Former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva has long been rumoured to be the Russian president’s mistress. She is almost never seen in public but was photographed on Thursday for the first time since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The 38-year-old Olympic medallist, who is one of Russia’s most revered gymnasts, was photographed during a rehearsal at Moscow’s VTB Arena ahead of her annual charity festival, scheduled for Saturday.
The snap dispelled suggestions that Ms Kabaeva has been hiding out in Switzerland since Putin launched his assault on Ukraine on 24 February.
There were also suggestions she may have been in hiding in the Urals, Arctic or Siberia since her last public appearance in December when she was caught on video dancing in Moscow.
Photos of the Olympian were posted on Thursday evening by Yeketerina Sirotina, a well-known rhythmic gymnastics choreographer.
Ms Sirotina thanked the former gymnast for a “very special creative atmosphere at the event”.
Rumours have long circulated that Ms Kabaeva is the Russian leader’s mistress, although she has never addressed persistent reports about the pair’s relationship, including marriage and pregnancy.
Despite being a celebrity in her country, she is very rarely seen in public.
Responding to the photographs, Telegram channel Tol’ko Nikomu speculated that she and Putin share the same plastic surgeon.
It said: “A new rare appearance of Alina Kabaeva. This time she is dressed casually – and is again seen with a wedding ring.
“And yes, the handwriting of the family beautician is quite notable.”
Ms Kabaeva flashed a wedding ring in a rare TV appearance last year, sending speculation of her marital status swirling.
However, she promptly posted another video on social media, but without wearing any rings.
Many Russians saw her as the reason for the breakup of Putin’s marriage to ex-first lady Lyudmila, 63, mother of his two adult daughters.
Putin’s ally, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, has hinted in the past that the divorce decision came about after Ms Kabaeva “put pressure on the president”.
Russian investigative journalists have previously uncovered links between Putin’s inner circle and Ms Kabaeva’s family, the Telegraph reported.
In 2016, Russian TV Rain reported that a childhood friend of Putin had transferred ownership of three luxury apartments in high-end neighbourhoods of Moscow and St Petersburg to her elderly grandmother.
More property was gifted to Ms Kabaeva’s sister and grandmother by the Russian president’s judo sparring partner.
Ms Kabaeva has also held a number of high-level positions despite apparently having little experience or training in the area.
The ex-athlete has served as chairperson of the board of National Media Group (NMG), a media empire owned by a friend of Putin, since 2014, despite having no background in journalism or management.
However, her name disappeared from the NMG website earlier this month following fears that the company may be hit by Western sanctions.
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NMG has been described as an asset that “undoubtedly belongs to Putin personally” by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Mr Navalny posted from jail: “I want to remind you that the National Media Group, which owns the lion’s share of this apparatus of lies, undoubtedly belongs to Putin personally, and as such is even formally headed by Putin’s mistress Alina Kabaeva.”
He called for her to be treated as a “war criminal” and demanded sanctions against her.
Unlike two of Putin’s daughters, Ms Kabaeva has not yet been included in Western sanctions despite calls from figures including Ms Navalny.
Following rumours that she was hiding out in Switzerland, a petition to have her thrown out by Swiss authorities garnered 75,000 signatures.
A TV version of Ms Kabaeva’s festival, the Alina Festival, will be broadcast on the eve of Russia’s 9 May Victory Day commemoration marking the end of the Second World War.
The commemoration is also widely seen as the day President Putin will seek to declare some kind of victory in Ukraine, possibly claiming he has seized control of the Donbas region.