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Marco Werman: Whatever comes out of those peace talks in Minsk will probably depend on what Russian president Vladimir Putin wants, and he always keeps his cards close to his chest. He even keeps a tight lid on what we know about his family. But recently one of his adult daughters was apparently outed. She’s been identified by a Russian journalist named Oleg Kashin. This daughter, if that’s in fact who she is, goes by the name of Katerina Tikhonova, and she apparently has two interests--she’s a competitive dancer and she may be in charge of a billion dollar development project at Moscow State University. Hard to imagine Obama keeping a lid on this kind of information about one of his daughters. I asked writer Natalia Antonova why Putin is so secretive about his family.
Natalia Antonova: There’s been persistent rumors in Moscow for years. Now, once again, I have to say that these are rumors, I can’t say that this has been confirmed. But people believe that what happened is that when Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, it was his then wife Ludmila who said “If you’re going to be president, fine, but keep the kids out of it, they are not going to be thrust into the public eye at all,” and that is cited as one of the reasons there’s so little information about his daughters. You also have to go back to the fact that Putin is an ex-KGB person, and KGB people, if you know any, they’re going to be extremely, like, on a “need-to-know basis,” part of that culture, that you don’t tell anyone about your children, that that’s off limits, that’s private.
Werman: You say Putin doesn’t discuss anything about his children, but don’t you have to go to really great lengths to make everyone wonder whether you have children at all?
Antonova: I think it’s very much known, the fact that he has two daughters. I think that was always very obvious, that he always had them. Of course, you have to understand that the one time in Russia a newspaper printed something about a possible relationship that Putin had with another woman, that paper was shut down like virtually the very next day. So, there’s no incentive for journalists to dig into this stuff. It’s not that the Kremlin orders it to be shut down, it’s more like the owners panic because there’s an intense level of self-censorship going on.
Werman: Is this big news in Russia, or are Russians kind of going “Well, we kind of knew this all along anyway.”
Antonova: I don’t see it as being big news here at all, I think the average person is not really focused on Kashin’s report and what he’s doing. I do think that in the absence of information, people make up wild rumors all the time. I actually think that the fact that one of his daughters might be on one of these projects at Moscow State, that is a really tame rumor. It’s almost like “Oh, well if she’s doing that, great,” because you have to know that in Russia, because of the Soviet legacy and because of the kind of legacy Russia has now, people discuss stuff behind closed doors, and when they do, their theories are almost always more wild than the reality. So, for one of his daughters to possibly be involved in this project, it’s like “Oh, hey, that seems totally normal. Why is this even news?”
Werman: And if they were discussing it behind closed doors, they would not see that as cronyism?
Antonova: In the West, we automatically label it as cronyism, and it is cronyism, but Russia has this very big culture of cronyism and this culture is really much entrenched, and it’s always explained away as this thing where you can’t trust anyone but the people who are closest to you. So, if you’re going to spend a billion dollars, who would you give it to, some random guy or your daughter? You have to give it to your daughter, you can trust her, you know what I mean? Because Russia and the Soviet Union have had this forced collectivism, but in truth, Russia is this fierce individualistic country where there’s no real community. You don’t have expert groups or whatever that you can trust. You don’t have a real transparency with much of anything. In that kind of environment, it makes total sense to give a billion dollars to your daughter, not that I’m even saying that Putin gave that money to her, I’m sure it came from somewhere else. But I just mean that in terms of regular cronyism, to us, we see it as something bad but the Russians see it as “Oh hey, well I’m just trying to get some work done. I can’t trust anyone but the people who are closest to me.”
Werman: Is it possible that Putin wanted this to come out, that this was a deliberate leak?
Antonova: It’s entirely possible, and I think the reason for that is that there’s been so much pressure with the sanctions and Russia’s big standoff with the West over Ukraine. People have been really angry--and I wouldn’t just say the opposition. I think a lot of people are saying “Well, you know, the West is like us, but we think his daughters are actually living in the West, and that’s not cool,” so this could have been somehow orchestrated. It might be a coincidence, but it could have been orchestrated just to show that actually these young women do, in fact, live in Moscow, they’re working for the government, they’re working with state funds, “lay off, they’re patriots, you don’t have a right to criticize them.” That’s entirely possible.
Werman: Writer Natalia Antonova speaking with me from Moscow. Thanks a lot, we appreciate it.