16 Mar 2015

Vladimir Putin reappears – but where did he go?

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears in public for the first time in 11 days at a meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan in St Petersburg.

Mr Putin was last seen meeting Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on 5 March, and has cancelled a number of scheduled appearances over the last week.

His absence from public view, a rare occurrence in Russia’s largely state-controlled media, created much speculation – both serious and playful – about his health.

Initially, it appeared the karate-kicking premier had been struck by illness – the severity of which grew each day he remained missing. Media outlets across Russia reported that he might be sick, and social media reacted by going into overdrive.


On Twitter, the hashtag #PutinIsDead trended while a Facebook page set up on Saturday announcing his death attracted a million likes. News bloggers and Kremlin watchers across Russia reported an anonymous ‘tip-off’ from an elite hospital in Moscow saying he had suffered a stroke.

President Putin’s office was quick to insist there was no reason to worry. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week told local media his “handshake was still so strong it could break your hand”.

This is not the first time Mr Putin’s health was rumoured to be failing him, nor the first time his office denied that this was the case. In 2014 Mr Peskov responded to rumours reported in the New York Post that Mr Putin had been treated for pancreatic cancer by telling journalists to “shut their trap”.

‘Long-term girlfriend’

Switzerland’s BLICK newspaper speculated on Friday that Mr Putin had flown into the country to be with his rumoured long-term girlfriend Alina Kabaeva, as she went into labour in a private clinic popular with wealthy Russians.

Ms Kabaeva, 31, an Olympic gymnast turned parliamentarian, is rumoured to have been in a relationship with 62-year-old Mr Putin for several years.

In April 2008, Russian tabloid Moskovsky Korrespondent published an article on the rumoured relationship, and was closed by its parent company within the same month. Mr Putin and his wife Lyudmila Putina divorced in 2013, after 30 years of marriage.

‘Botox injections’

Another theory on the long absence was that the president was undergoing Botox injections or a facelift. In 2010, Mr Putin appeared at a meeting in Kiev sporting a large bruise, partially concealed by make-up, around his eye.

Several cosmetic experts declared it was clear he had undergone the minor cosmetic operation. This time, various commentators were convinced he was going for a few top-up fillers.

During his disappearance from the public eye, the Kremlin released various undated pictures and videos which fanned the flames of the rumours, and he starred in a documentary last night to mark the one-year anniversary of the annexing of Crimea.

During the documentary he said for the first time that Russia was prepared to put nuclear weapons on standby over the conflict.

‘Just gossip’

Before his appearance this morning, he gave the order for another snap military drill – this time mobilising his vast northern fleet for a number of drills in the Arctic. 41 ships, 15 submarines and 110 airplanes and helicopters took part, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told RIA news agency.

Smiling for the cameras in St Petersburg this morning, President Putin laughed off any suggestions he was anything but fighting fit. Appearing with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev he said “life would be boring without gossip”, but failed to elaborate on where he had actually been.