What New Lines can establish is that there is indeed a growing chorus of those close to Putin or in his domestic intelligence apparatus who are murmuring much the same as those quoted in the supermarket checkout lane rags and who are in a better position to know of his state of mind and body. Whether these sources are telling the truth or trying to sow disinformation is unknown. It would behoove those disillusioned by Putin’s totalitarian leadership, for instance, to portray him as incapacitated or not long for this world, the better to weaken his hand at home and on the battlefields of Ukraine. Spreading rumors of his declining health could also preempt something more catastrophic such as an order to launch a nuclear weapon, which is less likely to be carried out by military commanders on behalf of a terminally ill despot.
Western governments, not to mention the news organizations they leak to, are similarly inclined to have us envision Putin and the regressive state he rules in the worst possible light. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn sought an allegory to depict the Stalinist slave empire after the purges — one in which everyone from the Central Committee member to the petty apparatchik to the man-in-the-street was made to look complicit in the cannibalization of society — he opted for cancer. Treatment for a metastasizing tumor, as Solzhenitsyn knew from firsthand experience, could be every bit as destructive to the organism as the pathology itself.
Perhaps something of Solzhenitsyn’s literary legacy informs the whispers of Putin as the modern Sick Man of Europe. Then again, maybe he is just that. New Lines has obtained an audio recording of an oligarch close to the Kremlin who describes Putin as “very ill with blood cancer,” although the type of blood cancer was unspecified.