At home with the Putins
She is the normally taciturn wife of the Russian president, but in a rare interview with the country's state newspaper, Ludmila Putin spills the beans on everything from eating habits to Vladimir's golden rules about women. Nick Paton Walsh reports
Monday June 6, 2005
To some it may sound dysfunctional and autocratic, but in Russia, it is the model family. The man - a terse, authoritarian workaholic - comes home, knackered, to his kitchen table in the leafy suburbs between 11.30 and midnight, slumps into a chair, and drinks a glass of yoghurty milk. The family know this is the time to approach him to seek his consent for things, but never to ask him about work. He grunts, makes dark and ironic jokes that bemuse his long-serving and adoring wife, seldom asks his family's advice about the myriad of incurable problems besetting his brow and beloved motherland, and then goes to sleep.
Such is the draining effect of a life in the KGB that somehow led you to the top of the Kremlin. In a rare glimpse inside chez Putin, Ludmila Putina, Russia's first lady, has revealed, in a comparatively in-depth interview this week to the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta and two other dailies, the pecking order and mores of life with the ineffaceable Vladimir Vladimirovich and their two daughters Katya and Masha.
"All the family members know that when you want to discuss something with him you wait his arrival at the kitchen table for his evening glass of kefir ," said Putina, 48. "At this time you can talk, ask him about the day," she said of the former spy who appears to never let his guard down, knowing not to bring state secrets home.
Putina said that, although her husband is a "walking encyclopedia" of political and historical knowledge, any questions have to be confined to "general information". She added: "To ask him about plans regarding work is, of course, useless. Better not to bother." Unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the path to whose door was, for many, through his wife and daughter, Putin has already made it clear he will not be influenced by, or through, his family. "He just made it understood that this is unacceptable," she said. "And I, of course, as is always the case in our family, accepted this position as my own."
The interview text that appears in each of the three newspapers is identical, suggesting that Putina's spin doctors may have had as much play in its conception as the four participants of the interview. But all the same, it shows us how the Kremlin's Alastair Campbells want us to think life in the Putin home works. For Kremlin watchers, it also provides the intriguing possibility that a president increasingly criticised for his authoritarian and anti-democratic methods, first learned how to dominate in the home.
Putina said the Kremlin head - whose advisors claim he surrounds himself with a plurality of opinions - has not once admitted he followed her advice. "I think that really, like any clever educated person, he considers many opinions, including mine. But he never says, 'Here I took your opinion into account.'"
It's the model of Slavic family harmony. The woman lets the man get on with the male work of earning money. The man lets the woman bring up the kids. In reality, amid the social turmoil of today's Russia, often itinerant fathers have meant many children are raised by single mothers, who rely on their grandmothers to babysit while they work. Putina has previously said her busy, globe-trotting husband is an excellent father, but in this interview adds that "he never interferes" in her educating of the children - to her great success, she claims.
"What educated and disciplined children we have," she said, adding that at times Katya, 19, or Masha, 20, will occasionally ask their mother a late-night question which turns into a chat until the early hours. "My heart flutters when I think about our relationship." Her secret may be more down to circumstance rather than skill. She said she spared no expense on their leisure or schooling. "You can always spoil children, big or small, by fulfilling any of their wishes which do not damage them."
The pair met when he was a student in St Petersburg and she was an air-hostess, at the time living in Kaliningrad, flying to the country's cultural capital to date the future president before he joined the KGB. He married Ludmila in 1983, at the comparatively old age of 30 (by Soviet standards). His spying took them to East Germany together, before he joined local government in St Petersburg in the early 1990s.
The Putins have always gone to extreme lengths to appear the antidote to Russia's previous ruling families, the Gorbachevs and Yeltsins, in which the women were seen to have too great an influence over their presidential men. President Putin's domestic dogma appears to have given him the same complete control over his three women as he seeks over Russia's political life.
In September 2002, the Kremlin's first lady laid out his domestic constitution in a new authorised biography of her husband. She said he had two golden rules about women: "A woman must do everything in the home" and "You should not praise a woman otherwise you will spoil her."
The latter rule has apparently forced her to give up one of the key domestic tasks of a Russian women, she added. "He never praises me and that has totally put me off cooking. He is extremely difficult to cook for and will refuse to eat a dish if he does not like the slightest thing in it." She added: "He has put me to the test throughout our life together. I constantly feel that he is watching me and checking that I make the right decisions." The president has reportedly even banned Ludmila from having a credit card, her husband thinking this will give way to "western temptations".
The presidential sense of humour, she claims, is also trying. Putin is renowned for his black jokes - reportedly once telling a boy laid up in hospital with a broken leg after being hit by a car: "That'll teach you to break traffic regulations." She said: "I find it hard to understand dark humour, irony. I like kind, simple humour. I can't say we always have that sort of humour in the family."
Raisa Gorbachev, the late and beloved companion to the man who broke up the Soviet Union and ended the cold war, once commented: "The voice of women is not heard in this country." The same - which could also be said of Putin's political opposition in the state-controlled media - remains true today. Putina bemoans the lack of women in Russian politics, adding that 25% of French politicians are female. "One can say that the world consists of men and women, but power belongs only to men," she said.
But while Russia's chauvanism clearly does not ebb away at the Putin residence's doors, Putina stands her ground - up to a point. "In my family I have always stood up for my rights and the rights of all women, but I strive not to do it aggressively," she said. "Aggressive [methods], in my view, are not acceptable at any place or time. And they only hurt us women." She continues: "Aggressive feminism is basically female chauvanism. I always find it unpleasant when at a table at a forum or in a company women suddenly start saying negative things about men in their presence."
But despite such mild feminist rumblings, in such a climate of control and restriction, it's little surprise that her view of the first lady's job description is to stand, harmlessly, by her man. She said: "Above all you have to first of all think how not to damage to the activities of the president." Putina said when her husband's second term expires in 2008 she's not sure what to expect. Asked what she wants him to do, she said: "To be a happy man."