On their dates, he left her waiting, nearly in tears, for as long as 90 minutes at grungy subway stations.
His marriage proposal was so blunt and riddled with warnings about his “difficult character” that she thought he was preparing to dump her.
When she was about to give birth to their first child, he was away on a business trip, so she hailed a taxi and went to the hospital, where she delivered their daughter alone.
The woman whose unsentimental journey through adulthood is chronicled in a newly released biography is not your run-of-the-mill Russian subjected to male chauvinism. She’s the wife of President Vladimir V. Putin.
While Putin is lionized by the state-controlled media and hailed as a role model of strength, responsibility and clean living, the second volume in a planned trilogy about the Russian leader paints a picture of a profoundly insensitive husband.
Lyudmila Putina’s candid observations about the man she met in 1980 are couched in the uncomplaining parlance of women of her generation who have come to expect little from their men--and often get even less.
Putin, then a KGB spy, lied to her about his occupation, telling her he was a police investigator for the first 18 months they dated, Putina recalls in extensive interviews with writer Oleg Blotsky in “Vladimir Putin: The Road to Power.”
The book released this month at the 15th Moscow International Book Fair covers Putin’s life from 1975, when he joined the KGB, to his ascent to the presidency Dec. 31, 1999. Blotsky told journalists that he will wait at least another year before issuing the last part of the trilogy, which will look at Putin’s accomplishments as Kremlin chief.
Blotsky has repeatedly denied that his biographies have the active support of the Kremlin, although he has had dozens of interviews with the president and family members. Neither have the Putins asked to review the manuscripts, Blotsky said.
“Lyudmila said that she understood that I am the author and promised not to interfere. But she asked me not to lay too much emphasis on the children,” the author said, referring to the Putins’ two daughters, Masha, 17, and Katya, 15.
Unlike the first volume, which was widely panned as a saccharine tribute reminiscent of the personality cults built around leaders of the Soviet era, the new book relies on the monologues of the 44-year-old Putina to cast the president as a hard-working and reliable man but one who is emotionally cold.
The former Aeroflot flight attendant who has kept a very low profile since her husband took office relates how she would lovingly prepare meals for him and wait in vain for the slightest word of praise. Finally succumbing to ask what he thought of her creations, Putina tells of the churlish response: “It’s a bit dry,” he would say of meat overcooked because he was always late.
His habitual tardiness while they were dating obviously hurt more than she let on.
“The first 15 minutes would pass normally, and even a half-hour would be OK. But after an hour, I would nearly cry out of humiliation,” Putin’s wife recalls of the hours spent at appointed meeting places in subway stations in what was then called Leningrad. “His excuse was always that he had been held up at work, for which, by the way, he was always very punctual. But in his personal life he was sloppy.”
He also apparently used KGB tactics to be sure he could trust her.
“Vladimir Vladimirovich has been testing me throughout our life together,” says Russia’s first lady, who relates how she has always wondered if her then-boyfriend was testing her with an ardent suitor who came out of nowhere to plead for her phone number and a date.
“I’ve always had the feeling that he’s watching me,” Putina observes. “It was like he was waiting to see if I would make the right decisions, whether I would pass the next test.”
Their courtship was subdued. “It wasn’t instantaneous passion or love at first sight,” Putina says of the three years before they married. “For the first time in my life, I fell in love gradually.”
Her in-laws hardly come off as more sensitive than their son. She makes clear in her account of their early years together that Putin’s mother didn’t care for her much. At their first meeting, Putina introduced herself and was told by her future mother-in-law: “He’s already had a girlfriend named Lyuda, and she was quite a nice one.”
When Putina was pregnant with their first child, she lived with her in-laws while her husband was at a training course, but then moved out to a dormitory. When she went into labor, she took a taxi to the hospital. Putin returned home more than 24 hours after the delivery, weighing in to announce that their daughter’s name would be Masha, after his mother.
“I was in tears. I wanted her to be Natasha,” Putina recalls. “But then I realized there was no choice in the matter and my daughter was going to be Masha.”
But her tone is never complaining. The first volume of the biography was so fawning that some observers speculate that the current release may have been orchestrated to provide better balance.
Maria Arbatova, a writer and commentator on women’s issues, acknowledges that she has yet to read the book still awaiting public circulation but contended from what she’s heard of it that Blotsky “was trying to create a sensation.”
Putin is widely popular among Russian women and “considered a typical European man,” she said.
Television talk-show moderator Yelena Khanga also said the author’s characterization contrasts with the prevailing public image.
“A lot of women see him as the perfect man. He doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. He’s in good physical condition,” Khanga said of Putin. “Russian women love him because they want someone reliable and strong. We’re sick and tired of guys who have to be taken care of as if they were another baby in the family.”
Another prominent feminist, however, sees the carefully sculpted image of Putin as propagandistic and sexist.
“The only Russian leader who put women on an equal basis with men was [Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev,” said Olga Voronina, head of the Moscow Center for Gender Studies. “The rest of them divide the world into spheres of men’s matters and women’s matters, and they think real men shouldn’t get involved in the latter.”
Russians have become accustomed to women bearing the brunt of the domestic load, some social analysts contend, and fail to see anything wrong with that tradition.
Especially among men from military or security backgrounds, Voronina said, there persists an attitude that being sensitive is weak and unmanly.
“It’s not very considerate behavior,” she said, “but it is the norm here.”