Who is Vladimir Putin?

When it comes to family, Vladimir Putin is notoriously private.

The Russian leader rarely talks about his close relationships, and over the years has gone to drastic lengths to shield his immediate relatives from the spotlight.

We know he was married for 30 years to Lyudmila Putina, a former flight attendant with whom he lived in both Russia and East Germany. The pair announced their separation in 2013.

Advertisement

They had two daughters together — Mariya and Katerina — who were both born in Germany and are now in their mid-30s.

But over the years, the Kremlin has fought tooth and nail to keep their private lives a secret — with consequences for those who tried to break through.

PUTIN'S MISSION TO HIDE HIS DAUGHTERS

Putin's children use fake names, and in some cases, those who attempt to identify them publicly are made to pay the consequences.

Katerina was first identified by Reuters in 2015, as an active participant in a sport known as "acrobatic rock'n'roll" — a mix of gymnastics and dance.

The then-29-year-old described herself as the spouse of Kirill Shamalov, son of Nikolai Shamalov, a longtime friend of Putin.

It was reported she held a senior position at Moscow State University, and together with her husband owned a stake worth $US2 billion in a gas and petrochemical company.

Andrey Akimov, deputy chairman of the board of directors at Russian lender Gazprombank, initially told Reuters that Tikhonova was indeed the Russian leader's daughter.

He later denied making the remarks, saying he was "surprised and bewildered" by the quotes attributed to him after the article was published.

In 2017, there was a similar incident when one of Katerina's colleagues — who worked with her as a professional acrobat — confirmed she was the youngest daughter of the Russian leader.

Almost immediately afterwards, he retracted, saying he had misunderstood the question.

When Reuters asked him whether he knew Katerina was Putin's daughter, he initially said: "Yes. I know her, yes of course." Asked a second time, he nodded and said: "Yes."

After the article was published, he called them back and said: "I can't confirm that I know the daughter of Putin. I have nothing to do with them."

Asked why he'd said she was his daughter in the first place, he claimed he had problems with his hearing. "Believe me, it was so loud in the hall that a lot of the things I can't understand and other things I felt that I didn't understand right." he said. "So it's not sure that I gave you the right answers.

"I'm sure we had some misunderstandings."

Much less is known about Putin's other daughter, Maria, other than that she also studied at Moscow State University and is now thought to be married to a Dutch Businessman and going by the name Maria Faassen.

When local media outlets attempt to write about the Putin family, the results can be a lot more grim.

In 2008, Russian newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent claimed that Putin had secretly divorced his wife and was planning to marry a 24-year-old rhythmic gymnast. This was five years before he announced his divorce, and the rumours were never confirmed, but the news was republished by tabloids elsewhere in Europe.

Mere hours after the April story was published, the entire Russian paper was shut down. The newspaper was briefly relaunched in September, but closed for good the following month. Its parent company, Lebedev, later cited financial problems.

Radio Free Europe claimed that Russian security agents had raided the offices, questioned all the journalists who worked there and detained its editor-in-chief Gregory Nekhoroshev. Nekhoroshev later denied these claims, saying the "officers" were just a group of friends who had picked him up.

WHAT HAS PUTIN SAID ABOUT HIS CHILDREN?

Putin rarely comments on his family, but when he does, he speaks with nothing but affection for them.

At a 2015 press conference, he was asked about what they do and where they are.

"They live in Russia and have never lived anywhere other than Russia permanently," he said. "They studied only at Russian universities. I am proud of them. They continue to study and work. My daughters speak three European languages fluently. One of them can even speak one or two Oriental languages. They are making their first steps and are successful."

Putin has also previously addressed why he keeps such a firm hold on coverage of their lives.

In 2017, Reuters reported him saying he feared being candid on the subject could deprive his two grandchildren of a normal childhood.

"My daughters are involved in science and in education. They don't interfere in anything, including politics. They live normally."

Asked that same year about his family in a televised question-and-answer session with voters, he said he's concerned about giving his grandchildren a normal life. "The thing is I don't want them to grow up like princes," he said. "I want them to be normal people. And for that they need ordinary, normal communication with other children."

For that reason, he said he preferred not to disclose their names and ages.

"They would be immediately identified and not left in peace. It would damage the children's development. I ask you to understand me and to treat this position with understanding."

'TO BE A JOURNALIST IN RUSSIA IS SUICIDE'

Russia has long been cited as one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist — and not just when it comes to tabloid family gossip.

In 2008, the same year as the Moskovsky Korrespondent scandal, The Guardian published a story headlined "To be a journalist in Russia is suicide", referencing the high-profile murders of Russian journalists Mikhail Beketov and Anna Politkovskaya.

A detailed 2017 Human Rights Watch report accused the Kremlin of "curbing free speech" and "denying a voice to anyone dissatisfied with the ongoing economic crisis or even mildly critical of Russia's foreign policy".

"State intrusion in media affairs has reached a level not seen in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union," the report said. "The laws passed since 2012 have dramatically increased the state's control over the media landscape."

Last August, three Russian journalists were killed while investigating a paramilitary organisation in the Central African Republic, which was said to have links to the Kremlin. They were said to be working on a project about "Russian mercenaries".

After their murders, it was revealed that the trip had been backed by Russian exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a long-time foe of Putin's.