To divorce the Kremlin and live

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Vladimir and Lyudmila Putins’ announcement of divorce on Thursday was one of the rare pieces of good news coming out of Russia these days; and a historic one at that.

Sure, divorce is normally not considered good news; and above all it is a personal matter. But what is a personal decision for the Putins is also a historic step for Russia. Remarkably, Lyudmila Putina is now likely to become the first person ever to divorce a Russian ruler and go on living in freedom.

There is no need to mourn the Putins’ marriage: their alienation has been obvious for many years; their children are adults; and Lyudmila has been visibly uneasy whenever she appears in public together with her husband. If anything, formal separation was overdue. But in properly authoritarian countries heads of state rarely divorce – they either stay married regardless of anything, or their spouses die in unclear circumstances. Russian history offers plenty of examples of the latter: Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva committed suicide; Catherine the Great made her husband Peter III abdicate and then had him assassinated: Ivan Grozny (“the Terrible”)ordered the seventh of his eight wives to be drowned, while the first three probably died after being poisoned.

True, divorce was not unheard of in Russia, but in this case the wives were always sent to a monastery for the remaining years of their lives – effectively imprisoned. This is what happened to Peter the Great’s first wife Eudoxia, three of Ivan Grozny’s wives (fourth, fifth and sixth), and the first wife of Tsar Vasily III.

For historical continuity to be observed, Lyudmila Putina should now also disappear into a monastery, never to be heard of again (a scenario that cannot actually be entirely excluded). But if Lyudmila manages to reclaim her life and live it as she wishes, then this will be an important precedent for Russia.

In 1964 Nikita Khrushchev became the first person to leave the Kremlin and live - at least if we discount episodical figures such as Georgy Malenkov who briefly rose to the top after Stalin; or life borrowed from death, such as the 16 months that Tsar Nicholas II survived after abdication. This first for Khrushchev was an even more important breakthrough. But while it happened with Khrushchev, it remains debatable to what extent it happened thanks to him. He was certainly not a strong proponent of the rotation of power. Neither is Lyudmila Putina a feminist champion of the right for women to divorce and have an independent life. Both their stories are likely to show something about Russia, rather than about themselves.

Nikita Khrushchev’s survival signalled that human life had again acquired some value; the system was slowly becoming less “carnivorous”; that unlike earlier, the occupant of the highest office in the Kremlin could now afford to lose. In this way, Khrushchev and his fate may have prepared ground for Mikhail Gorbachev and his reform agenda some 20 years later.

Lyudmila Putina’s divorce is likely to indicate that some patriarchal patterns are collapsing, and that the Western liberal changes of the 1960s are finally making their way into Russia. It may show that individuals are starting to matter more: sacrificing one’s freedom and personal happiness for the sake of a social façade, or, for that matter, a strong state – such a glorified norm in all Soviet hagiography - is now anachronistic. It has become socially acceptable for people to be people, even if they happen to be the president and the first lady. If, as some people have suggested, the announcement was a PR-move, designed to boost Putin’s popularity, then that only proves the point: people are expected to find sensible behaviour approvable. And it is symbolic and ironic that this manifestation of individual rights takes place inside Putin’s own family at exactly the time when he is busy mobilising society around a pretty conservative and backward set of values.

Sure, there is still a long way to go. Not only the President’s ex-wife, but also his political opponents ought to be able to go on living in freedom. On that latter indicator – as well as many others – Russia is moving backwards. Still, the news we got on Thursday serves as some kind of beacon of progress for the longer term state of Russia.

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