An unusual rumor spread in Russia this week, amid a flurry of canceled appearances by President Vladimir Putin: that he was seriously ill or even dead.
But until then, his last public appearance had been on March 5, in a public meeting with Italy’s prime minister. In the subsequent 8 days, the Kremlin’s press office shared images of Putin at events, which turned out to have all taken place before March 5.
On Wednesday, Putin’s office canceled an upcoming trip to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, and on Thursday he was missing from a security meeting which he usually attends.
A Kazakh official even told Reuters that Putin was ill, which Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov denied, telling a Russian radio station that the 62-year-old president was so fit that a handshake “could break your hand.”
As a result of the rumors, Russian Google searches for “Putin” now auto-complete to “Putin is dead,” and a matching Twitter hashtag has sprung up, full of jokes and manipulated photos. A website asking “Is Putin Dead?” offers a panoply of answers, including “No, that’s not why it stinks in Moscow” and “Look out the window — are people celebrating… setting off fireworks? No? Then he’s not dead yet.”
But after an initial wave of speculating the worst, other theories have sprung up. Could the president be recovering from plastic surgery? Reshuffling the government behind closed doors? Or, as the Daily Beast unironically wrote in a headline, “Is Putin in Switzerland for Birth Of Secret Love Child?”
That last question was so persistent in Europe that the Kremlin’s Peskov had to deny it specifically, joking, “I am planning to appeal to people who have money to organize a competition for the best journalistic hoax.”
Instead, the spokesman claims, Putin has simply been overwhelmed with paperwork and private meetings.
Though current photographs of the president have still not surfaced since March 5, Peskov was ready with an explanation: spring is in the air. “As soon as the sun comes out… and it starts smelling of spring, people start getting delusions,” he reportedly told the TASS news agency.