Where in the world is… Vlad?

By J Brooks Spector 16 March 2015

Depending on which rumour one believes, Russian President has been deposed, is gravely ill, has had the flu, is undergoing some restorative plastic surgery to shave years off the bags under his eyes – or is even in Switzerland attending to the birth of his child with his girlfriend, a champion gymnast. Does it matter? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Many years ago, when this writer was young, there was a television series on American TV entitled Profiles in Courage. The show was inspired by and partially drawn from John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of historical essays on acts of political bravery among American politicians that usually cost the protagonist his office (we pause here briefly to let cynics weigh in with the conjecture that Kennedy didn’t write a goodly chunk of this book, relying on one of his long-time aides to do much of the heavy lifting to help him bulk up his resume for the upcoming battle for the presidential nomination).

In any case, one of the episodes concerned the mysterious disappearance of President Grover Cleveland, way back in 1893. Seems there was a major economic crisis at the time and the worry was that if the fact the president needed to undergo major surgery for a tumour – with fears about the loss of government leadership that such medical uncertainties might generate – became known, the market panic might become much more serious still.

As a result, Cleveland elected to take a real life and death medical risk and decided to undergo his surgery secretly in a makeshift surgical ward aboard a small yacht anchored in the Potomac River just down river from Washington, DC – well outside of the care a real hospital could offer for cancer surgery even then. The plan was for a simple cover story: the president was spending some serious quality time cloistered with his economic and financial advisors and that this cover story could plausibly be maintained in order to avoid spooking the economic horses any more than they already were. Yes, of course the Washington press corps was a whole lot more forgiving and pliant in the late 19th century than they are now. In the event, Cleveland recovered, as did the markets, with nobody much the wiser till much later on.

The writer recalls this bit of American political historical trivia because of the mysterious vanishing act Russian President Vladimir Putin has been party to ever since his 5 March meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. After that, there has been nothing, nada.

As the Economist explained in response, “Moscow is abuzz with rumours linking the Russian president’s sudden reticence to the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Some hint that tension between Mr Putin and his Chechen surrogate, Ramzan Kadyrov, over the arrest of five Chechen men accused of killing Mr Nemtsov is to blame. Other rumours have been more outlandish. Andrei Illarionov, a former advisor of Mr Putin’s, wrote in a blog post that a coup might be underway against Mr Putin; a Swiss tabloid reported that he had flown to Switzerland to attend the birth of a love child with a Russian gymnast. Russia’s government says Mr Putin has simply been feeling a bit unwell.”

Those rumour mills have been grinding away over time, over where in the world is Carmen San Diego, uh, Vladimir Putin? Beyond the rumours already noted, the writer’s spouse’s suggestion is that Putin is in the hospital for some extensive plastic surgery and/or Botox treatments to keep up that youthful facial physiognomy and the abdominal six-pack Putin has been so proud of over all these years.

The idea of plastic surgery, of course, harks back to Silvio Berlusconi’s temporary disappearance back in 2004 – or as it was later explained – so as to get a bit of a nip and a tuck around his aging, drooping eyes. Meanwhile, the story that he is under house arrest following a coup can be seen as something of a reach-back to the way Mikhail Gorbachev vanished from public view until he lost his grip on power (and until the coup plotters got their own come-uppance with Boris Yeltsin and the tank). And then the theory that Putin has one or another serious illness is an echo of how Boris Yeltsin then had to take time off periodically to dry out from his latest bender.

The Economist went on to ask, “What is one to make of it all? In the absence of better information, one might ask what it has meant in the past when rulers of secretive governments vanished from public view. Of course, analogising current Russian politics to a distant and vastly different past can easily mislead. But in situations like this such comparisons can be educational, and they are certainly lots of fun.”

In the meantime, Russian television has taken to showing something like a compilation of “best hits of Vladimir Putin’s regime”, with clips from previous meetings with other world leaders and other public appearances. South Africans, of course, will be able to think back quickly a certain visit to Russia by a certain Jacob Zuma not so long ago that mysteriously took him out of circulation in South Africa so that he could, apparently, carry out secretive negotiations on the purchase of nuclear reactors, get in a rest by the sea, or even undergo treatment for poisoning – or all three – or even none of the above. The presidential schedule never did give much in the way of real, concrete clarification. (Say, wait a minute, wouldn’t it be really fascinating if Vladimir Putin has been in South Africa, soaking up a bit of late summer sun in a lovely spot in the Cape somewhere, after a bit of plastic surgery on one of those wild life and plastic surgery safaris that have become increasingly popular?)

