The rumor mill about President Vladimir Putin shifted into overdrive Friday, churning out possible explanations for his absence: He had been stricken by the flu; he sneaked off to Switzerland for the birth of his love child; he had a stroke; he was dead.
MOSCOW — Where’s Putin?
The question obsessed Moscow and much of Russia on Friday, as speculation mounted as to why President Vladimir Putin had not been seen in public for more than a week.
He abruptly canceled a trip to Kazakhstan and postponed a treaty signing with representatives from South Ossetia who were reportedly told not to bother to fly to Moscow.
Most unusually, he was absent from an annual meeting of the top officials from the FSB, Russia’s domestic-intelligence service.
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The rumor mill went into overdrive, churning out possible explanations. He had been stricken by the flu going around Moscow. He sneaked off to Switzerland for the birth of his love child. He had a stroke. The victim of a palace coup, he was imprisoned within the Kremlin. He was dead, age 62.
Dmitry Peskov, the presidential spokesman, for the second day in a row treated all the health questions with a certain wry humor initially, coming up with new and inventive ways to say: “He’s fine.”
That the story proved impossible to quash illustrated the uneasy mood gripping the Russian capital for months now, an atmosphere in which speculation about the health of one man can provoke fears about death and succession.
There have been periodic glimpses of the tension behind the high red walls of the Kremlin, infighting over the wisdom of waging war in Ukraine that has only increased as the value of the ruble crumbled under the combined weight of an oil-price collapse and Western economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea.
Those pressures seemed to culminate in the Feb. 27 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister who was gunned down near the Kremlin. Nemtsov’s supporters blamed the atmosphere of hate that has been brewing in Russia, with the state-controlled news media labeling him a ringleader among the “enemies of the state.”
Andrei Illarionov, a former presidential adviser, wrote a blog post suggesting the president had been overthrown by hard-liners in a palace coup endorsed by the Russian Orthodox Church. Russians could anticipate an announcement soon saying he was taking a well-deserved rest, the post said. Conspiracy theorists bombarded Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media with similar intrigue.
The grandfather of all the conspiracy theories surfaced: Putin disappeared on purpose to distract everyone from the problems and economic pressures piling up around them.
Given that Russia sometimes seems to be reverting to the dusty playbook of the Soviet Union, some concerns seemed to feed off old habits. In the early 1980s, when three Soviet rulers — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko — died in quick succession, the public was among the last to be informed.
“If an American president dies, not that much changes,” said a reporter who declined to be identified. “But if a Russian leader dies, everything can change; we just don’t know for better or worse, but usually for worse.”
The White House declined to say if it had any information about Putin’s whereabouts or whether President Obama has been briefed. “I have enough trouble keeping track of the whereabouts of one world leader,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
The last confirmed public Putin sighting was at a meeting with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy on March 5, although Kremlin officials would have one think otherwise as they doctored the president’s timetable to confirm that all was hunky-dory.
The daily newspaper RBC reported that a meeting with the governor of the northwestern region of Karelia, pictured on the presidential website as taking place March 11, actually occurred March 4. A meeting with a group of women shown as March 8 actually happened March 6, RBC said.
On Friday, the Kremlin released video and photos of Putin meeting with the president of the supreme court to discuss judicial reform. The footage got heavy play on state-run television, but given that it was not live, it did little to douse the rumors.
The simplest explanation appeared to come from an unidentified government source in Kazakhstan, who told Reuters: “It looks like he has fallen ill.”
Since half of Moscow seemed racked with a flu that knocks people onto their backs for days at a time, that seemed the most likely explanation.
But there seemed to be a certain reluctance to admit that Russia’s leader, who cultivates a macho image of ruddy good health, might have been felled like a mere mortal.
His spokesman told any media outlet that called that his boss was in fine fettle, holding meetings and performing other duties of the office. “No need to worry, everything is all right,” Peskov said Thursday in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio.
As new theories emerged practically by the hour, Peskov denied them all.
A Swiss tabloid reported Putin had spent the past week accompanying his mistress, Olympic gymnastics medalist Alina Kabayeva, to give birth in a clinic in Switzerland’s Ticino canton.
Peskov swatted that one down, too.
One of Putin’s predecessors, Boris Yeltsin, used to disappear frequently. But that was due either to drinking bouts or, at least once, an undisclosed heart attack. His spokesman settled on a standard explanation that Yeltsin still had a firm handshake and was busy working on documents.
Peskov drolly resorted to both explanations, telling Echo of Moscow that Putin’s handshake could break hands and that he was working “exhaustively” with documents.
By Friday, Peskov’s patience appeared to be wearing thin as he told Reuters: “We’ve already said this a hundred times. This isn’t funny anymore.”
Now all eyes are on Monday, when the president is scheduled to meet with the president of Kyrgyzstan in St. Petersburg.