FROM Russia with love? Not in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In recent days, Mr Putin decided to reaffirm the Russian-Syrian geopolitical marriage of convenience by following through on a sale of arms to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. He then decided to disavow his own marriage to Lyudmila Shkrebneva, his wife of 29 years, announcing the divorce in as publicly humiliating a way as possible – his wife was standing by his side.
For years, rumours had persisted about the failed state of Mr Putin’s marriage. His alleged mistresses were named and proclaimed, but until now, it was taboo to discuss his private life publicly.
Vladimir and Lyudmila have rarely been seen together over the past decade, so there was plenty of gossip in Moscow. A few years ago, social media stoked rumours that Mr Putin was in fact already divorced and had remarried the gymnast Alina Kabaeva.
Why make such a public and staged announcement? After all, in Mr Putin’s Russia, the latter-day tsar can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
One suggestion is that he is seeking to divert attention from his support for Syria’s government and from increased repression of his domestic opponents. With a woman who, unlike Lyudmila, will be regularly seen at his side in the future, Mr Putin will present a gentler image at home and abroad.
If Russians believe that a new first lady will provide some humanising influence on the hard man of the Kremlin, they may be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But whether a new woman will help to soften foreigners’ perception of Mr Putin’s cynical diplomacy and increasingly brutal rule is open to question.
Another suggestion is that Mr Putin, like many Russians, is partial to all things French. He wants to show that, like France’s most famous politicians, he is a worldly dragueur who can “pull” beautiful women. And Mr Putin has already taken beauty tips from another Lothario, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, with Mr Putin’s 2010 facelift making his visage as smooth as that of the frequently Botoxed Berlusconi.
Indeed, one indication of the openness of a political system is whether or not a leader appears at public functions with his or her spouse. It is a demonstration of modernity and equality that even the secretive Chinese and North Korean leadership appear to have learned of late. The “first lady” institution is a sign that democracies see power as something to be shared, as, say, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama do. Dictators like Hitler or Stalin must stand alone.
When the Bolsheviks replaced Russia’s oppressive monarchy with communism in 1917, Vladimir Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” still left room for the leader not only to have a wife, but to let her have a public role. Nadezhda Krupskaya, the first Soviet First Lady, performed a suffragist function. By contrast, the suicide in 1939 of Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, underscored the reign of terror in the country. Nikita Khrushchev’s 1950s’ thaw allowed for his wife, Nina, to accompany him on trips abroad.
But, with Mr Khrushchev’s fall, Soviet first ladies returned to the dacha.
As with everything else in Russia, change in women’s status came with the onset of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Mr Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, stunned the nation not only by appearing in public, but by being fashionable and expressing opinions of her own.
Just as Mr Putin has created a “managed” democracy, Russians can now look forward to a “managed” Kremlin marriage – one that will attempt to flatter and sweeten their authoritarian leader in his dotage.
• Nina Khrushcheva is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she directs the Russia Project.