Even more than usual, Vladimir Putin is proving to be an absolute boon to the media’s speculation wing right now. The decisions he has made over the past few weeks have been so unthinkable—and at times so bewildering—that the press has tied itself into knots trying to ascertain exactly what’s going on in his mind.
Has he gone mad? Is his invasion of Ukraine all part of some fiendish game of four-dimensional Vulcan chess that we’re all too dumb to understand? Will he really risk nuclear destruction just for a reclaimed scrap of the U.S.S.R.? So far, the best minds in the business have been unable to figure out exactly what makes Putin tick.
Perhaps, then, we could gain some insight by looking at his personal life. This is trickier than it sounds, because—despite his love of posing for official photos with his shirt off—Putin is a man who likes to keep his private life private. Unlike, say, Boris Johnson, who for many years avoided revealing how many children he had fathered because he genuinely looked like he might have lost count, Putin uses tactics that are a little more authoritarian in scope.
For instance, in April 2008, the Moskovsky Korrespondent newspaper ran a story claiming that Putin had divorced Lyudmila Shkrebneva, his wife of 25 years, in order to marry an Olympic gymnast. Putin’s response? Getting the paper closed down.
In the end, it took another five years for Putin to announce his divorce from Shkrebneva. And, at least as far as anyone can tell, the split has been remarkably civil. Shkrebneva quickly married Artur Ocheretny, a handsome man 21 years her junior, who also happens to be the director of her vaguely named Center for the Development of Interpersonal Communications foundation.
And Putin moved on, too, to the aforementioned athlete. We may never know what Putin saw in Alina Kabaeva, a young rhythmic gymnast who won gold at the 2004 Olympics and was once dubbed “Russia’s most flexible woman.” It could be her political nous, given her meteoric elevation to becoming a member of the Russian parliament shortly after meeting Putin. Or it could be her extraordinary understanding of the modern media landscape, as evidenced by the job she got chairing the board of directors at Russia’s largest media conglomerate despite having no formal experience in that sort of role. Maybe he even fell in love with her negotiation skills, since she is somehow reportedly earning $10 million a year.
Either way, the relationship seems to be working out. They may also have four young children together, plus Putin has the two grown-up daughters he fathered with Shkrebneva. And Kabaeva was recently seen with a wedding band on her finger. True, they live in different countries now and Putin has never formally acknowledged the relationship, but who are we to judge how other people live?
A powerful man such as Putin can be forgiven for allowing his eye to wander from time to time. But even his rumored affairs have a certain charm to them. For example, he was once linked to Svetlana Krivonogikh, with whom he is thought to have fathered a daughter (19-year-old Luiza Rozova, a fashion designer, D.J., forcibly retired Instagram influencer, and full-time Putin look-alike). But get this: before she suddenly became a millionaire, thanks to an anonymous benefactor whom she would reportedly refer to only as “Daddy,” Krivonogikh was a cleaner.
Do you know what this means? It means that Putin has precisely re-created the beat-by-beat plot of the rom-com Love Actually. O.K., it isn’t a total match—the cleaner in Love Actually worked at Downing Street, while Krivonogikh worked in a shop, and Hugh Grant liked to dance around in his socks rather than raze entire cities to the ground on a murderous whim—but it’s close enough if you squint.
We may never know what Putin saw in Alina Kabaeva, a young rhythmic gymnast who won gold at the 2004 Olympics and was once dubbed “Russia’s most flexible woman.”
Besides, if you really want to judge a man, then look at the way he treats the women in his life. In this regard Putin is the perfect gentleman. Before embarking on his crazed rampage through Ukraine, for example, he moved Kabaeva and her children to a secure Swiss chalet far away from all the fighting.
Shkrebneva, meanwhile, has fared even better. She is rumored to be holed up in a high-tech nuclear bunker positioned deep under the Siberian mountains. Can any of us really say that we’ve been in love until we’ve protected our partner from an extinction-level nuclear war that we’re about to inflict upon the world?
So what makes Putin tick? Well, the same thing that makes most men tick. He’s a father of an unknown number of children. His first wife needs to be looked after, even though he may or may not be married to someone else now. Like all of us, he’s desperately trying to juggle his work and family, and that can be stressful. Wouldn’t you, in his position, also want to cheer yourself up by embarking on an inhumane and politically humiliating invasion of a neighboring country? No? Well, maybe you’re not Putin.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals