Russian President Vladimir Putin, who announced today that he is splitting with his wife Lyudmila after nearly 30 years of marriage, will be his country's first divorced leader since Peter the Great.
Peter, in 1698, forced his first wife Yevdokia to take vows as a nun. The Putins, who broke the news after attending a performance of the ballet "Esmeralda" in the Kremlin, say their parting is more amicable.
Putin explained that his wife could no longer put up with his highly public lifestyle and heavy workload. “There are people who just cannot put up with it,” he said. “Lyudmila Alexandrovna has stood watch for eight, almost nine years.”
Lyudmila confirmed this version of the amicable breakup: “Our marriage is over because we hardly ever see each other. Vladimir Vladimirovich is immersed in his work, our children have grown and are living their own lives.”
The announcement stunned Russians because it is a complete break with both Orthodox and Soviet traditions. Putin has lately presided over a resurgence of Orthodox Christianity, which he considers the backbone of Russian spirituality. It is highly out of character for Putin, a devout churchgoer, to flout the Orthodox creed so publicly.
The head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, last year strongly condemned divorces. “When we destroy a family, we destroy love. Love and pleasure are not the same," he said. "This is not the right thing to do. It is hard for a modern person to accept, but God did not wish it.”
Putin's Soviet predecessors, starting with Vladimir Lenin, kept their marriages intact even though some of them had their dalliances. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, was happily married to the same woman all his life.
“Now it’s absolutely clear he’s a double,” journalist Stepan Opalev wrote on Facebook. “The real Putin would never have done it.”
Putin has long been rumored to have an affair with former champion rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. The New York Post has reported that they have two children together. Russian media have never confirmed the story, and one newspaper that dared to print it in 2008, Moskovsky Korrespondent, was closed down immediately afterward.
Speculation about Putin’s next move was rife on social networks. “If there is a wedding, I hope I get to emcee it,” pop and opera singer Nikolai Baskov wrote on Twitter.
And, of course, there were the divorce jokes. "'Let's go see La Esmeralda' will surely be the new code word for a divorce," Lilia Rakshenko wrote on Facebook. "Which half of Russia will Ludmila Alexandrovna get?" wrote Facebook user Maxim Fedorov.
Putin's opponents were in a humorous mood, too, but their jokes were decidedly bitter. "I wish he would leave us like he left her,” former privatization minister Alfred Kokh wrote. “He could find himself a better country, Jamaica or maybe Switzerland. Someplace warmer and with happier people.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is the Moscow correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)