MOSCOW — When Vladimir Putin became Russia's president in 2000, so little was known about the former KGB officer that an American journalist famously asked, "Who is Mr. Putin?"
This week, Russia's political circles have been gripped by a different question: "Where is Mr. Putin?"
A near-constant presence on Russian television throughout his rule, Putin has been curiously absent from view since March 5, when he hosted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the Kremlin. Since then, he has canceled several public appearances while his press team scramble to make it look like all is well.
Few paid attention when he held closed-door meetings with security officials on Saturday without the usual protocol shots for the press.
The next day, after all, the Kremlin published photos of him celebrating International Women’s Day with some of Russia's most distinguished mothers.
By Wednesday, however, it became clear that something was wrong. The independent RBK newspaper reported that the Women's Day meeting had actually been on March 5. Kremlin sources said the Yamal governor hadn't visited on Tuesday. Local media in Karelia had reported their governor's meeting with Putin a week earlier.
Meanwhile, Putin's official business was falling through. He skipped out on a planned visit to Kazakhstan. He stood up a delegation from South Ossetia. He failed to appear at an annual meeting of senior security officials, an event he has previously used to make major policy pronouncements.
Such a string of disappearances would be unusual for most world leaders, but is particularly so for Putin, who cemented his power by all but monopolizing Russia's public space. News bulletins invariably lead with footage of his latest activities — whether upbraiding governors and visiting factories or riding horses bare-chested and shooting tigers. His approval ratings are now in the high 80s, a result so dictatorially stratospheric as to render polls all but irrelevant. "It doesn't matter what question we ask," a state pollster told the Lenta.ru news site last year. "The answer's always Putin."
The most logical explanation for Putin's disappearance was that he was ill, as a source in the Kazakh government told Reuters when he cancelled the trip. It wouldn't be out of place for the time of year: Spring breezes bring so many colds and flus that Russians even have a name for it, "a springtime flare-up." Nor would it be without precedent. Putin cancelled several foreign trips in 2012 after apparently injuring his back in a judo match, causing him to walk with a limp and rarely leave his house.
All week, Putin's sandily mustached spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied that anything is wrong with the president. "[His] health is really perfect," he told the AP. At 62, Putin does have an all-action macho-man image to maintain. His minders must be wary, too, of the precedent set by Boris Yeltsin, who frequently disappeared for long periods in the 1990s during bouts of drinking and, on at least one occasion, after a heart attack on the eve of his re-election campaign. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Yeltsin's spokesperson, would explain the absences away by saying that the president had a "firm handshake" and was busy "working with documents." Peskov made light of that in an interview on Ekho Movsky radio on Thursday. His handshake "could break your hand," he said of Putin. The mountain of presidential paperwork was "exhaustive."
A Putin-shaped hole in the news, however, can't just be explained away. On Friday, after a week in which he went nearly unmentioned on TV, the Kremlin announced that Putin was to meet the president of Kyrgyzstan next week in St. Petersburg.
Then, footage appeared of the man himself meeting Russia's chief supreme court judge.
That wasn't enough to placate conspiracy theorists online, who suspected the footage was from the week before. Russian wire agencies unusually omitted to mention when the meeting had taken place, simply limiting themselves to the past tense.
An ornate ceremonial clock on Putin's desk looks identical to the one that Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler of Chechnya, boasted about getting from Putin on Wednesday.
Sure, maybe Putin has more than one clock. But short of appearing with a copy of today's paper — a tactic regularly used by Fidel Castro to deny his own death — there's not much Putin can do to quell the chatter. Some suspect he's recovering from a bout of long-rumored Botox injections. A well-connected newspaper editor mused that he was busy ousting the feared boss of state-run oil giant Rosneft. Andrei Illarionov, an aide to Putin until 2004 who is now a staunch critic, blogged that hardliners led by presidential administration chief Sergei Ivanov had staged a palace coup. A Swiss tabloid claimed that Putin was in the Swiss canton of Ticino, where his long-rumored girlfriend Alina Kabayeva, 32, was supposedly giving birth to their child after leaving parliament six months earlier. (Peskov denied it.) Or maybe he's dead: There's an entire site, "Is Putin Dead?," devoted to it.
Kremlin supporters often like to dismiss criticism by saying, "If not Putin, then who?" His unexpected absence has made it clear that if there's no Putin, there's nobody else either. When so much power is concentrated in the hands of one man, even what could just be a cold is a cause for national panic.
And all the while, his approval ratings are going up. On Friday, they hit a new record of 88%.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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