Rumors are swirling about the possible illness — or even death — of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mainstream media outlets have reported that he may be sick. Social media jokers used the hashtag #ПутинУмер ("Putin is dead") to speculate that he will be buried topless — a reference to his fondness for posing for bare-chested photos — or that he couldn't possibly die, because "it's not profitable."
Putin is almost certainly going to re-emerge in a few days looking none the worse for wear. But this isn't the first time rumors of this kind have caught on — and the fact that he can't cancel a couple of meetings without causing a frenzy of speculation hints at a deeper truth about Russia and the state of Putin's regime.
These rumors stem from fear and uncertainty about what happens after Putin. No one knows who would assume power if he died, got sick, or otherwise left office. That instability is a real danger, even if the death rumors are probably false.
Why hasn't Putin been seen since March 5?
The rumors began on Wednesday after Putin canceled a visit to Kazakhstan this week. An anonymous Kazakh government official told Reuters, "It looks like he has fallen ill." Reuters later reported that Putin had also rescheduled a meeting with officials from Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, which was set to take place on March 11 but has now been postponed to March 18.
Putin has not been seen in public since March 5. Although the Kremlin has released footage of meetings that supposedly took place on March 10 and 11, there is significant online speculation that those were actually taped the previous week. Analysts and online enthusiasts have eagerly scrutinized the footage, noting that Putin had apparently worn the same outfit to meetings on multiple days, and examined photographs to determine whether a desk calendar in the background shows the same or different dates.
Putin's spokesperson Dmitri Peskov immediately denied that the president was ill, insisting: "He has meetings all the time. He has meetings today, tomorrow. I don't know which ones we will make public."
On Friday March 13 Russian state television aired footage that they said showed Putin meeting with Vyacheslav Lebedev, the head of the Supreme Court, but that was not enough to quell the rumors. Peskov has had to specifically deny tabloid reports that Putin was absent because of the birth of a "love child" with rumored mistress (or wife) Alina Kabayeva.
"The information on a baby born to Vladimir Putin is false," Peskov said, according to state news agency ITAR-TASS. "I am going to ask people who have money to organize a contest on the best media rumor."
Rumors of Putin's demise have been greatly exaggerated
Theories, both lighthearted and serious, continue to swirl online and in different media outlets: Putin has had a stroke! Putin is recovering from plastic surgery! Putin is battling with his intelligence agency over the murder of Boris Nemtsov!
The idea that Putin would schedule plastic surgery for a week when he was supposed to have multiple public meetings seems highly implausible. And while it's possible that he's ill, it's equally likely that he's fine, and has withdrawn from public view for reasons of his own. The Brookings Institution's Hannah Thoburn told me there was just no way to know the real reason for his absence from public life. "For all we know, he probably has the flu, or just wanted to hang out with his daughters or something. You never know what it is."
Rumors that Putin is ill or injured arise with some regularity. "These sort of rumors happen all the time," Thoburn told me. "Is Putin sick? Is he this, is he that? Did he have plastic surgery?"
In 2012, Putin canceled and postponed foreign trips for more than a month. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said Putin had suffered a spinal injury during a judo bout, and there were rumors that he was seriously injured. But Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev denied that Putin had hurt his back, and eventually the president reappeared.
The truth behind the rumors: they reveal a frightening weakness in the Russian state
The rumors may not be true, but that does not mean they are irrelevant. They speak to Russians' nervousness about what would happen if Putin really were to become incapacitated. Because power is so centralized around him, there is no fallback plan for what would happen if he really were to suddenly become unable to rule. A system of government that rests on the health of a single man is very fragile, and that fragility — that weakness — is frightening.
University of Pittsburgh research fellow Sean Guillory explained via email that the rumors "say a lot" in that "they excite both the desire and fears of many people, likely at the same time." Some Russians may want Putin gone — but fear that "if he is, what comes next?"
Thoburn agreed. The rumors, she said, "get to the problem with having only one central figure" in the Russian government. She noted that if the US president or the German chancellor were to suddenly take ill or have a stroke, there would be other means of succession and other instruments of government to fill that void while a replacement was found. But in Russia right now, "you don't have that. That does expose a certain fragility in the system that scares Russians a little bit."
That's very serious. "If both the system and the integrity of the nation state are so centered on one person, whether it's a czar or whether it's Putin or some other leader," Thoburn said, "it becomes very dangerous." And if the system is so centralized but there is no system set up for succession, "the system itself is not viable in the long term."
How did Russian politics become so centered on one man?
Since coming to power in 2000, Putin and his supporters in the Kremlin have deliberately silenced political opposition. The president, Russia scholar Mark Galeotti explained to me in an interview several months ago, is "very jealous of power." That has prevented him from anointing a successor among his allies, because he is unwilling to give that kind of authority to someone else. Indeed, Galeotti said, "There’s nothing that’s more of a career killer than being discussed as a potential successor to Putin." And although opposition figures have periodically surfaced, they have for the most part been prominent individuals who'd found success in other arenas, such as oligarch-turned-activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky or chess-champion-turned-activist Garry Kasparov. They were essentially one-man operations — dissidents, rather than true political opposition.
Is succession Russia's most frightening political weakness?
Guillory explained that succession is a longstanding weakness of the Russian system. Going back to the times of the czars, and throughout the Soviet era, Russia has had "a historical problem with succession, especially when the successor isn't pre-anointed by the leader." As a result, power transfers lead to political instability, and sometimes even violence. The current rumors around Putin's whereabouts, Guillory suggested, "are tapping into this fact that is known and feared by many in Russia."
And in Russia today, there is no clear succession plan in place. Technically, of course, there is: Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev would take over if Putin were to suddenly die or become incapacitated. But the real question isn't who would assume Putin's office, but who would assume his role: who would really take power after he is gone. That question remains unanswered.
That is a significant source of potential instability for Russia, and it deserves to be taken seriously, even if the rumors themselves do not. It is easy to mistake Putin's personal control over the levers of power in Russia for a sign of strength — after all, it makes him look like an especially powerful leader. But for Russia, it is a weakness. And that means that for the rest of the world, and for Russians, it is a potential source of instability and danger.
Après Putin, le déluge?