Russian President Vladimir Putin quashed a rapidly circulating rumor today, denying a newspaper report that he had secretly divorced his wife and planned to marry a famous Russian gymnast less than half his age.
On Wednesday, the Russian tabloid Moskovskiy Korrespondent reported that the 56-year-old was planning a June wedding to Alina Kabayeva, 24, a parliamentarian and former Olympic gymnast.
Picked up by blogs and tabloids worldwide, the rumor seemed for the first time to put a Russian politician in the spotlight of scandal that has ensnared other notable leaders such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who early this year divorced his wife and married a model.
But just when it seemed Moscow's gossip would become the world's gossip, everyone denied everything.
"There is not a word of truth in what you've said," Putin told reporters inquiring about the rumor during a news conference in Italy today.
Putin's denial was preceded by a retraction from the paper that had first printed the whispered gossip.
"The article contained merely some rumors and also some facts, which so it seemed to us, confirmed the rumors. That is, there is no factual base to the article. This we admit," wrote the editors of Moskovskiy Korrespondent.
Tarnished Image? Probably Not
The morsel sheds light not just on how gossip spreads in Russia, but also on the way Russians perceive their president and what it takes to make a scandal in the world's largest country.
Putin, a former KGB agent and judo champion, has carefully managed his image, keeping much of his personal life private and portraying himself as a strong, masculine leader.
If anything, Russian culture and politics experts told ABC News, the rumor only adds to his reputation as a macho, tough guy.
"This is definitely not going hurt his image at all," said Mark Leiderman, a Russian professor at the University of Colorado. "He presents himself as super macho."
"The Russia of today is modern and business oriented. Putin sees himself as the country's 'top manager.' There is a perception that promiscuity is the norm for wealthy, powerful males."
On the Moscow street, most Russians were unfazed by the gossip.
"I didn't read about it, and anyway it's the private business of each and everyone," said a shop assistant who asked to be identified as Garrick.
While the merest whiff of a sex scandal is enough to have the American public calling for a leader's resignation -- and that same politician calling a news conference to offer a string of denials -- Russians are much less quick to judge.
"The main point of this story is that Russians are Europeans, not Americans. A shrug, a smile or a 'so what' is what you would get from uncensored interviews with ordinary people," said Richard Stites, a professor of Russian history and culture at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
The French public appeared somewhat less than scandalized in February when Sarkozy divorced his wife and quickly married former model Carla Bruni, but they were certainly enthralled.
That reaction is markedly different to Americans' outrage over sex scandals such as New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's alleged link to prostitution and former President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"The Russian attitudes towards affairs and divorce are very different from Americans. The Russians are far more accepting of this behavior," said Anna Vassilieva, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "When [former President Boris] Yeltsin was still in power during the Lewinsky scandal, there was a Russian joke that Clinton should send Lewinsky to Moscow to revive Yeltsin."
An Eye for the Ladies
Much of Putin's image is tied up in being a man's man -- and also a ladies' man.
During the same news conference in which he denied plans to marry Kabayeva, Putin reminded everyone he liked the ladies.
"I don't think I will upset anyone if I say that I think that Russian women are the most beautiful," he said. "And if anyone can compete with them it is Italian women," he continued in Sardinia during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In August, photos of a shirtless and muscle-bound Putin fishing during a Siberian vacation were splashed across newspapers in Russia and around the world, further cementing his macho image.
In October 2006, he reportedly joked with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, then accused of raping 10 women, that he envied him for his virility.
"What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped 10 women. I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all -- we all envy him," the BBC reported Putin as saying.
The Kremlin later said the comments were mistranslated and intended as a joke, but did not deny that Putin had made them.
On Thursday, Kabayeva, who took home a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, was the first to demand Moskovskiy Korrespondent correct its story and denied she and Putin planned to marry June 15.
Putin's second and final term ends May 5, but he will most likely be tapped by Dmitry Medvedev, the incoming president, for the prime minister's post.