Swiss Chalets, Russian Fairy Tales and Suspected Riches: Why (and How) Putin Is So Mysterious About His Life
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty From left: Ludmila Alexandrowa Putina and Vladimir Putin in 2007
Amid his ongoing invasion of Ukraine — which began in earnest in late February and has killed at least hundreds of soldiers and civilians — Russian President Vladimir Putin has been denounced as a "war criminal" and a "killer" without "a soul."
Some in his country, believing his arguments for why he had to attack another country, have hailed him as a visionary leader.
But foreign policy experts say the 69-year-old Russian autocrat is more complicated than any label — and his outlook on the world (and goals for how to achieve his vision) are evidenced by his personal life, which has long been shrouded in secrecy.
Very little has been publicly confirmed about Putin outside of his political role, and that's apparently by design: As the longtime leader of Russia, he quite literally controls the narrative, via both the military and the state-run press — including various, often shirtless outdoor excursions.
Here's what has been confirmed by the Kremlin: In 1983, the former agent in the KGB, a Soviet intelligence agency, married Lyudmila Shkrebneva. The couple had two daughters: Mariya and Yekaterina, also known as Masha and Katya.
But the story began to shift in later years. In 2008, a Russian news outlet reported that Putin (then 56) had divorced Shkrebneva and gotten engaged to a 24-year-old Olympic gold medal rhythmic gymnast named Alina Kabaeva.
That story was promptly denied by Putin who told reporters, per the The New York Times: "I have always disliked those who, with their infected noses and erotic fantasies, break into other people's private affairs."
The newspaper that reported the story, meanwhile, shut down shortly thereafter, according to the Times.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty From left, front: Vladimir Putin's daughter Maria with him and mother Ludmila in 2007
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Five years later, in 2013, the Kremlin said that Putin and Lyudmila had indeed divorced. The speculation regarding his relationship with Kabaeva has persisted — even now, there have been reports that she allegedly went into hiding after the invasion, along with their rumored children, in a highly secure Swiss chalet.
Putin, however, hasn't budged, making no comments on his alleged romance or on the children he is speculated to have had with her or another woman.
As Dr. Matthew Schmidt, an expert on strategic analysis in foreign affairs and an associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, tells PEOPLE there are a litany of reasons why Putin has worked so hard to keep his private life hidden from public view.
"First of all, there's a sense of security," Schmidt says. "He actually is worried about the safety of his daughters and his ex-wife and his potentially second wife. And so he does it for practical reasons."
Putin doesn't necessarily fear that his family would be in physical danger, as Schmidt says, but that they could be targets of intelligence from other countries.
There is also, of course, a financial upside to the secrecy.
"He could use them to hide funds," Schmidst says, noting that Putin is "widely considered to be one of the wealthiest men on the planet" (though his net worth, like his family situation, is something of a mystery).
According to a CNN report last month, Putin officially says he is paid approximately $140,000 and owns a modest apartment as well as three vehicles. But, CNN reports, exposés suggest he has amassed billions "hidden behind complex financial schemes organized by his confidantes."
Schmidt explains that Putin accumulated his wealth by taking party funds when the Soviet Union collapsed and reinvesting them — and taking bribes from oligarchs who largely oversee Russia's economy.
The mystery regarding his family, Schmidt says, is based on "a desire to hide that trail more than anything else." But there's also a cultural aspect to the privacy.
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT PRESS SERVICE/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Russian President Vladimir Putin
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"This stems from Russian culture and is seen throughout its history," Schmidt says. "When you look at palace culture and court culture ... [royals] were trying to protect their private lives, both from competitors inside the court and from the public."
Schmidt continues: "There is also a tradition in Russian fairy tales where the Tzars are held up in front of the average person as being almost like saints. So, hiding affairs and dalliances ... part of that is just carrying on the cultural tradition."
Carrying on the cultural traditions of Russia — and expanding that worldview to other countries — is all part of Putin's long-term plan, Schmidt believes. That echoes the assessment of some others in the West, who see in Putin's plans a push to revive Russia's dominance in Europe and Asia.
"He wants to build a Eurasian Empire that is anti-Western, anti-things like free press and gay rights. He believes this cultural and philosophical space — headed by Moscow and of which Ukraine is a key component — must exist and must survive in order to push against the West," Schmidt says. "It's his version of manifest destiny. And he's willing to sacrifice a lot to get it."
But on the road to fulfilling that destiny, Schmidt believes Putin can't effectively hide his personal life forever. "I think U.S. intelligence and the press have a good sense of where the chalet is in Switzerland," he says. "But I think he has pretty effectively hidden his money."