The Top Secret Family Life of Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin and family in 1985. Sovfoto/UIG/Getty

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.

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.

"There's a guy who sits there watching the movie, but I think he's guarding us at the same time," said Katya. "Usually, we don't even notice the bodyguards. Even when we go somewhere with our friends, they stay nearby, but they try not to get in the way. We've called them over to drink coffee with us a thousand times, but they don't want to."

Katya says she "flipped out when I heard that Papa was going to become acting president. When Mama told me this, I thought she was joking. Then I realized that she wouldn't joke about such a thing."

Lyudmila says she "cried for a whole day" when she heard the news of her husband's appointment, "because I realized that our private life was over." Already, the girls saw their father "more often on television than at home. But he always goes in to see them, no matter what time he gets home," Lyudmila said. "He really loves the girls a lot. Not all men treat their girls as lovingly as he does. And he spoils them. I'm the one who has to discipline them." The journalists asked if the girls could wrap Papa around their little fingers. "Nobody can wrap Papa around their little finger" was Lyudmila's reply.

As for their career plans, "Masha pronounces the English word management very seriously, and Katya says that she'd like to be a furniture designer," Lyudmila said. The girls enjoy skiing; their favorite film at the time was The Matrix. They like nice clothes, and they are "very slim." That was in 2000—the last public word Putin or his wife ever spoke about their children.

In the 14 years since, the girls' lives have been enveloped in secrecy—broken very occasionally by unsubstantiated rumors. In 2002, the girls were reported to be holidaying in Sardinia with Berlusconi's daughter Barbara. In 2010 a South Korean paper reported that Katya was about to marry the son of a Korean admiral who had been posted to Moscow.

The same year, Masha's reported boyfriend, Jorrit Faassen, an executive of Russia's state-owned gas company Gazprom and Stroytransgaz, a pipeline manufacturer, hit the headlines when it was reported he had been assaulted by the bodyguards of a banker, Matvei Urin, in a road rage incident in central Moscow. The Kremlin's revenge was swift: Urin's business was dismantled and Urin jailed for fraud. Masha and Faassen couple left Russia soon after and began living a quiet life in Voorschoten, Netherlands, a suburb of The Hague.

One explanation for why Putin is so fanatically protective of his daughters is that he spent much of his early career in the courts of two wildly dysfunctional political families—that of his first post-KGB boss, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, and later that of Boris Yeltsin. The behavior of Sobchak's wife, Lyudmila Narusova, and his daughter, Xenia, "disgusted Putin and undermined the team," says Ben Judah, author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin. "They were seen with unseemly people, they attended parties with Mafia figures. Their tawdry behavior horrified him."

Later, Putin saw how Yeltsin was also strongly manipulated by his two daughters and their hangers-on—the so-called Yeltsin family, which included oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. "So much of Putin is about being different from Yeltsin," says Judah. "He remembers the shameless family politics of [Yeltsin's son-in-law Valentin] Yumashev and Berezovsky and is determined to avoid the same fate."

In addition to keeping his daughters out of the spotlight, Putin is keeping them out of politics—partly for their own good, partly for his. Putin's fellow strongmen in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have both run into problems with their politically ambitious daughters.

The disappearing Putin daughters speak volumes about the kind of country Russia has become under his rule. Putin has never stood for a competitive election, so he has never had to parade his family before the media like Western politicians. And since there's no political opposition, there is no one to call him out on the hypocrisy of championing family values while keeping his family deep in the shadows. Irene Pietsch, a German friend of Madame Putin, says Lyudmila's marriage was loveless. "He doesn't drink or beat me up," Pietsch says Lyudmila told her. But he is "a vampire who has sucked the juices out of me."

Putin has made bringing Russia's media under strict Kremlin control a key plank of his rule—meaning that no mainstream media organization in Russia has ever dared to investigate the first family. Even when Putin announced a "civilized divorce" from Lyudmila in June 2013, state television dutifully reported the story for a day—then dropped all mention of the former first lady as though she had never existed.

She'd spent 30 years in the shadows. After the divorce, all mention of Lyudmila was erased from the news feed of the Kremlin website, and she was relegated to utter obscurity. By law she could be entitled to up to half of Putin's official salary of $102,000—but no details of the divorce settlement have been made public. Putin has created a Russia where people can, just like in the old days, simply be Photoshopped out of history.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the gymnast who newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent reported Putin was planning to marry. It was Alina Kabayeva. The story has also been clarified to reflect that mentions of Putin's wife can still be found on the Kremlin website, just not in the daily news feed.