Botched botox? Becoming a father? Death?
These are just three of the rumors flying from Russia to the West, as Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been seen in more than a week and the Kremlin has taken some not-so-assuring steps to reassure the world that he’s all right.
“Very hard to say, but I do think it is clear that something is going on,” said Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative and a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution. “But it really could be any number of things and all we have are tiny bits of information on which to base speculation.”
Over the past few days, hashtags like #WhereisPutin and #ПутинУмер (Putin is dead) have sprung up on Twitter in the West, Russia, and Ukraine, a country that is involved in an ongoing struggle with pro-Russian separatists. According to a tongue-in-cheek reading of Russian law, Putin is officially a missing person:
So, what’s going on? No one — not even the Kremlin — has a definitive answer. And that’s prompting the speculation that something important is afoot.
What we know
Putin’s last public appearance came last Thursday (March 5), when he met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
A week earlier, the Russian government was rocked by the death of prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov steps away from the Kremlin, which has prompted rumors of dissent among the Russian political elite.
So far this week, Putin has canceled a planned trip to Kazakhstan, as well as a trip to sign a treaty with the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. A Kazakh government source told Reuters that Putin canceled because he had “fallen ill.”
But what really got the rumor mill going was the Kremlin’s strange and misguided attempts to quash the rumors in the first place.
“The whole smokescreen act is the only thing that makes me suspicious about what is really going on,” said Garrett Khoury, the director of research at The Eastern Project.
First, the Kremlin posted photos and video of him on International Women’s Day — last Sunday. But some Internet sleuths noticed, and a Moscow-based business paper reported, that the video was pre-recorded three days earlier — the same day as his meeting with Renzi.
Then, the Kremlin published photos of him meeting with the governor of the autonomous Yamalo-Nenets region. Again, the Internet noticed he was wearing the same suit, tie, and shirt as his meeting with Renzi. The Kremlin then reported him meeting with the governor of the region of Karelia. But local news reports had already reported that meeting as early as last weekend.
As rumors sprouted up, the Kremlin released footage on Friday of Putin meeting with the president of the Russian Supreme Court. But no independent site has confirmed their authenticity, and the lack of a timestamp or any time-qualifying proof has led some to question:
The rumor du jour on Friday, via a Swiss newspaper’s reporting is that Putin’s 31-year-old girlfriend had either given birth or was preparing to in a Swiss clinic that is a favorite of much of the Russian ruling class.
Putin’s spokesman has denied that rumor, but that hasn’t stopped the mill from churning.
“I’m stumped,” said Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “I don’t think it’s a coup; that wouldn’t take this long. My guess is serious illness, but anything is possible right now.”
Some more theories: He’s hiding while figuring out what to do about the investigation into Nemtsov’s death. He had bad plastic surgery. Finally, he’s dead.
Here’s a look at some of the more clever rumors and memes spreading like wildfire through social media: