Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Real Housewives of the Kremlin

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has long been the United States' official journalistic voice to the world, and a source of quality reporting, which makes the appearance of this rather tabloid-y (but still interesting) story about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rather interesting.  In it, journalist and German intelligence expert,  Erich Schmidt-Eenboom makes the claim that during Putin's time as a KGB agent in East Germany, a West German counter-agent was able to penetrate his inner circle and become a close confidant to Putin's wife Lyudmila, and that's where the juicy details come in.  According to the report, Lyudmila Putina confided to the agent, identified as a woman called “Lenochka”, that Putin was a womanizer who regularly beat her.  Lenochka herself was later removed from the assignment after falling in love with the KGB colonel who ran Putin's unit.

It is a description of the Putins relationship at odds at least with the carefully-crafted public image of the couple.  Shortly after Putin quickly rose from obscurity to become President Boris Yeltsin's handpicked successor, a biography of personal anecdotes from Putin's early years called First Person was published; one of the stories it contained was how in the early days of his marriage Putin nursed Lyudmila back to health after she was badly injured in a car accident.  However, as RFE/RL notes, Putin has otherwise been fiercely protective of his private life, with his daughters never appearing in public or the press and, as RFE/RL wryly notes, public appearances with Lyudmila “have become as rare as Siberian yeti sightings.”  Now it is one thing to keep his daughters out of the public eye, but politicians wives are expected to pubicly support their husbands, which makes Lyudmila's absence all the more unusual, fueling rumors that the couple had in fact divorced or that Putin was keeping a girlfriend on the side, possibly (according to Russia's version of gossip columnists) former Olympic gold medalist, gymnast and current member of parliament, Alina Kabayeva.

Beyond the sleazy salaciousness of the Putin story, I also find it interesting that RFE/RL chose to run such a gossipy piece in the first place.  You have to wonder if this is part of a subtle media campaign to undermine the public image of the once and future President of Russia, since the column has appeared shortly after Putin announced that he, rather than current President Dmitry Medvedev, would be representing the United Russia party in next year's presidential election.  And then there is the sinking popularity of United Russia itself.  While still the dominant party in Russian politics, United Russia's own popularity is waning.  In a recent poll, only 51% of Russians said they would support United Russia, a drop of 9% from the previous poll.  In an effort to boost their profile ahead of parliamentary elections in December, United Russia released an edgy TV ad designed to appeal to young voters: in it a young woman exchanges glances with a young man before stepping into the voting booth, her hand then shoots out from behind the voting booth curtain, grabbing him and dragging him inside.  After a few seconds, the two disheveled voters emerge from the booth with the tagline “Let's Do It Together” then appearing on screen (y'know, vote).  The racy ad is being roundly criticized by opposition politicians who note that voting is something one is suppose to do alone.   
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