Alina Kabaeva could hardly have imagined the life she has been able to build for herself. And right now she will be finding it just as difficult to envisage what the future holds.
The 39-year-old whom some have termed the Empress of Russia lives in boundless luxury, her position secure, it is said, because she has provided Vladimir Putin with the male heir he has so long craved.
Yet she cannot be blind to the fact that, even at the very summit of the Russian kleptocracy, hers remains a highly precarious life. As her children play in the ‘golden mansion’ that is their home in the forests of northern Russia, between Moscow and St Petersburg, they are guarded by a Pantsir air defence system installed in a nearby village.
Because, for better and for worse, Kabaeva’s life is inextricably bound up with that of Putin, the rage-filled 70-year-old Russian president now locked in an existential struggle with the West.
This week, details of Kabaeva’s luxurious existence were laid bare to the world by the independent anti-Putin investigative team Proekt which exposed both the couple’s secret life together and the lavish £100 million property empire that has been assembled for Kabaeva, a former gold medal-winning gymnast.
Early days: Vladimir Putin and Alina Kabaeva in 2004 before their relationship
Glamour: Putin’s mistress posed in furs for a magazine cover in the year she triumphed at the Olympics
Among the revelations was that she has her own luxury ‘wooden mansion’ in a 28-hectare forest estate at Valdai, 250 miles north-west of Moscow and where Putin also has his own ‘royal residence’ along with a number of other VIP estates.
Putin considers his private life sacrosanct. And any attempt to infringe on that is met with swift retaliation. The Moscow newspaper which first exposed his relationship with Kabaeva in 2008, claiming that the couple had become engaged, was closed down within hours.
The Russian leader was also said to be so incensed by this week’s revelations by Proekt that he reportedly swore and yelled at officials in the FSB — the security service that replaced the KGB — whom he blamed for the leak.
He is also said to have argued bitterly with Kabaeva this week, according to General SVR, an account on the encrypted social media site Telegram that claims to have inside knowledge of Putin’s circle. According to the channel, he claimed that her friends ‘talk on every corner about everything they know and don’t know.
‘Putin said that he had 100 per cent information that the leak came from Kabaeva’s circle of friends,’ the channel added. No one had ever seen the President so furious.
‘This was not too far from having a heart attack or a stroke.’
Such are the highs and lows of life for the women who choose to share their lives with the despot President.
Kabaeva took over the role from his previous lover, cleaner-turned-multimillionaire Svetlana Krivonogikh, now 47, who has managed — to a certain extent — to escape Putin’s clutches unscathed.
Krivonogikh is now a shareholder in a major Russian bank and owns sumptuous properties in Monaco and St Petersburg, where she runs the city’s ‘most elite’ strip club, which — rather surprisingly — Putin is said to have recently visited.
Ultimately, Krivonogikh couldn’t provide the male heir Putin so desperately wanted, giving birth to just one child in 2003: a girl named Elizaveta.
Her relationship with Putin reportedly fizzled out some time around 2008.
Similarly, Putin’s ex-wife, the former Aeroflot air stewardess and First Lady Lyudmila Putina, 65, only gave him two daughters. And their strained marriage ended with divorce in 2014.
Above shows the Russian President’s home in Valda
But it seems the glamourous Kabaeva has succeeded where the others failed.
Reports vary as to the number of her children by Putin — but it is at least two and may be as many as four, and could include a set of twins.
The Proekt investigation claims to know the exact ages and names of her children, but has made the decision not to expose them. Yet what’s definitely clear is that at least one of them is a son and heir for Putin.
Her successes as a mother have, Proekt says, therefore seen her rewarded with that £100 million personal property empire, including a Black Sea hideaway in sea-and-ski resort Sochi, as well as around two dozen mansions and flats.
And that’s before you account for the many lavish palaces she and Putin jointly inhabit.
Kabaeva’s homes are decorated in the extravagant and gaudy style that typifies the Russian elite — mahogany, marble, leather and lots of gold. At the snap of her fingers she can summon a fleet of luxury Maybach limousines to convey her and her family retinue, for whom her association with Putin has also proved lucrative. Indeed, her grandmother, Anna Yakovlevna Zatsepilina, has a real estate portfolio worth some £10million and ‘could well be called the richest babushka in all of Russia,’ says Proekt. This is all despite Kabaeva’s relationship with Putin being officially denied from the start, as it still is a decade and a half later.
Are they secretly married? No one knows for sure, though it has been suggested that they tied the knot in an Orthodox church ceremony. Camera crews caught her wearing a ring on her wedding finger in February 2014.
Despite the layers of mystery, over the years Kabaeva has revealed occasional fleeting glimpses of feelings.
She tellingly revealed in 2013 she had met a man that ‘I love very much’, gushing: ‘Sometimes you feel so happy that you even feel scared.’
How that fear, mixed perhaps with love, must permeate every aspect of their life together. For what kind of partner must Putin be, one wonders.
