Western sanctions targeting not only the close circle of the Russian president, but also his family, have thrown an unusual light on the private life of Vladimir Putin, usually kept in strict opacity.
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The United States and the European Union have announced the first sanctions against the two adult daughters of the head of state from his first marriage to Lyudmila. The pressure is also mounting in parallel on Alina Kabaeva, a former gymnast whom some media and opponents claim would be his mistress, allegations never confirmed by the Kremlin.
Putin is, to say the least, discreet about his private life. State media usually show him working or traveling alone, too busy serving the country to enjoy private leisure.
The only breach of this omerta was his public appearance with Lyudmila at the intermission of a ballet in Moscow in 2013, the occasion to announce a separation finally consummated a year later.
The Russian media name the two daughters of this union Maria Vorontsova and Katerina Tikhonova, but Putin never referred to them. “My children are doing well. They are in Moscow (…). All is well in their private lives and professional careers. I’m proud of them,” he said in one of his rare public comments in 2012.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the new sanctions against Maria and Katerina, saying the decision “speaks for itself”.
But their mother Lyudmila’s long absences in public, and her sullen air when she appeared, had sparked speculation about the Moscow strongman’s private life long before his divorce.
In 2008, a small tabloid, Moskovsky Korrespondent, claimed that Putin wanted to marry Alina Kabaeva. Furious, he had invited journalists to keep their “nose full of snot” away from his private life.
The newspaper of businessman Alexander Lebedev, whose son Yevgeny has become a media figure in Great Britain, had published a detailed apology before closing shop for good.
But this relationship between Putin and the gymnast remained in people’s minds and is the subject of an investigation by dissident Alexei Navalny, published just before his arrest in January 2021.
The opponent claimed that Kabaeva enjoyed a network of luxury properties in Russia, as well as a highly paid position on the board of directors of the public group National Media Group (NMG), offered by the oligarch Yuri Kovalchuk, close of Putin and himself hit with individual sanctions today.
“There is no doubt that Alina Maratovna Kabaeva danced better than anyone with a ball and a ribbon, but would have no skill in managing audiovisual companies and newspapers without her connection to Putin,” Navalny said.
Reports on social media have located her currently in Switzerland and a petition claiming 75,000 signatures demands sanctions against her. “Why, given the volume of sanctions against Russia, do you now continue to welcome him with his family when Putin is destroying the lives of millions of people?” Asks the text.
According to Swiss television RTS, citing an official statement, the federal government examined the file, but found “no indication that this person was in Switzerland”.
Georgy Alburov, a researcher at Navalny’s anti-corruption fund, said it was inconceivable that she would escape sanctions. “She is part of Putin’s inner circle, she is a member of his family who takes advantage of his situation,” he said, adding that her role in official media made her a “major Russian propagandist”.
Opponents also claim that Putin’s alleged affair with Kabaeva is not exclusive. In November 2020, the online investigation site Proekt claimed that a certain Vetlana Krivonogikh had been granted shares in the Rossia bank, by the same Yuri Kovalchuk.
In 2003, she gave birth to a daughter with Vladimir as her surname. The Kremlin had refused to comment on an article devoid of “serious elements”.