US first lady Michelle Obama, French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and British first lady Samantha Cameron: The first wives of the modern era are an electoral asset, often as ubiquitous as their spouses — and in some cases more popular.
Not so in Russia. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin readies himself for the formality of re-election, there is a gaping hole at his side where his wife should be.
Putin is rarely pictured in public with Lyudmila Putina. One of the last sightings of the couple came in October 2010, when they filled out census forms for the television cameras. Putina fidgeted uncomfortably throughout, prompting renewed speculation about the relationship.
“There are exotic rumors, that she’s been hidden in a monastery or somewhere in the Kremlin, somewhere against her will,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a deputy with Putin’s United Russia party and an expert on the Russian elite.
Kryshtanovskaya said that “in all public meetings, [Putin] wears a ring, like he’s still a married man.”
He has in the past been forced to deny rumors that he was seeking to divorce his wife of 29 years to pursue a relationship with Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, with whom he is rumored to have had a son.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last year: “The fact that the prime-ministerial couple so rarely appears in public is connected with Vladimir Putin’s full working schedule.”
Asked if Putina’s absence would negatively affect Putin’s image, Kryshtanovskaya said: “For Western people, maybe it’s strange. For Russians, it’s totally normal.”