Is Vladimir Putin's 'Secret Son' with Ex-Gymnast Seen in Church Photo?

A number of Russian and English-language accounts over the past week have shared a photo of a young boy at a church service alongside claims that he is in fact the son of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Alina Kabaeva.

Kabaeva is a former Olympic gymnast whom media outlets and even the U.S. State Department have for years linked to the Russian leader.

The Kremlin has always denied there was any basis behind speculation that Putin is romantically involved with Kabaeva, even as her political career took off rapidly over the past decade amid accusations by the government's critics of corruption and nepotism.

The 70-year-old president of Russia confirmed that he had divorced his first wife, Lyudmila, in 2013, after 30 years of marriage, but aside from that has remained extremely guarded about his personal life.

Alina Kabaeva and Vladimir Putin
Left, Russian retired rhythmic gymnast and politician Alina Kabaeva attends a reception at the Bocharov Ruchey state residence on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Putin called Russian athletes, musicians and artists for the reception to mark the beginning of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Right, Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall during his briefing after the State Council meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace, on December 22, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. Sasha Mordovets/Getty; Getty

This lack of transparency about Putin's private affairs and family matters has made it a target of near-constant speculation and conspiracy theories, including widely reported but unproven claims that he tied the knot with Kabaeva.

Other claims that have been in circulation for years but remain unsubstantiated purport that Kabaeva and Putin share multiple children, and that she and the children are currently residing in Switzerland.

In 2022, further unverified rumors emerged on Telegram, suggesting Kabaeva was pregnant with another child.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine Kabaeva, who was also rumored to have influenced Putin's foreign policy decisions, was sanctioned by both the European Union (in March 2022) and by the U.S. (last August,) as well as by Canada and the United Kingdom.

"Alina Kabaeva is the Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of the National Media Group (NMG), a holding that owns large stakes in almost all major Russian federal media that reproduce the Russian Government propaganda," the EU journal wrote.

"She is a former Russian gymnast and a former member of the State Duma. She is closely associated with President Vladimir Putin."

Unverified claims about "secret" or out-of-wedlock children Putin is alleged to have fathered have surfaced regularly over the past two decades, including in 2021, when Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's team of investigators claimed to have found a 17-year-old girl that was Putin's daughter with another woman.

The latest among such claims features a young child with facial features similar—according to the social media posts—to those of the Russian president (with some drawing comparisons with old photos of Putin as a teenager).

"Dmitry Vladimirovich Kabaev. His middle name means 'son of Vladimir.' Allegedly he is the son of Putin. What do you think?" wrote Jason Jay Smart, a Kyiv Post correspondent. "Does this 12 year old look like Putins son?"

"This photo shows the 12-year-old son of Alina Kabaeva, who is considered Putin's mistress," another Twitter user asked.

Yet, despite the superficial resemblance there is little else to substantiate the claim, which is also drawing on a dated photograph, Newsweek's Misinformation Watch found.

The source of the most recent iteration of the claim appears to be the Facebook account of Konstantin Borovoy, a former Russian MP who currently resides in Los Angeles.

"Dmitry Vladimirovich Kabaev, the son of Alina Maratovna Kabaeva (unmarried). Trillionaire. Photo from 2021 (the boy is 10-11 years old)," Borovoy wrote, in Russian.

The former deputy did not, however, offer any corroborating evidence for the claim, which drew skeptical responses, including those pointing out that the child has brown eyes (in contrast to Putin and Kabaeva, whose eyes are gray-blue).

A number of Russia-focused journalists offered a more convincing counter theory, suggesting that the boy was in fact the child of a Russian priest, with whom he was pictured in other photographs.

"In fact, this is the son of the head of the department of liturgical books of the Russian Orthodox Church publishing house, Ivan Nefyodov. And Nefyodov, unlike Putin, reveals the presence of family needs in deeds, and not just in words," wrote Andrey Zakharov, an independent investigative journalist.

On the first photo shared by Zakharov a boy with a strong resemblance to one in the original photo is seen standing next to a man and a woman, with four other children present. In the second photo, the same boy appears in a group of altar boys.

While Newsweek has been unable to establish the identity of either child (or whether it is in fact the same person), the man pictured next to him is indeed listed as a Russian Orthodox Priest Ioann (Ivan) Nefyodov on the Moscow Patriarchy's website, with his profile picture also matching. Nefyodov's bio on another reference site claims he is married and has seven children.

Additionally, Newsweek found that the part of the claim dating the photo to 2021 is false. The same side-by-side photos of the boy have been published as far back as December 2018, including by a Ukrainian outlet that was citing the Facebook feed of a Russian opposition blogger Rustem Adagamov.

"A time machine was invented in the secret Kremlin laboratories: at the Easter service at the CHS, there was little Volodya Putin - a visitor from the past," he captioned the photo, in Russian, at the time.

Newsweek found the video of said Easter service and, having looked through 2 hours 42 minutes of footage, was unable to find the frame in which the boy is supposed to appear. It is not clear if it has been edited out or perhaps came from a different live broadcast.

However, several background shots appear to place a boy that looks very similar to the one in both photos in an elevated section of the church floor, with another boy and a blonde woman (not dissimilar to the priest's wife and second son from the photo) standing next to him (timestamp 8:46).

The gray-colored arch to the left of the group appears to match that in the photo still, further supporting the notion that the photo/still originated from this event.

As the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is part of the Moscow Patriarchy, Nefyodov himself was among the priests taking part in the Easter service, and can be seen in the footage at various points (such as around 1 hour 35 minute mark).

Since Adagamov's post, a number of Russian tabloids and fringe online news outlets have repeated the unfounded claim, with many stating that the boy is "Kabaeva's son" as fact, but failing to produce evidence.

A reverse image search shows dozens of such articles since 2018, but the narrative seems to be built purely around the boy's physical appearance.

While it is currently not possible to completely rule out the possibility that the boy pictured in church is related to Putin, Kabaeva, or both, there is no evidence other than the subjective assessment of a physical resemblance to support that claim.

Additionally, the context and the provenance of the photo has been partially lost through social media circulation, and other photos, with a Russian priest alleged to be the boy's actual father, pour further cold water on the narrative.

Finally, even if unverified reports in the media about Putin and Kabaeva were to be believed, the boy's apparent age would conflict with the timeline of the reporting.

Kabaeva claimed in 2013 that she did not have any children, and reports alleging that she had given birth to a daughter in 2015, and twin sons in 2019, would thus contradict the "president's son" claim.

Newsweek has reached out to the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchy for comment.