MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Moscow newspaper that reported Vladimir Putin had divorced his wife and planned to marry an Olympic gymnast was closed by its publishers on Friday, just hours after the Russian president angrily denied the report.
Moskovsky Korrespondent said last week Putin had secretly divorced his 50-year-old wife, Lyudmila, and would wed Alina Kabayeva, a 24-year-old Olympic gold medallist in rhythmic gymnastics, in the summer.
The 55-year-old Kremlin leader reacted furiously when asked about the report at a news briefing in Sardinia with Italian prime minister-elect, Silvio Berlusconi.
“There is not one word of truth in what you have said,” he told the journalist who asked the question.
“I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others’ lives,” the former KGB spy said.
Until the news briefing in Italy, most of the Russian media had not touched the story in Moskovsky Korrespondent, a racy tabloid owned by pro-government deputy Alexander Lebedev.
The newspaper quoted society sources as saying plans were being laid in St Petersburg, Putin’s home town, for a lavish summer wedding.
On Friday it at first defended its story and said editorial staff did not intend to apologise “despite pressure from people linked to the owner of the paper”.
Igor Dudinsky, deputy editor-in-chief, told Reuters: “We stand by our story -- we had information and we reported it.”
But after Putin spoke, publisher National Media Company said it had suspended publication until it had found “a new concept” for the title.
Editor-in-chief Grigory Nekhoroshev had resigned, Interfax news agency reported.
Artyom Artyomov, head of the National Media Company, was quoted by Interfax as saying the move had nothing to do with the reported romance.
“There is no question of any political background behind the decision to suspend the newspaper’s publication,” he said.
“We will decide on a new concept for the newspaper and a business plan for its development in the near future.
The newspaper’s website www.moscor.ru was also abruptly switched off on Friday night.
Putin, who steps down as president in May, married Lyudmila, a former Aeroflot air hostess, in 1983 and they have two daughters who are both in their twenties.
A fan of theatre, music and winter sports, Lyudmila has at times looked uncomfortable with her official role.
Putin has so far kept his private life out of the media and reports about his family are very rare in the Russian press, which carefully follows Kremlin guidance.
Putin said media had linked him to a host of women including Kabayeva and Russian television journalist Yekaterina Andreyeva.
“In other such publications other successful, beautiful young women and girls have been mentioned. I don’t think it will be a surprise if I say that I like them all -- because they are all Russian women,” Putin said with a smile.
Kabayeva, whose website www.alinakabaeva.narod.ru proclaims her “the most magnificent gymnast in the world”, was born in Uzbekistan. She won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens for rhythmic gymnastics.
A spokeswoman for Kabayeva said of reports of her relations with Putin: “It is rubbish, all complete rubbish. Alina is not going to comment on the rubbish published by the tabloid press.”
Recruited into Putin’s United Russia in a drive to add glamour to the ruling party, Kabayeva was elected a deputy in the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, last December, although she is not often seen there.
According to her website, Kabayeva lists collecting cuddly toys among her hobbies.
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