12/06/2013 08:36 BST | Updated 12/08/2013 06:12 BST

Putin - A Byzantine Emperor in All but Name


Vladimir Putin gets a bad press in the western world - there are sniggers that he is too autocratic; too controlling and too repressive. The judo and the motorbike-riding, the bare-chested fishing; shirtless horse riding; surfacing from scuba-diving with two intact Greek amphorae - I mean, come on, I hear you cry. It's a joke!

But one thing about Putin is that he certainly knows how to handle his image, and how to handle his personal life. Those images of his down-time activities are chosen carefully - more carefully than those of US Presidents enjoying seemingly never-ending rounds of golf while the economy tanks (as at 1 June 2013, Pres. Obama had played 125 rounds since taking office)

Despite Putin's immense power (and rumoured vast wealth), he consistently presents himself as a servant of his people - a trick learned from the Emperors of Byzantium.

His divorce, announced last week with his wife at his side after seeing a performance of La Esmeralda, was straight from the imperial textbooks. 'All my work is connected to the public sphere', he told a reporter from RIA Novosti, a state-owned gazeteer. 'Some like it; but there are people who are completely incompatible with that.' I live to serve, in other words; deal with it.

The message was reinforced immediately by his court historians. 'It's easy to look at Putin's working schedule' said his official spokesman, 'and you'll understand that his life is not connected in any way with family relationships. It's connected only with his responsibility as the head of state.

They must have been reading the Alexiad, a jewel of a medieval text written in Greek in the 12th Century.

The Emperor Alexios I, wrote the author, never had time to bathe since he was so busy with affairs of state. He hardly slept, and worried constantly about the waves battering the empire from all quarters. His wife used to spend the evenings reading the Bible - just like Ludmilla Putin is supposed to do; on those rare occasions they were together, they would talk and pray - Emperor and Empress, that is; would not be surprised to learn that about the Putins too in due course.

Empresses were often quietly discarded in Byzantium, usually retiring to well-appointed convents where they lived out their days in luxurious surroundings. Almost always, they went off into the distance - like Mrs P - smiling and calm, aware that they had made their bed with a powerful man and for whatever reason, that end of the road had been reached.

But I for one found the process of last week's announcement surprisingly familiar, but also impressive in its own way. Ludmilla accepting her fate in a way that showed considerable dignity; and Putin himself keeping up the image that is a constant - and a reason why he is so enormously popular in Russia. He is steering the ship and is constantly at the helm, as waves crash from all directions.

No time for middle class sports like golf for him or a moccacino in a dinky little cafe in Ibiza like the Camerons; if he's off duty, he's going to be out and about doing the sort of thing real leaders do - hunting, traveling and preserving Russia's cultural heritage.

No wonder Moscow has long styled itself as the Third Rome - their latest heir to Constantinople. Which makes me wonder: what is the model for London and for Washington?