Putin watch: Sudden bout of modesty stretches out for ten days

Back in the Cold War, a sustained absence by a Soviet premiere from public view usually meant one of those fatal “colds” that kept taking the lives of Russian leaders. For a while, those days appeared to have gone for good, but the sudden and unexplained absence of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has the media world abuzz with speculation. Out of the public eye since March 5th with no explanation, and so soon after the assassination of one of his most significant political opponents, the rumors range from death to, er … birth:

From Russia, with love child. Vladimir Putin hasn’t been seen in public for more than a week — and rampant speculation over the Russian president’s whereabouts took a wild turn on Friday with reports he was in Switzerland for the birth of his secret daughter.

“Es ist ein Madchen!” or “It’s a Girl!” screamed a headline from the Swiss newspaper Blick, which had him in Lugano to witness the arrival of his child with Alina Kabaeva, 31, a retired Olympic gymnast who served in the Russian parliament and now works for a media company.

The paper reported that Putin’s daughter was born at the posh Santa Anna di Sorgeno clinic on the Italian border.

Putin reserved two rooms at the clinic — one for Kabaeva, and one for body guards, Swiss radio channel RSI said, according to the Daily Beast.

Putin himself was staying with friends in the area, the Swiss website Ticino news reported.

Not all of the speculation has been quite so prurient. After the cancellation of two meetings with regional heads of state, rumors arose that Putin had taken ill. The Kremlin tried to scotch those rumors, with little success:

The Kremlin said Vladimir Putin on Friday met Russia’s top judge and planned to travel to St. Petersburg for a Monday summit with Kyrgyzstan’s leader after days of denying reports that the Russian president was ill.

The Kremlin website published three official photos of Mr. Putin’s meeting with Russian Supreme Court Judge Vyacheslav Lebedev,though the event wasn’t open to the press. Russian state television also aired footage of the meeting, in which Mr. Putin looked in rude health.

“Rude health”? That’s a keeper.

Rumors about the Russian president’s health began circulating after Mr. Putin canceled a planned summit with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Astana. A Kazakh government official told Reuters news agency that the summit had been canceled because Mr. Putin had fallen ill. The Russian president didn’t appear at a number of other high-level meetings, fueling speculation also about his whereabouts.

The Kremlin denied suggestions of Mr. Putin’s illness. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader was absolutely healthy in comments to the Ekho Moskvy radio station Thursday, adding that “there’s no need to worry, everything is fine.”

Part of the problem facing the Kremlin is Putin’s own need to bolster his cult of personality in Russia. He has made himself nearly ubiquitous on Russian media, giving photo ops and public appearances almost every day of his time as president and Prime Minister over the last sixteen years at the top of the Kremlin food chain. A sudden and sustained absence would naturally prompt questions, if not panic, especially with the Kremlin offering Soviet-style assurances about his health rather than producing him for a quick public appearance.

Rick Moran wonders if this isn’t Putin being Putin:

For a guy who lives and dies by nurturing his image in TV appearances, it is very unusual for Putin to avoid the cameras for so long. But it hardly means he’s dead or has suffered some kind of debilitating medical event. In fact, once the speculation about his health began, I wouldn’t put it past Putin to deliberately feed that speculation in order to become the center of world attention and feed the mystery of his personae with the Russian people.

Possibly, but there’s a difference between celebrity image manipulation and de facto dictatorships. The former might thrive on a mysterious vacuum, but in the latter those are usually fatal — more so than Soviet “colds.” The reason Putin stokes his cult of personality is to overawe the populace into believing that he’s invincible. Any strong hint of weakness, and especially absence, and Putin will go from Justin Bieber to Nicolae Ceaušescu faster than you can say perestroika.

Sky News reports that the Kremlin is denying the “love child” story, which will disappoint royalty fans, and that Russian state TV is now playing footage of Putin meeting with the Russian judge. However, no one can independently date the footage, and it was supposed to be no press, so the camera shutters in the background seem incongruous to the announced plans for that event:

It doesn’t help that the Kremlin lied earlier about the photos it released. All of this makes the question even more pressing: Why is Putin not making a legitimate public appearance to end the rumors once and for all?