Does the tyrant possess a hidden emotional hinterland? It is widely acknowledged he had become utterly cold to his wife of 30 years.
And what kind of father must he be to their children? As a self-styled historian of Russia, he will know of the fathers who loom large in the nation’s dark history.
Joseph Stalin, for example, famously refused to negotiate the release of his son Yakov, captured by the Nazis. He let him die in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
And of course, there is the father of all Russian tyrants, Ivan the Terrible — Putin’s hero — who killed his own son in a fit of rage.
Even if their personal relationship is supposedly still secret, Kabaeva has publicly supported Putin and served as a member of his party in the Russian parliament from 2007 to 2014.
In 2018, she was photographed wearing a dress that seemed to acknowledge her private role.
Emblazoned on the front was the sacred Russian emblem of the double-headed imperial eagle, along with three crowns.
The bird clutched in its claws a sceptre and orb, held by Russian tsars at their coronations.
Imprinted, too, on her full-length white dress was St George, the patron saint of Moscow.
Several times recently she has been seen wearing a ‘Z’ broach, a symbol of support for Putin’s bloody military operation, making clear she does not demur in the slaughter of both Ukrainians and his ‘cannon fodder’ Russian troops. This is a ‘fight for our country’, she has said of the war.
When she and Putin were first linked in 2008, Alina Kabaeva was Russia’s most eligible woman. She was in her early 20s and something of a sporting icon who had triumphed at the 2004 Athens Olympics, bringing home gold in rhythmic gymnastics.
Despite being banned for a year for doping, she remains a legend in the discipline, even inventing a move still performed today.
Star: Kabaeva excelled at gymnastics as she became a gold medal-winning gymnast
In the year of her gold medal win she posed for the Russian edition of Maxim, the men’s magazine, naked apart from some strategically placed furs.
The photographer described her as ‘full of sex’. Since then she has not been publicly associated with any partner other than Putin. Nowadays she ostensibly runs a giant TV and news network, National Media Group, that is slavishly obedient to Putin. But there are those who suggest that Putin’s ‘empress’ is increasingly apprehensive about the future.
She and her children may live within a ‘golden mansion’, decorated on Putin’s orders like a palace of the Romanovs — once Russia’s royal family. She may indeed be the owner of the largest apartment in Russia — a £12.5 million penthouse in Sochi with its own helipad and cinema, which was described in the Proekt report as the ‘brightest diamond in [a] necklace of real estate’.
And she may also enjoy vast riches, allegedly funnelled by Putin through a hidden Cypriot bank account to fund her luxury lifestyle.
But the fact is that the war, as well as Putin’s health and state of mind, cast huge uncertainty over what comes next. She must wonder where her lover’s disastrous Ukraine adventure will lead — and how its fate will affect her and her children.
She will know better than most if the rumours concerning Putin — of cancer, Parkinson’s disease and a schizoaffective disorder — are fact or fiction.
Despite the pride he takes in his image, he is clearly not well. It is often claimed that he lost his ‘mental balance’ during the Covid crisis when he was cooped up, largely alone and paranoid about contracting the virus.
But even if he was fit physically and mentally — which even some of his former aides strongly doubt — what will happen to this young family if the wheels come off and he is toppled?
There is talk of an ‘Operation Noah’s Ark’ that would see Putin and his loved ones go into exile in such redoubts as Venezuela or the Central African Republic, or perhaps a bolthole in the steppes of central Asia.
Hardly enticing prospects.
Suppose that if, amid a coup — rather than Putin handing over power to a loyalist — a probe is started into their gargantuan property empire and foreign bank accounts. What then?
A trial? Jail? Perhaps even a prosecution for war crimes for Putin and maybe even for her, based on her role as a media mogul supporting his corrupt regime?
Many believe Kabaeva hoped to see out the current crisis in Switzerland, yet was ordered home amid the closing net of sanctions.
She might now ponder the fate of Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was loathed by the Soviet people because she appeared to flaunt her access to luxury clothes, jewellery and wealth, especially on visits to Western capitals, at a time when the masses had no such opportunities.
Indeed, perhaps it is Putin’s own memories of how Raisa was hated that help to explain his adamant refusal to bring Kabaeva and her children into the spotlight — especially now as vitriol is poured on him from abroad, and increasingly inside Russia, over the war.
Given her love of tsarist symbols, Kabaeva might also contemplate the tragedy of Alexandra, the last Russian Empress. She was only a few years older than the former gymnast is now when she was shot dead by a firing squad that also slaughtered her five children and her husband, Nicholas II.
It would have been impossible for Tsarina Alexandra to conceive of her reversal of fortunes, how she would pass from the unmatched opulence of royal palaces to a basement prison on the far side of the Ural Mountains.
So, too, perhaps for Alina Kabaeva, the unacknowledged current empress of Russia.
As war continues to rage in Ukraine, the danger must seem to creep ever closer to the rarefied sanctuary she shares with her children. And her own words must surely come back to haunt her: ‘Sometimes you feel so happy that you even feel scared.’