Up until now this simply hasn’t seemed like a topic worth burning a publishing slot here, but at this point even I’ve become at least a bit curious. It’s been ten days since there was a verified sighting of Vladimir Putin. On March 5th he was photographed at a meeting with Italy’s Prime Minister, but since then he’s been out of sight. Out of sight does not mean out of mind when you’re a world leader however, and there has been endless speculation about what’s up with Vlad. Is he dead? Is he in a coma? Is he languishing under the influence of some horrible disease? Maybe he’s off with his girlfriend while she has his baby. Perhaps he’s been overthrown by disgruntled opponents and he’s in a dark cell under the Kremlin.
The rumors have been flying and the hashtag #PutinIsDead has been trending on Twitter for a while now. Russian social media is abuzz, though not everyone is happy about it. The Kremlin has been making one excuse after another.. never anything specific, but mostly just denying each new rumor as it erupts. It would seem like the most benign, yet likely explanation is that he’s taken ill, but is expected to recover fully and will be back in a bit. But if that’s the case, why not just say it? Julia Ioffe at the Washington Post theorizes that Putin simply can’t afford to admit that he even came down with a cold.
This is, in large part, a crisis of the Kremlin’s making. If Peskov can’t make Putin reappear, the obvious thing to do would be to furnish some plausible explanation, like, “The President has come down with a bad case of the flu but is following all developments and will be back at work shortly.”
But that statement is impossible for two reasons. First, manly men don’t get sick. Putin’s carefully cultivated image rests on never showing weakness, which is crucial in hypercompetitive Russia. If one shows some weakness, then one is all weakness—and therefore prey. This is why Putin never apologizes and, in the rare instance in which he reverses a decision, will do so long after the public gaze or outcry has moved on. Putin is the national leader and does not admit mistakes. It is beneath national leaders to do such lily-livered things.
The second problem is that no one would believe Peskov. The flu would become its own meme and people would parse that statement for clues about Putin’s secret death or secret stroke or secret tumor.
I can’t really argue with that reasoning, though it still doesn’t prove anything regarding Putin’s status one way or the other. The man certainly seems to manage his image closely and frowns on any depiction of him which doesn’t portray a swarthy, tiger fighting warrior in the prime of life. (And in Russia, you generally don’t want Vlad frowning at you.) His absence is all the more conspicuous given how much he seemingly loves stories about himself, assuming they offer a positive portrayal. The man rushes a camera better than almost anyone except Chuck Schumer. But he seems to only want to be seen in two settings. Either he’s meeting with important people and making important decisions in serious, important ways or he’s scuba diving for ancient artifacts, engaging in equestrian pursuits or doing other manly things that important men do in their manly off hours.
The lack of fresh, live sightings almost has to mean that something’s wrong, but I’m not ready to believe that he’s dead or deposed until we either have a room temperature body or verifiable footage of him in a cell. That’s not to say that any of these rumors are out of the question, but in this case I think we’ll go with Occam’s Razor. There is a nasty flu running around Moscow right now. Putin may just be spending most of his time on the porcelain throne and sipping chicken soup in bed. It’s not the way he likes to be seen, ergo nobody will see him until he feels like he’s up to snuff and then he’ll reemerge with some incredible story about how he was on a secret mission under the ice of the North Pole.