MOSCOW (Reuters) - Wearing a white veil and a simple long dress, Lyudmila Putin smiles softly from a picture snapped thirty summers ago, holding tight to the hand of a young KGB officer on their wedding day.
On Thursday, Vladimir and Lyudmila stood together again before a camera, but they did not touch as they told Russian state television their marriage was over.
The awkward announcement in the Kremlin confirmed the widespread assumption that President Vladimir Putin and his wife had separated, and were ending their troubled alliance with what she called a “civilized divorce”.
“Our marriage is over due to the fact that we barely see each other,” she said. “Vladimir Vladimirovich is completely submerged in his work. Our children have grown up, each of them is living her own life... And I truly don’t like publicity.”
That became increasingly clear over her husband’s 13 years at the helm of the world’s biggest country as president or prime minister. The pair had last been seen in public together at Putin’s inauguration to a third term on May 7, 2012.
Lyudmila had rarely been seen in recent years, even on her own, sparking speculation she was in a convent. During her husband’s two-term Kremlin stint in 2000-2008 she was at his side but rarely looked comfortable.
In their appearance on Thursday, the president told the nation his wife had “done her shift” as Russia’s First Lady.
She never wanted the job.
“She is a vital, natural person, without any caprices typical of ambitious people,” said Slava Zaitsev, a top Moscow fashion designer who has dressed her on several occasions. “An exceptionally modest person.”
“Back then she also used to tell me how she did not like too much to travel, show herself in public. She was not ready for this role. Being a president’s wife came down on her unexpectedly,” Zaitsev told Reuters.
Putin has closely guarded his private life and his family. But the Kremlin’s wall of silence only enhanced speculation about their marriage. A newspaper that reported rumors of an affair between him and a gymnast was abruptly shut.
The life of a first lady “was just not her thing,” said Vladimir Shevchenko, a former aide to Putin and acquaintance of the family. “Yes, she was not a public person, yes, she did not like the camera. But as a person, she was just amazing.”
A linguist who speaks French, German and Spanish, she worked in her youth as a flight attendant, a highly coveted job in the Soviet era.
She met her husband in their home city of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, when a mutual friend invited Putin to see a play along with several girlfriends. He is said to have hidden for much of their three-year courtship that he worked as a KGB spy.
“I started dating one of them. I became friends with Lyuda, my future wife,” Putin says on his presidential website.
“I understood that if I don’t marry for another two-three years, I will never marry. Though, of course, I had made a habit of leading a bachelor’s life. Lyudmila uprooted it.”
Lyudmila gave birth to their first daughter, Maria, just before they left for Germany where her husband was stationed as a Soviet spy in 1985-1990. Their second child, Katerina, was born in Dresden a year later.
After they returned to Russia, they lived in St Petersburg while the future president developed a career in municipal government. A person who knows the Putins from St Petersburg in the 1990s said that initially Lyudmila was eager to build an active role to match her husband but met with his resistance.
“She was very upset that he never took her anywhere, kept her in the shadow,” said the person, who declined to be named. “He did it because of the children, he worried if Lyudmila was in the spotlight, it will have a negative effect on the girls.”
“He thought a wife should be more modest and should not stick out.”
She is unlikely to raise her profile now, and is expected to remain loyal.
“What will she do now? ... I don’t think we will never even hear about it,” said analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “She never had any political ambitions, or any ambitions at all for that matter. She was just a person sorely tired of all that.”
Additonal Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Peter Graff