Russians were in shock Friday after President Vladimir Putin announced, on a 24-hour cable news network, that he will be divorcing his wife Lyudmila, just one month short of what would have been their 30th wedding anniversary.
Many Russians are speculating on Mr. Putin's reasons for taking what is, for Russian leaders, the highly unusual step of divorcing his wife. The last Russian leader to publicly ditch his official spouse was Putin's own personal hero, Peter the Great, and that occurred over 300 years ago.
Some experts say Putin may have just wanted to end what may have become for himself and Lyudmilla a tiresome fiction. Others say his motives might be the same as any number of kings and czars of the past, who get rid of one wife in order to acquire a new one.
"It's possible that he'll remarry. Why not?" says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"If that is indeed his reason, he'll probably want to move quickly. When the next presidential election cycle comes around in less than five years, he'll want to have that relationship firmly established," he says.
It's been obvious for some time that Putin and his wife were leading separate lives, but little else has been known since the Kremlin clamps a very tight lid on any news about Russia's first family. Like many Soviet wives in the past, Lyudmila Putina had been something of a gray blur, appearing at a few public events with her husband – the last time was at his inauguration just over a year ago – but otherwise keeping out of the limelight.
In what was clearly a pre-arranged and carefully-choreographed public message, Mr. and Mrs. Putin stepped out of their private loge at the Grand Kremlin Palace theater Thursday night, where a journalist for the state-owned Russia-24 network suddenly appeared and, after a bit of small talk, asked the president an unthinkable question: "You appear in public together so rarely, and there are rumors that you don’t live together. Are they true?"
That was the cue for Putin to explain that the marriage was over.
"All my activity, all my work is connected to being in the public eye. Some people like this, some don’t, but there are people who are completely incompatible with this," he said, adding that Lyudmila had been "standing watch" in the capacity of first lady for nine years.
"This really was our mutual decision," Mrs. Putina said. "I really do dislike life in the public eye and air travel is very difficult for me. And we hardly see each other."
At the end of the interview Putin added a remark that was clearly aimed at quelling the endless rumors about the whereabouts of the Putins' two fully grown daughters, Maria and Yekaterina, who have not been seen in public for years.
"Lyudmila Alexandrovna mentioned our children," Putin said, using his wife's name and patronymic in the formal Russian style.
"We love them very much. We are very proud of them. They have indeed grown up. Their lives are unfolding. And by the way, they got their education in Russia and live in Russia on a permanent basis," he added.
Experts say Putin is running a slight political risk, given that he has steered Russia in a conservative direction over the past year and aligned the Kremlin more closely with the Orthodox Church than it's been since Czarist times. The church does not smile upon divorce. However, most Russians seem likely to sympathize with their president: In 2012, Russia had the world's highest divorce rate at 5 divorces per 1,000 people.
One of Russia's leading political sociologists, Olga Kryrshtanovskaya, says that despite the clearly scripted manner of Putin's divorce announcement, it's probably not going to hurt his image among the majority of Russians.
"For us, this is a stunning event," she says. "From the political point of view it is something extraordinary. It looks like the authorities are trying to become more open, to have a human face. Democratic practices can arrive in such ways, even through such an odd occurrence as the president' s divorce."
"And it's already clear that the public does understand, everybody feels that he is a human being like all of us," she says.
"But, if there is a second act, and he's planning to do something like get married again, the attitude could change," Ms. Kryshtanovskaya adds. "There have been rumors about other women in his life for some time. If he should decide to get married again, particularly to a younger woman, that could rub a lot of Putin's fans the wrong way. Putin's supporters tend to be conservative, and many of them are middle-aged women who've been divorced by their own husbands. I doubt he'll dare to get married again."
Rumors have swirled for years about Putin's alleged relationship with Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast who was handed a new career as a Duma deputy by the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. In 2008, a Moscow tabloid, Moskovsky Korrespondent, quoted a St. Petersburg wedding planner as saying he's been hired to prepare a lavish wedding for Putin and Ms. Kabayeva after the president divorced his wife. Within days, the newspaper pled bankruptcy and shut down.
"Everyone's talking about this because divorce is not in our political culture, even if it's common in the society as a whole," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta.
"Putin may be just doing this for protocol reasons, so that he can finally appear alone in public without that question mark hanging over him. He may just want to feel more free. And his wife may want to be free too. Maybe there will be some other changes in his life, but it's too early to comment on that."