Putin's Mystery Companion: Who Is She and What Was She Doing With the Russian President?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends the first working session of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7. Kay Nietfeld, Pool/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin's trip to the country's northwestern countryside for a local feast day does not seem like the most exciting occasion on the leader's agenda. But a few seconds of footage during the visit to Konevsky Monastery earlier this week were enough to make headlines in Russia.

The clip, showing an anonymous pair of animated hands, clutching a red purse, gesticulating from the back of Putin's black Mercedes, have galvanized questions about the traditionally solitary president's travel companion. The conflicting answers about the companion's identity have done nothing to halt tabloid interest in the person's identity.

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Putin, a divorcee who has persistently dodged questions about his romantic and family life, has also kept his family so far from the blistering limelight that he occupies alone in Russia, that even the exact whereabouts and features of his daughters have been the subject of serious journalistic investigation. A dozen seconds of footage showing Putin extend an arm to a mystery backseat passenger, before a hand waves him away prompting the president to shut the door, is top news.

In the immediate aftermath, Putin's spokesman said he had "no idea" who was with Putin, before telling pro-Kremlin website Life a short time later that it was Putin's "security" that was accompanying him.

On Thursday evening, the local church authority in Vyborg released photos from the visit to the monastery, which showed a woman walking the premises alongside Putin in the company of a lineup of darkly clad clergymen. While unclear if she is the same person who rode with Putin, the unfamiliar face piqued interest in the Russian press.

When asked about the images, the diocese identified the woman as an architect named Yelena Grubina, working on the monastery's restoration, St. Petersburg's Fontanka newspaper reported on Friday. Putin's friend and Russian state oil chief Igor Sechin, whose company is financing the restoration, had apparently hired Grubina to carry out the work. The photos show Sechin attending as well.

The Kremlin is yet to comment on the images and to explain why his office initially claimed he was driving his own bodyguard. In his column for independent news channel Dozhd on Friday, one of Russia's most esteemed journalists, Oleg Kashin, explained why the seemingly mundane event had received so much attention from the Russian public.

"Because it could be a woman and we know nothing about Putin's women," he wrote. "What is more, because with that wave of the fingers it could show that there are people out there who can allow themselves to direct Putin where he has to go and Putin then follows the orders obediently."

"All subsequent explanations about security personnel only make the situation more absurd," Kashin added. "What excellent security, if the charge leaps to open doors for them."