Russia has always been mysterious, both captivating and confounding the rest of the world. Perhaps that’s why Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s announcement last week that he is divorcing his wife of nearly 30 years, Lyudmila, seemed downright frank. In an “interview” as choreographed as the ballet the Putins had just left, the couple was approached at the Kremlin’s private theater by a journalist who just happened to inquire about their marital status. Dressed in formal wear and referring to each other by their patronymic names, the Putins stiffly confirmed an amicable split.
As strange as it was, the announcement marked a PR milestone for Putin, who has so fiercely guarded his private life that his adult daughters have never been photographed and he allegedly shut down a newspaper that speculated he was having an affair. Why be so open now? Possibly to put this issue to bed well before the next presidential election in five years. With one of the highest divorce rates in the world, Russians are no strangers to separation. Putin, however, is not particularly popular in his homeland, and divorce runs counter to the Russian Orthodox Christian church. He’ll also be the first Russian leader in 300 years to split from his spouse. At least Lyudmila won’t be banished to a nunnery like Peter the Great’s wife (at least, as of press time).
THE PR VERDICT: “B” (Good Show) for Vladimir Putin. The harsh glare of the spotlight means that even former KGB agents have to practice a bit of glasnost now and then.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Be candid. Don’t resist. Today’s media is borderless and, often, relentless when it comes to the personal lives of public figures. At a certain point, it’s better to be candid about a significant event such as a divorce or affair rather than hoping (or forcing) the lid to stay on the pot. Just ask US President Bill Clinton, who probably wishes he’d handled the question about his involvement with intern Monica Lewinsky a bit differently. For leaders of nations, there is no such thing as a private life – even in Mother Russia.