VLADIMIR Putin pulled off one of his most audacious pieces of stagecraft, attending a ballet with his rarely seen wife, then emerging smiling and announcing their marriage is over.
The end of the marriage of the Russian president and Lyudmila Putina less than two months shy of their 30th anniversary came on state television after a Thursday evening that started out like a model of domestic contentment – a devoted husband taking his wife out for an artsy interlude.
After the performance of Esmeralda at the Great Kremlin Palace, the two came into a luxurious room to speak to a reporter.
"Excellent. Great music, excellent production," Putin said and Lyudmila echoed his praise.
After about a minute, the reporter asked about rumours that the two didn't live together. Putin smiled slightly, like a boy caught misbehaving, and turned his head toward Lyudmila. "This is so," he said.
It wasn't immediately clear if that meant just separate domiciles. After a few more comments, the reporter gently prodded: "I am afraid to say this word 'divorce'."
"Yes, this is a civilised divorce," Lyudmila said.
The peculiar format for the announcement appeared aimed at underlining that this wasn't just a powerful man dumping his faithful helpmate. That's a potentially important strategic move for Putin, who has based his public image on rectitude and support of traditional values.
Tabloid reports in 2008 claimed that Putin already had divorced Lyudmila and planned to marry a gymnast less than half his age.
The Interfax news agency cited presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying the divorce has not been formalised and that the televised comments were only an announcement of the decision to divorce.
Divorce is common in Russia, and nearly 700,000 couples dissolved their marriages in 2009, according to UNICEF. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia's political elite, said the divorce probably won't hurt Putin in the public eye – as long as he doesn't take a trophy wife.
"If a young wife appears, then the reactions in society may be very different," she said in an article published by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on its website.
For some of his detractors, the move even seemed to earn some grudging approval.
"For years I've heard that it would be good if Putin told the truth and divorced. And what now? Everyone's criticising him for the divorce," Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and supporter of Putin's opposition, wrote on Twitter.