For almost all major politicians, life is never private. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a fine example. Even if one wanted to remain in the dark, it would be hard not to know the latest about his family life or various dalliances. Politicians around the Western world usually have to deal with life in a fishbowl. Except for one: Berlusconi's old friend and vacation mate Vladimir Putin, who has managed to impose an information blockade around his private life that most statesmen can only dream about.
Although Putin has ruled Russia for more than a decade, the Russian public does not know what his adult daughters look like. There are conflicting reports as to whether they are married and what country they reside in, and an Internet search of their names Maria Putina, born 1985, and Yekaterina Putina, born 1986 yields no confirmed photographs of them in adulthood, let alone any interviews. What it does yield is a bewildering assortment of theories and gossip about Putin's family life, but nothing journalistically solid. Russia's mass media have been taught that such matters are out of bounds.
The clearest object lesson came in 2008 with the demise of a Russian daily called Moskovsky Korrespondent. In April of that year, the paper ran a story claiming that Putin had left his wife Lyudmila to marry a 24-year-old Olympic gymnast named Alina Kabayeva, a member of the parliament for Putin's political party. It cited a source close to the wedding planner, who claimed that Putin had officially divorced his wife two months before. Asked to respond to the claims at a press conference, Putin denied them all and then laid down some ground rules in one of his trademark rants. "I am, of course, aware of the hackneyed phrase and stamp that politicians live in a glass house," he said. "But even in these cases, there must be some limits ... I always thought badly of those who go around with their erotic fantasies sticking their snot-ridden noses into another person's life."
Berlusconi, who was standing beside Putin at that press conference, in Sardinia, Italy, then put his hands together in the shape of a machine gun and jokingly pretended to shoot the Russian journalist who had asked the question. (Considering that journalists are regularly killed or beaten in Russia for their work, the Italian press did not find the joke very funny.) Putin grinned and nodded at the gesture, and that same day Moskovsky Korrespondent was shut down by its publisher, who claimed it had been "lossmaking." And thus a taboo was born. The issue of Putin's alleged relationship with Kabayeva, as well as most of his private affairs, have since been relegated mostly to the Russian blogosphere.
But there has been a downside for Putin. The Russian state, despite its efforts, has not yet learned to censor the country's army of iconoclastic bloggers, and in the information vacuum surrounding Putin's private life, their claims go viral fast. Last year, a blogger named Pavel Pritula claimed in a two-sentence post that Putin had sent his wife to live in a monastery in the region of Pskov, perhaps owing something to the stories of what Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great had once done with inconvenient women in their lives. The Russian Orthodox Church denied the claim as "nonsense," and Putin's office declined to comment. But once the rumor began to snowball, it didn't seem to matter to many readers that the blogger's only source was his mother. Through hyperlinks, word of mouth and stories in the online press, the rumor became part of Putin folklore.
On a recent trip to Pskov, few of the locals TIME spoke to were willing to dismiss the idea that Putin's wife now lives in the Elizarova monastery. The only exceptions, key ones, were the two security guards who escorted TIME off the monastery grounds. It was suspicious, several of the locals said, that such an isolated place would get a multimillion-dollar renovation. "I'm telling you 100%: she lives there," said Vasily Dvornichenko, a local union leader. And how did he know? "Well, I didn't hover over the building in a helicopter," he said. "But I know. Everyone here knows."
Even local officials seemed tempted to believe. Raisa Shumkina, head of the district that includes Elizarova and surrounding villages, said she "was not sure one way or the other" if Putin's wife lived there, while Valery Nikitin, a district councilman who lives across the road from the monastery, said he had asked regional officials about the matter but received no response. "I don't understand it," he said. "Why do we have to rely on whispers in the grocery line to get our information? Why can't they just tell us what's going on?"
It's a reasonable question, but still a fairly novel one for Russians to ask. The Western principle that the people have a right to know has not been broadly embraced in Russia, and there is nothing like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to press the government for answers. Instead there are strict laws against libel, state control of most mass media and a prevailing sense left over from Soviet and czarist times that a strong leader or vozhd should remain aloof from the masses if not totally inscrutable. As Konstantin Kosachyov, a senior lawmaker in Putin's party, put it to TIME: "Real leadership, political leadership ... is not supposed to obey public opinion but form it."
But while such values may have been easy to uphold in Russia's totalitarian past, they face a major challenge in the Internet age, where whispers in the grocery line often turn into the news of the day. Even Putin has sometimes been forced to react. In February, he finally volunteered a few details about his daughters, saying both "lead ordinary, regular lives ... And this makes me very happy." And last fall, in October, he made an apparent attempt to deflate the divorce rumors by sitting for a televised census count alongside his wife, who told the census taker, "I am his wife." But she was not wearing a wedding ring.
So the effort did little to slow the online rumor mill, which has continued to fill in Putin's family tree with unconfirmed reports. A court case now under way in Moscow features a powerful, handsome young Dutchman as the victim of road rage, and Russia's online press have consistently called him Putin's son-in-law, citing anonymous sources. The Russian government denies the relationship. In October, a South Korean daily reported that one of Putin's daughters was marrying a Korean admiral's son. The government denied that too. Eventually, it may become easier to satisfy the public's curiosity than to plug all the alleged leaks. But until then, Putin's secrets will likely endure.