The National Times - Russia sanctions throw spotlight on Putin's guarded private life

Russia sanctions throw spotlight on Putin's guarded private life

Russia sanctions throw spotlight on Putin's guarded private life
Russia sanctions throw spotlight on Putin's guarded private life

Western sanctions targeting not just the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin but also his family have thrown a rare and unwanted spotlight on his private life, which the Kremlin has guarded with the fiercest secrecy.

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In an escalated response to Russian's invasion of Ukraine, the European Union and the United States on Wednesday announced their first sanctions against the two adult daughters of Putin from his marriage with his former wife, Lyudmila.

Meanwhile, pressure is growing for sanctions against Alina Kabaeva, a former rhythmic gymnast champion who media reports say is Putin's romantic companion, allegations never confirmed by the Kremlin.

Putin has commented on his private life only on a handful of occasions in more than two decades in power.

State media reports usually show him working and travelling alone, projecting an image of faithful dedication to the motherland that leaves little time for private leisure.

His only explicit announcement on his private life was a bizarre appearance with Lyudmila during the intermission of a ballet performance in Moscow in 2013, when he told a state television reporter that they were separating. They were confirmed to have divorced in 2014.

While Russian media have named his two daughters from Lyudmila as Maria Vorontsova and Katerina Tikhonova, Putin has never spoken of them by name or been officially photographed with them.

"My children are doing well. They are in Moscow. They study and work part time. All is well in their private life and in terms of their professional development. I am proud of them," he said in rare comments in 2012.

In August 2020 he said one of his daughters had taken part in a trial for Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, using her experience as proof of the vaccine's efficacity.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the Western move to sanction members of the family "speaks for itself" and did not merit further comment.

- 'Connection to Putin' -

Lyudmila's long absences from public view –- and images of her looking glum when she did appear –- had fuelled speculation about the Putins' private life long before their divorce.

In 2008, a small tabloid newspaper, Moskovsky Korrespondent, published a report that Putin was planning to marry Kabaeva, drawing a furious denial from Putin who told journalists to keep their "snotty noses" out of his private life.

The newspaper -- owned by the tycoon Alexander Lebedev, whose son Yevgeny would go on to be one of the most influential figures in British media –- did not just publish an apology but swiftly shut itself down entirely.

But the speculation of the relationship between Putin and Kabaeva never went away, and was explored in an explosive investigation by opposition leader Alexei Navalny that was published just after he was arrested in January 2021.

Navalny alleged that Kabaeva's relationship with Putin had given her a network of luxury properties across Russia and also a lavishly paid role as chairperson of the board at the state media holding company National Media Group (NMG).

"There is no doubt that Alina Maratovna Kabaeva jumps better than anyone else with a ball and ribbon, but she would not have been able to manage television companies and newspapers if it weren't for her connection with Putin," Navalny commented at the time.

Navalny's team alleges that Kabaeva was given the post at NMG –- which holds the government's stakes in media including Pervy Kanal (Channel One) television –- by Yuri Kovalchuk, a member of Putin's inner circle who is now targeted by US sanctions.

Allegations shared on social media have said that Kabaeva is currently in Switzerland, and a petition that has now gathered some 75,000 signatures has urged the Alpine nation to take action against her.

"Why now, given the volume of sanctions placed on Russia, are you continuing to host her and her family, while Putin is destroying the lives of millions?" the petition asked.

- Russian propagandist? -

According to Swiss broadcaster RTS, the federal Swiss government examined the issue of the presence of Alina Kabaeva in the country at a meeting of its Ukraine task force.

But the authorities "found no indication that this person was present in Switzerland. The necessary checks were carried out," it quoted an official statement as saying.

Georgy Alburov, a researcher with Navalny's anti-corruption fund, said it defied belief that Kabaeva had so far escaped Western sanctions given her proximity to the nexus of power.

"She is part of Putin's inner circle, she is a member of his family who takes advantage of his position," he said, adding that her official media job makes her a "major Russian propagandist."

And opponents allege that Putin's purported relationship with Kabaeva by no means represents the last word in his private life.

In November 2020, online Russian investigative site Proekt published a report alleging that a woman named Svetlana Krivonogikh had suddenly obtained a stake in the Rossia bank owned by Kovalchuk.

In 2003, it said, Krivonogikh had given birth to a daughter with a strong physical likeness to Putin and whose middle name, which in Russia is always the father's name, is derived from Vladimir.

The Kremlin at the time said that the article did not amount to "serious material" and was not worthy of further comment.