Every politician takes steps to shield their family from the harsh glare of the public eye. But few, if any, go as far as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A former KGB officer with a legendary cloak and dagger mentality, Russia’s president has kept his family members shrouded in near-total secrecy despite almost two decades as one of the world’s most powerful and recognizable figures.
No official pictures of Putin’s two daughters as adults, or their children, exist. And when a media outlet actually gets someone on record identifying one of them, a retraction typically follows within minutes, as if on cue.
Look no further than the latest item from Reuters, which reported Tuesday that a professional dancer named Katerina Tikhonova is really none other than Putin’s younger daughter.
Putin has been so successful at shielding his family from press, that Western journalists consider it a big scoop just to get a source to confirm that someone really is, actually, seriously, Putin’s daughter.
Reuters, which has doggedly chased this story since publishing a big expose on the subject in 2015, identified Tikhonova, an active participant in an obscure, athletic form of dance known as acrobatic rock’n’roll — a mashup of gymnastics and boogie-woogie — through one of her colleagues, World Rock‘n‘Roll Confederation (WRRC) Vice President for Legal Affairs, Manfred Mohab, who affirmed her relationship to Putin in monosyllabic answers twice on the record.
Mohab then immediately withdrew his comments, saying he misheard the question.
Mohab’s reluctance to speak on the record may have something to do with the history of what happens to those who go public with details of the Russian first family.
In 2008, a Russian newspaper called Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin, then 55, had secretly divorced his wife Lyudmila and planned to marry a 24-year-old Olympic gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who’d been voted one of Russia’s most beautiful women.
Within hours of publishing the kind of gossipy morsel common to American grocery store checkout lines, the entire Russian paper had been shuttered. The paper’s parent company cited financial problems and editorial differences, but few observers doubted that the story about Putin and the remarkably flexible gymnast was the true cause of death.
Putin went on to publicly announce his divorce from his wife of three decades in 2013 — bizarrely, during the intermission of a ballet in the Kremlin State Palace. Unconfirmed rumors about his relationship with Kabayeva have swirled ever since, although Putin has dismissed them, joking in response that he loves “all Russian women.”
Not all the details about Putin’s family life fall under the category of innocuous gossip.
In 2015, Reuters reported that Katerina had changed her last name to “Tikhonova” after her grandmother and married businessman Kirill Shamalov, and that the couple had a combined net worth of about $2 billion. That sum hinted at a fraction of Putin’s reputed glittering wealth, which the Kremlin has taken pains to deny. The story cited Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of Russian bank Gazprombank, as saying Katerina was indeed Putin’s daughter.
Funny thing here: Akimov ended up having the same reaction as Mohab, claiming he was “surprised and bewildered” after the story published, and insisting he’d never said anything of the kind.
There’s a reason Putin’s family secrets are so rare: journalists know that reporting on the subject is dangerous ground, said Timothy Frye, Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University.
“This subject is considered by journalists to be something of a third rail — touch this story at your own risk,” Frye told VICE News. “And you’re just not going to see Tikhonova out there campaigning for her dad the way you might see Ivanka campaigning for Trump.”
Putin has systematically dismantled Russia’s independent press since taking power, to the point where, in the words of Human Rights Watch: “Today’s level of state intrusion in the media is unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet period…. Much of the mainstream media, including television, print outlets, and websites, have become almost exclusively the voice of the state.”
When it comes to his own daughters and grandchildren, Putin’s tight grip on the media has been on full display. In rare public comments on the subject, he recently said: “My daughters are involved in science and in education. They don’t interfere in anything, including politics. They live normally.”
He went on to explain that he doesn’t want his grandchildren to go through life as Russian royalty.
“The thing is I don’t want them to grow up like princes,” Putin said about his grandkids. “I want them to be normal people. And for that they need ordinary, normal communication with other children.”
Giving out more details, like their names and ages, might “damage the children’s development,” Putin said. “I ask you to understand me and to treat this position with understanding.”
For Putin, that was a watershed of intimate disclosure. By contrast, when asked about his family in an earlier 2014 press conference, he responded: “Everything is fine, don’t worry.”