LAST week at Moscow’s waterfront World Trade Center, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual news conference.
He spoke to some 1,400 journalists on issues ranging from corruption to foreign policy, but it was comments about his two adult daughters — Maria, 30, and Katerina, 29 — that really shocked the audience.
When a reporter asked about their whereabouts and lives, Putin provided what, from him, passes for illumination.
“They live in Russia and have never lived anywhere other than Russia permanently,” he said, his face frozen and expressionless — allegedly the result of a facelift and too many Botox injections.
“They studied only at Russian universities. I am proud of them. They continue to study and work. My daughters speak three European languages fluently. One of them can even speak one or two Oriental languages. They are making their first steps and are successful.”
Then he pretty much shut it all down: “I never discuss questions related to my family. They are not involved in business or politics. They are not pushing for this.”
Still, it was a rare moment of personal revelation for the Slavic strongman, whose inner vault is more secure than a gulag prison cell.
“Putin achieved his political rise through secrecy and blackmail,” says Clifford Gaddy, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. “Transparency is a non-concept in Russian politics.”
Putin used “security concerns” as the excuse for keeping his family so deeply under wraps, though it’s unclear why he suddenly decided to release even oblique details.
“He chose to do it, so he had to be doing it for a purpose,” says Gaddy, admitting that he, like everyone outside of Putin’s most inner of inner circles, has no explanation for the unusual statements. “That may have been the most sensitive question of the entire news conference.”
Maria and Katerina are the products of Putin’s first marriage to former Aeroflot flight attendant Lyudmila Shkrebneva. The couple wed in 1983, and for the most part Putin kept her entirely out of the spotlight.
Unfortunately, he could not do the same for his Olympic gold-medallist mistress.
In 2009, while still married to Lyudmila, rumour has it that Putin became embroiled in an affair with rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. Just 25 years old at the time, Kabaeva was famous for her flexibility and admitted infatuation with “strong men.”
Soon after the involvement began, it was reported that Kabaeva, who retired as the winningest female rhythmic gymnast in history, flashed an enormous diamond ring and conveniently became a member of parliament in Putin’s United Russia Party.
The European press said Kabaeva gave birth to a boy named Dmitry in 2009, said to have been fathered by Putin, though in a cover story for Russian Vogue she insisted that the boy was her “sweet little nephew Arsenio.”
All of this likely contributed to Putin’s split from Lyudmila in 2013. The first couple, who hadn’t been seen together in more than a year, was leaving a state performance of the ballet ‘La Esmeralda’ in the private Grand Kremlin Palace when an interviewer inquired about rumours concerning them no longer living together.
It was obviously staged; no Russian journalist would have had the temerity to ask such a personal question without permission.
Putin answered, “Well, it is so.” The Kremlin confirmed the divorce had been finalised in April 2014.
Gaddy says the outwardly amicable split was extremely fishy.
“Now nobody sees her and I guarantee she will not be writing a tell-all about her years with Vladimir Putin,” he says.
Lyudmila vanished, but as Putin’s daughters age it’s become more difficult to keep them out of the spotlight.
Katerina, once a competitive acrobatic dancer who finished fifth in a Swiss world championship, is now reportedly heading up a company overseeing a $2.3-billion construction effort at Moscow University. She has no known experience in construction and development, but her advisers include a pair of former KGB agents with longstanding ties to her father.
“At that news conference, Putin acknowledged having daughters, but he did not address the issue of state-owned property being handed to Katerina in a shady manner that ought to be transparent,” says Masha Gessen, the Russian-born author of Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. “She’s making millions of dollars by developing this land for the university.
In 2013, Katerina discreetly married petrochemical investor Kirill Shamalov, a longtime crony of her dad. The wedding took place at a heavily guarded ski resort.
Soon after, Shamalov got his hands on a 17 per cent stake in a firm called Sibur, the largest petrochemical holding company in Russia. He bought the shares in 2014 for an undisclosed sum from billionaire businessman Gennady Timchenko, a former judo partner of Putin’s.
Less is known about Putin’s eldest daughter, Maria. She was reportedly named after Putin’s mother and studied biology at St. Petersburg State University.
In 2014, the first daughter was living with her Dutch partner, Jorrit Faassen, an executive with the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom.
But in July of that year, the Dutch reportedly drove Maria out of the country following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which departed from Amsterdam and was shot down by pro-Russia insurgents in Ukraine.
Less than a year after Katerina’s nuptials, rumours swirled that Putin had gotten married himself — this time to Kabaeva, now 30 to Putin’s 61. The brunette stunner flashed a gold band on her ring finger while attending a sporting event.
Of course, Putin did not announce this with cards sent through the mail. Word came over Twitter via his political rival Alexei Navalny. Gaddy wonders if even this might have been a stage-managed leak.
“Sometimes I think he promotes these things just like he promotes the wacky bareback horseriding stuff,” says the author. “Half the Russian population probably thinks he’s awesome for being with a 30-year-old babe.”
Less likely to get the approved-leak treatment is recent news of Kabaeva’s second child sired by Putin. In March, the Swiss media reported that a baby-girl Putin was born inside a super-secret birthing hospital, near the Italian border.
Putin was supposedly absent for the delivery, though automobiles with Russian license plates swarmed the area. While the world wants to know whether it’s true, Putin’s keeping mum and, in a culture where sensitive documents and adversarial reporters both have a knack for disappearing, the question has yet to be raised at home.
“Rumours are out there and the birth in Switzerland has been reported in print and on the net,” says Gaddy who acknowledges that Putin is so closed-off that writing about him requires artful speculation. “Questions about the baby would be good ones to ask — if only someone was brave enough to do it.”