Totem And Taboo

a_putin_family_0610.jpgAmid all of the Economic Forum analysis and the pre-presidential race commentaries, it is refreshing to see Simon Shuster of Time magazine offer something of a guilty pleasure.  It is a well-known fact that the media in Russia are about as free as an arm in a tourniquet, but none so much as when it comes to the personal life of their very own Prime Minister.  Whilst other heads of state readily tout their wives, children and assorted pets as public appeal-builders, totems to family values, and annexes of their own political machine, Putin has always been rather cagey about his.  His public image tends to be that of a lone wolf, spearing fish topless in a Siberian river, staring into the distance solipsistically on horseback, or “chilling” with bearded biker buddies.  What about Mrs Putin?  And the Putin daughters?  Shuster gratifies the inner Hello reader in us, but with typical incisiveness: 

Although the Russian state has tried, it has not yet learned to censor the country’s army of iconoclastic bloggers, and in the information vacuum surrounding Putin’s private life, their claims go viral fast. Last year, a blogger named Pavel Pritula claimed in a two-sentence post that Putin had sent his wife to live in a monastery in the region of Pskov, perhaps owing something to the stories of what Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great had once done with inconvenient women in their lives. The Russian Orthodox Church denied the claim as “nonsense,” and Putin’s office declined to comment. But once this rumor began to snowball, it didn’t even seem to matter to many readers that the blogger’s only source had been his own mother. Through hyperlinks, word of mouth and stories in the online press, the rumor became part of Putin folklore.

On a recent trip to Pskov, few of the locals TIME spoke to were willingto dismiss the idea that Putin’s wife now lives in the Elizarovamonastery. The only exceptions, key ones, were the two security guardswho escorted TIME off the monastery grounds. It was suspicious, severalof the locals said, that such an isolated place would get amulti-million dollar renovation. “I’m telling you 100%. She livesthere,” says Vasily Dvornichenko, a local union leader. And how did heknow? “Well, I didn’t hover over the building in a helicopter. But Iknow. Everyone here knows.”

Even local officials seemed tempted to believe. Raisa Shumkina, the headof the district that includes Elizarova and the surrounding villages,says she “was not sure one way or the other” whether Putin’s wife livedthere or not, while Valery Nikitin, a district councilman who livesacross the road from the monastery, says he has asked regional officialsabout the matter but received no response. “I don’t understand it,” hesays. “Why do we have to rely on whispers in the grocery line to get ourinformation? Why can’t they just tell us what’s going on?” (See whyRussian needs Putin.)

It is a reasonable question, but still a fairly novel one for Russiansto ask. The western principle that the people have a right to know hasnot been broadly embraced in Russia, and there is nothing like the U.S.Freedom of Information Act to press the government for answers. Insteadthere are strict laws against libel, state control of most mass media,and a prevailing sense left over from Soviet and Tsarist times that astrong leader — or vozhd — should remain aloof from the masses if nottotally inscrutable. As Konstantin Kosachyov, a senior lawmaker inPutin’s party, put it to TIME: “Real leadership, politicalleadership…is not supposed to obey public opinion but form it.”

But while such values may have been easy to uphold in Russia’stotalitarian past, they face a major challenge in the Internet age,where the whispers in the grocery line often turn into the news of theday. Even Putin has sometimes been forced to react. In February, hefinally volunteered a few details about his daughters, saying both “leadordinary, regular lives… And this makes me very happy.” In October,he also made an apparent attempt to deflate rumors of his divorce bysitting for a televised census count alongside his wife, who told thecensus taker, “I am his wife.” But she was not wearing a wedding ring.

So this did little to slow the online rumor mill, which has continued tofill in Putin’s family tree with unconfirmed reports. A court case nowunderway in Moscow features a powerful and handsome young Dutchman asthe victim of road rage, and Russia’s online press have consistentlycalled him Putin’s son-in-law, citing anonymous sources. The Russiangovernment denies the relationship. In October, a South Korean dailyreported that Putin’s daughter was marrying a Korean admiral’s son. Thegovernment denies that, too. Eventually it may become easier to satisfythe public’s curiosity than to plug all these alleged leaks. But untilthen, Putin’s secrets will likely endure.