MOSCOWÂ – A patron of Russian fashion, socialite and supporter of the arts, Svetlana Medvedeva is shaking off her air of mystery as she prepares to become Russia’s first lady.
Russian media are already drawing comparisons with Raisa Gorbacheva, the late wife of the last Soviet president, whose glamorous image and frequent public appearances broke with Soviet tradition.
Medvedeva becomes first lady when her husband, Dmitry Medvedev, 42, takes over as president in May following his election victory on Sunday. She has already caused something of a media frenzy even though she shies away from photographers and does not give interviews.
A stylish blonde, she often appears in the Russian versions of celebrity magazines “Hello” and “OK”, hailing Russian art or featuring on their “best dressed” lists. Her friends include many Russian celebrities.
Born Svetlana Linnik, she started dating her future husband when they were both around 14 at school 305 in their home town of St Petersburg. They married in 1989.
“She had a bright personality,” Medvedev’s former high school teacher, Irina Grigorovskaya, told Reuters.
“(Many boys) took an interest in her, but she chose Dima (Medvedev). They were a beautiful couple,” said Grigorovskaya, who has stayed in touch since she taught Medvedev mathematics in the 1970s.
Medvedev’s campaign team declines to say how old the future first lady is. She trained as an economist, but gave up her career when their only child was born in 1996.
“In seventh grade, Sveta (Svetlana) came into my life and I stopped caring about school,” Medvedev said in an interview last month. “It was much more fun to walk with my future wife than to sit with my textbooks.”
Medvedeva’s friends include celebrated fashion designer Valentin Yudashkin, popular singer Alla Pugacheva and Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov.
“Svetlana is friends with cultured people. She is a known face in Moscow and supports Russian culture,” said the spokeswoman of Russian Silhouette, a venture set up by Mikhalkov’s wife, Tatyana, to support young fashion designers.
When she took her place in the first row at a Russian film awards ceremony earlier this year to support Mikhalkov, she wore an ebony mink coat and had bodyguards on either side. Mikhalkov threw his arms around her and planted a kiss on her cheek.
Last year she helped organize the annual Russian art festival in Cannes on the French Riviera.
“Svetlana travels everywhere for Russia, all over Europe,” the spokeswoman said. She said Medvedeva and her son, Ilya, had gone to Italy’s Russian Language Week in Rome two years ago to encourage people to take up Russian.
She regularly wears clothes made by Russian designers and later this month will attend Moscow Fashion Week, a biannual event set up 15 years ago to boost the Russian fashion business.
“She dresses extremely well, she has a look of elegance… She reminds me of other Kremlin wives,” said 39-year-old Russian designer Igor Chapurin, whose flowing dresses and bright leather suits are snatched up by Moscow’s elite.
Her interest in art and fashion coincide with growing international interest in Russian art, which fetches hefty prices in London and New York. Russian fashion is expanding beyond the country’s borders as Hollywood stars start to wear clothes by Russian designers.
Raisa Gorbacheva also supported Russian art but never managed to win over the Russian public while her husband, Mikhail Gorbachev, was in power.
She was universally disliked by ordinary Soviet people for being luxuriously dressed at a time when the Soviet Union had severe food shortages.
But like Svetlana, Raisa was a noticeable first lady, unlike President Vladimir Putin’s wife, Lyudmila, or Boris Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, who both stayed out of the limelight.