. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Lady Candidates Mostly in the Shadows

They used to say that behind every great man, there was a great woman. Gender politics have changed since then in many cultures, but in the race for the Kremlin it seems that the adage still stands, with the emphasis very much on "behind."


Naina Yeltsina is a different woman from just five years ago. She dresses sharply, lambastes communists, visits hospitals and sings her husband's praises to the Russian press.


But the role of the incumbent first lady nonetheless remains very much in the shadows. There has never been any hint that she is involved in advising her husband on policy matters -- in line with the judgement of all the candidates that a politically active wife is a liability.


Even Raisa Gorbacheva, who revolutionized the concept of a first lady during her husband's term as Soviet leader, has taken a step out of the limelight as Mikhail Gorbachev campaigns for re-election.


Once at her husband's side no matter where he went, Gorbacheva shocked the nation with her glamourous clothes and her active participation in her husband's work.


Today, however, she is selling her outfits to second-hand shops, only occasionally accompanying her husband on official visits, and never voicing an opinion on political affairs.


"She plays the role of a wife," said Vladimir Polyakov, an adviser to the former leader. "She has two granddaughters and she's busy at home."


He insisted, however, that her reduced visibility is not a tactic to improve her husband's standing in the polls.


"The question of whether or not she should be involved in the campaigning has not been discussed," he said.


While Gorbacheva is already a household name -- and face -- other wives have rarely, if ever, been seen with their husbands in public. The person of Yelena Yavlinskaya, for example, is a mystery to the public. Inna Lebed sometimes accompanies her husband on trips but rarely speaks. And Nadezhda Zyuganova has refused to have anything to do with her husband's campaign for the Kremlin.


"Gennady Andreyevich's wife is taking no part in the election campaign whatsoever," a spokesman said. "This is according to her wishes and it was decided at the Zyuganov family council."


The spokesman declined to give Zyuganova's age -- "That's a tactless question, a woman's age is always beautiful" -- but he said the Zyuganovs have been married for about 30 years, and that Zyuganova works as a technological engineer in a factory.


And while Galina Zhirinovskaya and Natalya Bryntsalova are both keen to give public support to their flamboyant husbands, they too keep their distance from politics.


"Vladimir Volfovich [Zhirinovsky] told her that if she tried to meddle in politics he would send her straight to a convent," said the LDPR leader's spokesman, General Vladimir Filatov. "She's very modest and that pleases people because they see her as one of their own. She doesn't appear often with her husband because she's a scientist and her place is in the laboratory."


As for Zhirinovskaya's influence on her husband, Filatov was very clear.


"Of course she doesn't influence him. Nobody influences him," he said, adding that she had no intention of being an active and vocal first lady. "But I think that she's added a lot to the attractive image of our future president."


And as her husband's pronouncements become increasingly mild in the run-up to the June 16 presidential election, Zhirinovskaya seemed intent on portraying him as a gentle, mild mannered intellectual, in a recent interview on the "Itogi" weekly news program.


"He never drinks anything," she said, somewhat implausibly. "He can have a bit of champagne sometimes."


Instead, she said, Zhirinovsky is barely noticeable at home -- unseen and unheard, he spends almost all of his time reading.


"He has a tender way, it's a very relaxed and at the same time very original way with women," she said, looking back over their 30-year marriage. "But [sex] is not the most important thing for Vladimir Volfovich. It's one of the most important things. The most important thing is politics."


Natalya Bryntsalova receives $18,000 monthly for helping to maintain her husband's image and appears with him regularly in public, although in a primarily decorative capacity.


"She works on his image by looking good, every day," said Bryntsalov's spokeswoman Valentina Tolmacheva, explaining that while Bryntsalova donates half of her income to charity, the rest is devoted largely to this goal. "She comes to a large number of events with him but does not actively participate."


But, unlike many of Russia's other potential first ladies, Bryntsalova appears happy to step into the limelight -- and show that behind her great man, there's a great woman's behind. On the sensationalist weekly program "Dni" on June 2, in which the Bryntsalovs were filmed on a horse-riding excursion, the candidate proudly requested that his wife shed her riding gear and display her silver lycra-covered backside to television viewers. She complied.