Russian president Vladimir Putin lives his life in the ceaseless glare of the world’s regard. At work and on holiday, he is surrounded by a loyal gaggle of Kremlin pool journalists, TV cameras and photographers. Russia’s nightly news bulletins invariably lead with news of his daily activities. Yet he has succeeded in keeping his immediate family out of the spotlight with a fanatical thoroughness worthy of a KGB special operation.
No confirmed photographs exist of Putin’s two daughters, 29-year-old Maria, nicknamed Masha, and 28-year-old Ekaterina, known as Katya, as adults. The girls attended a university in Russia under false names; even their classmates were unaware of their real identity.
And when, in the aftermath of the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17, a Dutch tabloid claimed that Masha was living in the Netherlands with her Dutch partner, packs of reporters and protesters who flocked to her alleged residence were unable to find her—or anyone who knew her. Pieter Broertjes, mayor of Hilversum, Netherlands, called for Masha to be deported (he later retracted the statement), and Ukrainian protesters picketed outside the luxury apartment block where they were said to have lived. But the couple were long gone—if they were ever really there at all.
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The veil of secrecy that surrounds the Putins is rigorously enforced by the Kremlin. Journalists who violate the taboo of reporting on the private life of Russia’s first family are dealt with swiftly and summarily. In 2008, when the liberal newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent reported that Putin was planning to marry a rhythmic gymnast named Alina Kabayeva, the editor was forced to resign within hours. According to fired editor Grigory Nekhoroshev, the paper’s proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev—a billionaire financier who owns the Evening Standard and The Independent in London—initially promised to stand by his journalists before receiving a call from “a senior figure from the presidential administration.” Lebedev took the hint, and Moskovsky Korrespondent never appeared again.
Asked about his relationship with Kabayeva at a press conference in Sardinia, Italy, Putin made it abundantly clear that inquiries into his private life were off-limits. “I am, of course, aware of the cliché that politicians live in glass houses,” Putin said, “but even in these cases, there must be some limits.… I always disliked people who go around with their erotic fantasies, sticking their snot-ridden noses into another person’s life.” Then–Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, who was standing beside Putin, jokingly pretended to shoot the Russian journalist who had asked the question.
The message couldn’t be more clear. “Putin is an extremely private person,” says one former Kremlin pool reporter, who now works for a state-owned news agency and asked not to be named. “We would gossip with his aides all the time, of course. But the family was never discussed.… It was an unwritten rule. The family life of the first person [Putin] was always kept secret.”
In three years working in the Kremlin pool and traveling extensively with Putin between 2009 and 2012, the journalist saw Putin’s then-wife Lyudmila just once and his daughters never. German documentary filmmaker Hubert Seipel, who was given unprecedented access to Putin in 2010 and 2011 for his award-winning film Ich, Putin, spent hundreds of hours with the Russian leader—but he, too, never saw Putin’s children. One explicit condition of Seipel’s access was that he would not reveal anything about the Russian leader’s private life. “He is very sensitive, and I promised him not to expose very much about his family,” Seipel said after the film’s premiere.
Only the barest details of Putin’s family life have been officially confirmed. He met his future wife, Lyudmila, an Aeroflot stewardess, through mutual friends in 1980. They went on a blind double date to a theater in 1980; she told an interviewer in 2000 that Putin was “poorly dressed” and “very unprepossessing. I wouldn’t have paid any attention to him on the street.” But Putin persisted, and they married in 1983.
Masha, born in Leningrad in April 1985, was named after Putin’s mother. Katya was born in August 1986 in Dresden, Germany, where her father was on assignment for the KGB. Both girls attended the German-language Friedrich Haass German International School when they moved back to Moscow in 1996, and they then went to St. Petersburg State University, where Masha studied biology and Katya majored in Asian studies.
The girls have given only one interview—when their father was appointed acting president in 2000 after the ailing Boris Yeltsin resigned from his post in Putin’s favor. The transcript, published in a collection of interviews with Putin, his family and friends called First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is a snapshot of the Putin family just as they entered the bubble of power and anonymity they have inhabited ever since.
In the book, 14-year-old Katya complains that they have been taken out of school—now teachers come to the family home to teach her. “We have guards when we go to the movies,” Katya told journalists Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov, who interviewed the family at their dacha.