in the State Kremlin Palace. He appeared without it for the big announcement but was photographed wearing it before.

The couple had not yet formally filed for divorce, a source at the city’s registry office told the Interfax news agency.

The announcement unleashed speculation about whether Putin is seeing another woman, a subject that has so far been taboo.

The Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper, owned by tycoon Alexander Lebedev, reported in 2008 that he was about to marry Olympic gymnast turned legislator Alina Kabayeva, 31 years his junior. The paper then denied its own story and was closed by its owner.

Journalist Andrei Kolesnikov, who has close access to Putin, joked on his Russky Pioneer magazine website that Putin is now “the country’s most eligible bachelor”.

Putin and Lyudmila have been seen together extremely rarely in the last few years and their last public appearance seems to date back to May 2012 after Putin was inaugurated for a third term in office.

In recent years Putin has usually appeared at official functions, including foreign visits, alone — even if the presence of the first lady was expected according to protocol.

Putin, who was then working as a KGB agent, married Lyudmila Shkrebneva in July 1983, before he started his posting as a spy in the East German city of Dresden in 1985.

They first met in Putin’s home city of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) when Lyudmila, then working as a flight attendant, came for a short visit with a girlfriend. A friend introduced them.

According to his biography on his official website, Putin proposed to Lyudmila three years later.

“I knew that if I did not get married in two or three years, then I never would,” Putin is quoted as saying unromantically.