In a stilted – but clearly staged – interview on Russian state television after a night together at the ballet, the couple said they had agreed to a “civilised break-up” because they barely saw each other. It appeared that a formal divorce had not yet taken place.
The announcement will likely only fuel speculation about Mr Putin’sprivate life. The 60-year-old Russian president has been dogged by rumours for years that he had an affair with Alina Kabayeva, a 30-year-old politician and former Olympic rhythmic gymnast, although no hard evidence has ever been presented to confirm that.
The Russian leader and his wife, 55, spoke after attending a performance of La Esmeralda – a ballet inspired by the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame – at the State Kremlin palace, their first public engagement together since his returned to the presidency in May last year.
President Putin and his wife Lyudmila at the ballet on Thursday (Reuters)
Mrs Putina appears only very rarely in public. She was said to be living far away from the Kremlin, in a £1m state-owned retreat on the border with Estonia. Some reports even suggested she joined a convent.
The nervous-looking couple answered several questions about the ballet – with Mr Putin saying with uncharacteristic verve that it was “superb, superb”.
The correspondent from Rossiya 24 then asked about persistent rumours that he and his wife no longer lived together.
“Yes, that’s true,” said Mr Putin after glancing at Mrs Putina, who nodded. “Everything I do is connected with the public sphere. Some people like that, some people don’t. There are some people who are completely incompatible with that.”
Using Mrs Putina’s formal name, he added: “Lyudmila Alexandrovna maintained an eight-year watch, nine years even. In short, it’s a joint decision.”
Mrs Putina, who wore pearls and a black-and-white outfit, confirmed that they had decided together to go their separate ways.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich is completely immersed in his work. Our children have grown up. It has turned out that each person is living their separate life. And I genuinely don’t like the publicity, the flights are tough for me and we practically don’t see each other.”
Mr Putin added that he and his wife loved and were proud of their daughters, Katya, 27, and Masha, 28, who, like their mother, have kept out of the spotlight.
“Lyudmila Alexandrovna and I will always remain close to each other,” he said. “I’m sure that will be so forever.”
The couple married almost 30 years ago on July 28, 1983, when Mr Putin was a young officer in the KGB and his future wife was an air hostess.
They had not been seen together in public since Mr Putin’s inauguration for his third term as president last May. Before that they had appeared infrequently together for several years. At one public appearance when they signed the Russian census in 2010, they looked awkward as they confirmed to a census taker that they were married.
Vladimir Putin and Russian gymnast Alina Kabayeva in the Kremlin
A documentary made by a German film-maker last year showed Mr Putin as an isolated figure, practising ice hockey alone in the evenings or taking swimming sessions with only his faithful dog Connie as company.
The rumour that he was having an affair with Miss Kabayeva first came to public prominence in 2008 when a Russian newspaper, owned by the billionaire oligarch Alexander Lebedev, quoted a source as insisting that it was true.
Mr Lebedev shut the newspaper soon afterwards claiming it had not been a commercial success, although many suspected the real reason was to appease an angry Mr Putin.
The rumours later escalated when bloggers claimed that Miss Kabayeva had subsequently given birth to Mr Putin’s child. Mr Putin has angrily claimed that there is “not one word of truth” in any of the allegations, while Miss Kabayeva’s spokesman has refused to discuss what she derided as “nonsense.”