Pater familias.

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Putin Family Values

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been extremely secretive about his two daughters, so much so that it's all but impossible to find their recent photos on the Internet. Now, however, the Kremlin seems to be doing little to stop a fast-spreading story that Putin's younger daughter Ekaterina lives in Moscow and heads a company that's involved in developing a $1.7 billion innovation center. 

The only interview given by Putin's daughters -- Maria, born in 1985, and Ekaterina (or Katerina, as she is also known), born a year later -- was for the 2000 book "First Person," commissioned by Putin's election campaign. Putin described the girls as "very smart" and acknowledged that security concerns were making their lives difficult. "We hardly notice the bodyguards," the adolescent Katerina said in the book. "Even when we go somewhere with friends, they are just around, trying not to get in the way." She also said she was "not interested in politics."

All that is known about Putin's daughters is that they both attended St. Petersburg State University, their father's alma mater. Maria trained as a biologist and Katerina majored in oriental studies and studied Japanese. After that, the lives of Russia's first daughters were shrouded in secrecy, which couldn't but fuel the rumor mills.

The Dutch press has long reported that Maria Putina lived with her Dutch boyfriend in a posh apartment building in Voorschoten, Netherlands. When a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, the mayor of the city of Hilversum angrily demanded that Maria be deported: Two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch citizens. He later apologized, but tabloids were already reporting she had fled her Dutch home. 

As for Katerina, she was linked -- originally by the Korean press -- to the son of a retired South Korean admiral who once worked at the country's Moscow embassy. The admiral denied the rumors.

Putin's opponents have used these foreign press reports to paint Russia's president as an unpatriotic kleptocrat, who takes every chance to criticize the West but hypocritically allows his daughters to live the good life there. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov last September included Maria and Katerina in a long list of top officials' children who have studied, worked or lived overseas. "Who are the patriots and who are the traitors to the nation, the government or the opposition?" he asked pointedly.

In November, Putin decided to respond. In an interview with the state-owned news agency, TASS, he said his daughters lived in Moscow and saw him once or twice a month. That was typical Putin: volunteering little and not caring whether his listeners believed him -- just putting a tantalizing bit of information out there. 

It's possible, however, that we are now witnessing a special operation aimed at showing Katerina Putina to the world -- strictly unofficially.

Yesterday, the business daily RBK revealed the backstory of a major Moscow real estate project, a "Silicon Valley" to be built next to Moscow State University. The university has been granted 600 acres of expensive land next to its already vast property to build a research campus and housing. Apart from Inteko, a major Moscow developer, state companies like oil giant Rosneft, nuclear power plant operator Rosatom and defense conglomerate Rostech are named as partners in the project. And an organization called Innopraktika, a university affiliate, is working on the new science center's master plan. Innopraktika is headed by a young woman, Katerina Tikhonova, who is a member of the university's academic board.

The Geneva-based journalist Oleg Kashin followed up by researching her on the Internet. He found that Katerina Vladimirovna Tikhonova shares a birthday -- August 31, 1986 -- with Katerina Putina. A serious ballroom dancer who has taken part in competitions, Tikhonova was mentioned as Putin's daughter on the Russian social network Vkontakte last February.

RBK mentioned that Tikhonova's Innopraktika had a range of costly projects with Rosneft, run by Putin's close friend Igor Sechin, and with other big state companies. It stopped short, however, of stating Tikhonova was Putin's daughter. That could be dangerous in Moscow: In 2008, a tabloid newspaper that reported Putin had left his wife and was preparing to wed champion gymnast Alina Kabaeva was closed down the next day. 

Kashin had no such concerns and his not-quite-conclusive findings immediately went viral. If the rumors are true, they would help explain why an obscure 28-year-old woman without any known academic achievements sits on the academic board of Russia's most prestigious university and does millions of dollars' worth of projects with state companies.

Putin's critics have reacted with sarcasm. "Putin's daughter has been found on the MSU academic council," commentator Andrei Malgin tweeted (and Nemtsov retweeted). "She is an important businesswoman and a champion rock-n-roll dancer."

The story, however, plays into Putin's hands rather than those of his critics. It shows at least one of his daughters is deeply involved in Russian life and is working diligently to stop the brain drain -- as patriotic an endeavor as anyone could imagine. Contrary to all the rumors about nepotism and new feudalism, Putin comes across as a Russian patriot who wouldn't stand for his kin living in the hostile West.

When asked about the rumors about Katerina Tikhonova that were filling social networks, Putin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, chose not to issue a straight denial. "I don't know who she is," he told Forbes magazine. "Many girls have been passed off as Vladimir Putin's daughters."

Peskov's non-denial will only further fuel the rumors, which, I suspect, is just what the Kremlin wants. Putin's voters don't care about esoteric matters like potential conflicts of interest: To them, Putin is czar, the man taking care of the country. So isn't it great that one of his daughters might be helping him in his labors at this difficult time? It's a story that can only add to his legend.

(Corrects name of Igor Sechin in 11th paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net