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Putin a vampire, wife says

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HAMBURG, Germany, Feb.23 -- Lyudmila, wife of Russian President Vladmir Putin, thinks he is a vampire, and mourns the fact that the former KGB agent went back into espionage as head of Russia's Federal Security Service in 1998 -- and even then he would regularly go to Finland to get away from the omnipresent microphones.

Putin, by contrast, hated his wife's obsession with horoscopes, and once complained that anyone who could stay with her for three weeks "deserved a monument."

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These insights into the domestic life of Russia's first couple come from a new book written by Lyudmilla's best friend, to be published in Germany next week. Extracts appeared today in the German magazine "Der Spiegel."

Irene Pietsch, wife of a German banker based in Hamburg, became friends with Lyudmila in 1995 when Putin was deputy Mayor of St Petersburg. Keen to revive the commercial links of the old medieval Hanseatic League, Putin became a regular visitor to Hamburg. The Putins and Pietsch family became close friends and exchanged family visits.

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The two women swapped letters and faxes, and talked privately about sex and God, the etiquette of tipping in restaurants and whether or not it was right to take your own food into a bar.

"My husband always goes to Finland when he has something important to say," Lyudmila confided. "He doesn't think there is anywhere in Russia where you can speak without being overheard."

"Unfortunately, my husband is a vampire", Lyudmila told Irene with a rueful smile. "But he is just the right man for me -- he doesn't drink and he doesn't beat me."

Putin has hitherto kept tight control over his image as a modern and efficient post-Soviet man, a judo expert and fitness fanatic, at home in the West and determined to make Russia into a prosperous democracy. This account is the first leak in the tight wall of image control that Putin has built around himself, and Kremlin officials Friday refused to comment on the remarks of Russia's first lady.

The last time the two women spoke was in July 1998, when Boris Yeltsin promoted Putin to run Russia's security service.

"It's terrible. We won't be allowed to contact each other ever again," Lyudmila told her friend over the phone. "This isolation is dreadful. No more traveling wherever we want to go. No longer able to say what we want. I had only just begun to live".

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One evening, the two couples were talking of the fundamentals of life over dinner. Lyudmila said that the greatest virtue was truth.

"Who cares about your truths?" her husband said, and turned to Irene. "Anyone who can spend three weeks with Lyudmila deserves a monument".

"His two green eyes are like two hungry, lurking predators, like weapons", Irene recorded, after the couples spent a week together at a Russian government guesthouse in Archangelskoye, where they lived on Lyudmila's tasty Russian soups.

Lyudmila said she had one regret about their German friends. Her husband had learned that German wives woke early to prepare breakfast while their husbands slept on, and started demanding that she do the same.

In 1997, Lyudmila took a trip alone to Hamburg for four days, mostly spent shopping, but paying in cash. Putin was worried about the fuss made over the credit cards used by Mikhail Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, and members of Boris Yeltsin's family. "I will never be like Raisa", Lyudmila told her friend.

The book, "Fragile Friendships,", is published in German by Molden Verlag, Vienna.

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