Most Russians have long considered President
Vladimir Putin to be de facto single, and his wife Lyudmila Putina's
public appearances have been a rarity for years.
So it came as little surprise to many when the couple announced late Thursday that they were divorcing.
"It felt like something that I had been long expecting," said Yelena Petrikova, a primary school teacher in Moscow.
On January 6, Putin hosted a small dinner party for French actor Gerard Depardieu at his Black Sea residence in Sochi. It was the day of his wife's 55th birthday, which passed without public mention and few raised eyebrows.
There were no surprises either when a day later, Putin showed up alone for an Orthodox Christmas service.
What was unusual about Thursday's announcement was its delivery - it was not a dry statement or a leak to national news media, but a three-minute exchange with a state TV crew that miraculously appeared after Lyudmila Putina suddenly showed up with her husband for a Kremlin ballet performance.
After chatting about the ballet, the reporter asked the couple if the rumours were true that they do not live together.
Putin took a deep breath before answering "it is," and explaining that his "absolutely public" life was completely incompatible for his wife.
The statement contrasts with the fact that unlike that of Western leaders, Putin's private life has been largely shrouded in secrecy.
Lyudmila Putina then said that "our marriage is over" - because they practically do not see each other.
Her explanation that she dislikes publicity and cannot stand flying caused ridicule because she worked as a flight attendant before she married Putin in 1983.
There was further scepticism over the main message of Thursday's shock news - that Putin simply works too much to have time for his wife.
"Everybody knows that he has long dedicated himself to the country - no matter how pretentious that sounds," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told lifenews.ru.
Those words resounded nicely amid the gossip about Putin's love life - focusing first on Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnastics gold medalist who became a State Duma deputy for the pro-Putin United Russia party.
Kabaeva shot to fame in 2008, when a Moscow newspaper was closed after reporting that Putin and Kabaeva's wedding was imminent.
She denied this as well as subsequent reports that she had given birth to a son and a daughter by Putin - which curiously appeared exclusively in the New York Post tabloid.
Peskov attempted to pour cold water on those rumour mills Friday, when he told Ekho Moskvy radio that "there is no other woman in Putin's life."
But that only led to more questions, about why Putin chose to make the announcement now - after denying for years that his marriage was troubled. Russian experts speculated that it was an attempt by Kremlin spin doctors to improve the president's image.
"Somebody decided to make him appear more humane after he looked more and more just like a man who puts people into prison," political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told dpa.
Since Putin returned to the presidency for his third term a year ago, law enforcement agencies have waged a crackdown on opposition and civil rights groups that critics say represents the worst rollback of Russia's democracy since the end of the Soviet Union.
The president remains the most popular politician by a large margin, but his approval ratings have been falling and observers no longer agree that he would stand for a fourth term in 2018.
However, most experts pointed out that in Russia, family life simply does not play the same role as in Western democracies.
"There is no moral filter in our political culture," said Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada polling agency.
His words were echoed by Yekaterina Yegorova, a political consultant who heads the Moscow-based Nikkolo M PR firm.
She argued that Putin was an "absolute character" who is either loved or hated, and that revelations about his private life won't alter opinions.
Yegorova said: "For those who love him, it does not matter with whom he sleeps - and for his opponents, too."
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