It’s been more than a week now since anybody’s seen Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had a mundane meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on March 5, and then … nothing. Since then, Putin hasn’t been seen in public, and the Russian blogosphere can talk about nothing else. Their president skipped a number of events—including one with his FSB bigwigs—and the Kazakhs, with whom Putin was supposed to meet this week, said the Russian president was ill. They quickly walked it back after the Kremlin denied it. The Kremlin began fiddling with Putin’s schedule. State television began broadcasting news of meetings planned for the future as if they had already happened in order to show that Putin was alive enough to attend meetings. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s mustachioed spokesman, has been stonewalling all week, insisting that his boss is not only breathing, but “breaking hands” with his manly handshake.
Unsurprisingly, this combination—active and seemingly frantic dissimulation, and flat denial that anything is amiss—is perfect for the Internet. #PutinIsDead began trending on Russian Twitter, and the Russian blogosphere began to churn out theories of what happened to Dear Shirtless Leader, each version more ludicrous than the next.
There was the anonymous letter claiming to be from an employee of elite Moscow hospital, who said that Putin had had a stroke and was languishing in the hospital. There were the frantic messages from people who know people in the Russian Embassy in London, saying that they had abandoned London en masse and that there would be a statement in three hours—a statement that never got made. There was the (false) report of the Kremlin press service asking foreign correspondents not to leave Moscow ahead of what would be a major announcement this weekend. A former Putin aide living in Washington posited that Putin had been overthrown by the siloviki (“strongmen”) in a palace coup. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and Putin’s most violent cheerleader, wrote a curious Instagram post about his loyalty to Putin, “whether he [Putin] is in office or not.”
Putin was even momentarily found, in the vicinity of Ticino, Switzerland, where, a local tabloid announced, Putin’s gymnast girlfriend Alina Kabayeva had given birth. Hopes were dashed when Peskov appeared again to say that this too was untrue. By this time, he was reaching new levels of exasperation. “Yes. We’ve already said this a hundred times,” he barked at a Reuters reporter who called to ask if Putin were, in fact, in good health. “This isn’t funny any more.”
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. That’s because the Kremlin has done such dissembling before. As columnist Leonid Bershidsky points out in Bloomberg View, Boris Yeltsin’s flack became expert at these tales, since Yeltsin would periodically disappear at critical times—either on boozy benders or with yet another heart attack. Putin himself disappeared for a while in 2012 after he threw out his back in a judo match, according to Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Before that, there was also a brief absence after which Putin reappeared with a noticeably puffy, stretched face. He sat in the audience at a comedy show and, as the cameras zoomed in on him, he tried his best to make his new face laugh.
Then there are the more alarming times Russian leaders have disappeared. Blindsided by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Josef Stalin famously disappeared for the first and very crucial 10 days of the war. As the blitzkrieg rolled across Soviet territory, annihilating whole divisions in its path, Stalin hid in his office, agonizing and not addressing the terrified and equally blindsided Soviet people. Fifty years later, in August 1991, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing at his Crimean dacha when hard-liners in his cabinet essentially barricaded him inside, cutting off all lines of communication. Publicly, they announced that “for health reasons,” Gorbachev could no longer lead the country. In the meantime, the hard-liners sent tanks into the streets of Moscow.
You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.
As for the rest of Russia, if the buzz about Putin’s mysterious absence doesn’t make it on the television screen, it didn’t happen: for 90 percent of the Russian population, TV is the main source of news. And, even if they knew, for a majority of Russians this event would be like most other political events—that is, above their pay grade. When it comes to the intricacies politics, the prevailing attitude outside Moscow’s liberal circles is a semi-religious one, and it comes from Byzantine culture. Just as the Eucharist is prepared behind the wall of icons that separates the altar from the eyes of the laity, so it is with political maneuvers: We are but mere mortals, unable to understand such mysteries. Let the professionals handle it.
The problem is that the professionals aren’t handling it too well anymore. After 15 years in power, Putin has so personalized the system that it becomes increasingly difficult for his subjects to envision a Russia without him. Nearly half of those Russians surveyed in a recent poll said they wanted to see Putin serve a fourth presidential term, starting in 2018. This number had more than doubled from a poll a few months earlier. And it’s not just about vision. Putin’s system of “manual control”—that is, micromanaging the country—has come at the great expense of Russia’s institutions. The only institutions Putin has strengthened are the security services.
Which tells you why Russian liberals are so worried and, strangely, implicitly hoping for Putin’s reappearance. Two weeks ago, one of their main leaders was assassinated. The other one, Alexey Navalny, has basically admitted that the opposition has been neutered and marginalized. And if Putin’s gone, they certainly won’t be the ones to take power. It will be the real strongmen.