The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.
Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother -- a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.
No record of anything as disgraceful has happened since -- either in tsarist or Soviet times. (Catherine the Great was estranged from her husband, had him arrested and may have ordered his death: But she never divorced him.) The Tsars’ wives varied in the degrees of independence they showed. Some – for example, Alexandra, wife of the last Tsar Nicholas II and murdered with him and their five children by the Bolsheviks in May 1918 – were strongly opinionated, in her case (like Evdokia) harshly conservative and autocratic.
The Soviet wives, lacking the status grand aristocratic families lent the tsarinas, were largely invisible. But then came Raisa Gorbacheva, whose elegance threw their dowdiness into much-remarked relief, and whose closeness to and influence on her husband, Mikhail, was as evident as his grief from her death in 1999.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich is completely drowned in work,” she told a respectful interviewer earlier this week. She was standing a little behind her husband, praising him and agreeing that it was, as he said, “a civilized divorce.”
This rehearsed interview may have tactfully glossed over the fact that Putin was drowned in more than work.
The rumors of Putin’s affair – with the Olympic gold medalist gymnast Alina Kabayeva – have been in the global public domain for five years. That was when a bold Russian journalist put the rumors to Putin when he was visiting then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the latter’s Sardinian estate in April 2008. “Not one word of truth” snapped Putin to the reporter – while Berlusconi, shaping his hand into a pistol, took imaginary aim at her.
In the relationship between the former KGB officer and the Italian plutocrat – one of the closest between leaders on the international scene – is likely to lie some of the explanation for Putin’s divorce. “Putin mirrors himself on Berlusconi,” says the Dutch publisher and longtime Moscow resident Derek Sauer. Though he adds Berlusconi has the intellectual advantage over the Russian.
Putin has been loyal to a fault over his friend’s sins of the flesh, telling a 2011 investors’ conference in Sochi – while Berlusconi was still prime minister – that “however much they nag Signor Berlusconi for his special attitude to the beautiful sex, and, by the way, they nag him mainly because of jealousy, he has shown himself as a responsible statesman. ”
Russians (they are not alone in this) have long seen Italy as a demi-paradise – for its climate, its food, its beauty. Today, Russian is heard often in the more exclusive resorts of the peninsula, and several oligarchs have villas there.
Putin’s fascination is, to that extent, traditional, and adroitly channeled by a master of Italian charm. The relationship may also have a more material side. As loud as the gossip about Putin’s affair are rumors of a joint financial interest that both men have in the deals which energy-poor Italy has made with energy-rich Russia. Among the leaked cables published by WikiLeaks – for which Private First Class Bradley Manning is now standing trial – was one where the U.S. ambassador to Rome, Ronald Spogli, reflecting that Berlusconi admired the Russian’s “macho style,” added that “contacts in both the opposition center-left Partito Democratico and Berlusconi's own PDL party … have hinted at a more nefarious connection. They believe that Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia."
Putin is now free. Free to marry his alleged lover (who is also said already to have one or two children by him); free to find another companion; free to drown himself even more deeply in his work.
He has much with which to occupy himself: large figures, as the former chess champion Gary Kasparov and the leading economist Sergei Guriev, have in the past few weeks quit a country they see as heading for more repression; and the economy is buoyed up only by high oil prices. In addition, Putin’s popularity ratings, once high, are now falling, as did Berlusconi in the months before he was pushed out of office at the end of 2011.
But he may still have more comfort to take from his Italian mentor. Berlusconi’s party, the People of Freedom, is again Italy’s most popular, and the man himself is again riding moderately high. “Italian voters,” explained Francesco Giumelli, “have always been attracted by the uomo forte, the strong man, a charismatic leader who is capable of singlehandedly solving the country’s problems.”
Putin is now free to solve all of his country’s problems: and may, like Berlusconi, gain admiration rather than contempt if he succeeds, at 60, in uniting with a much younger woman.
All the world loves a lover. Or, at least, sees him as reassuringly human.
PHOTO (Insert A): Vladimir Putin (L) and his wife Lyudmila attend a service to mark the start of his term as Russia's new president at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Pool
Photo (Insert B): Former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, in a 1994 file photo. REUTERS/files
PHOTO (Insert C): Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (R) and his fiancee Francesca Pascale walk at the Rome train station Dec. 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tony Gentile