In trying to make larger sense of the question, The New York Times argued, “Given that Russia sometimes seems to be reverting to the dusty playbook of the Soviet Union, some concerns seemed to feed off old habits. In the early 1980s, when three Soviet rulers — Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko — died in quick succession, the public was among the last to be informed. ‘If an American president dies, not that much changes,’ said a reporter who has covered Mr. Putin for years, not wanting to be quoted by name on the subject of the president’s possible demise. ‘But if a Russian leader dies everything can change — we just don’t know for better or worse, but usually for worse.’ ”

Of course, by the time readers have got this far, the whole question may have become academic, since the Russian president’s schedule currently calls for him to meet with the Kazakh leader on Monday in Moscow – after the meeting was originally set for Kazakhstan on 11 March. If Putin emerges hale and hearty, with a bit of a tan or a slightly tighter jaw line, well, everyone will know that a bit of vanity has been attended to in the past ten days. But, if he doesn’t put in an appearance, or if Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has to sub for him (surely readers recall Mr Medvedev?) at this meeting, then things will be in play and the rumour mill may rev up to light speed – both among Russia’s own commentariat and politically engaged elites, as well as among all those outside of Russia whose careers depend on knowing what’s happening in that newest version of the enigma inside the riddle – or vice versa.

Commentators have been making the point that earlier Russian leaders have sometimes disappeared in moments of supreme adversity, such as when Czar Ivan the Terrible, way back in 1564, disappeared for a month when he was facing enemies pretty much everywhere, until he could begin to get things sorted out.

Writing in The Washington Post over the weekend, Julia Joffe noted, “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 Alexander 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, agonising 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.”

In the present moment, of course, Russia is yet again in crisis. The rouble is crumbling; the income from the sale of petroleum – a mainstay of the Russian economy and it main source of export earnings – has essentially halved in the past six months; western economic sanctions are starting to bite; imports are becoming increasingly expensive and will become hard to come by for people who have now become accustomed to such goods; and the country is embroiled in a civil war in neighbouring Ukraine for which there is no really easy way out save an embarrassing, even humiliating, extraction. And then there has been that most recent public awkwardness with that all-too-convenient death of leading opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov. Through it all, Russia’s people have been used to letting the professionals at the top of the heap sort things out.

But, as Joffe goes on to explain, “The problem is that the professionals aren’t handling it too well anymore. After 15 years in power, Putin has so personalised 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, Alexei Navalny, has basically admitted that the opposition has been neutered and marginalised. And if Putin’s gone, they certainly won’t be the ones to take power. It will be the real strongmen.” And that possibility is probably giving fits to the people who must spend their lives trying to figure out such things – in capitals all over the globe.

Of course, as The Economist noted, “Perhaps Mr Putin really has been sick. He is scheduled to meet with Almazbek Atambayev, president of Kyrgyzstan, in St Petersburg on Monday, which may dispel the rumours. In the meantime it is useful to recall that when an autocrat disappears [as in the case of the aforementioned Ivan the Terrible who ultimately used his withdrawal from court to his ultimate advantage, although it took eight years], it is not always a sign of weakness. As many analysts point out, Mr Putin’s vanishing act has Russians as keenly aware as ever of the government’s dependence upon him. Mr Putin, if healthy and unbothered, will not mind the reminder.”

But there is still that other alternative (or alternatives). That is what frightens. What if Putin is so seriously ill he cannot easily return to authority and there is already an on-going slugfest behind the scenes over who will come out on top? Or, perhaps, what if he wasn’t sick in the first place, but the quiet coup has already happened and it is just taking time to sort out before the public explanations finally come forward? If Vladimir Putin emerges on Monday to meet his counterpart from Kazakhstan doing nothing more than sneeze a bit, sniffle and reach for a tissue, the speculations can be put away for another time. But if not… DM

Photo: A Protester wearing a Putin mask holds an apple during a rally in protest against the Russian military actions in Crimea, in St. Petersburg, Russia, 08 March 2014. EPA/ANATOLY MALTSEV

Read more:

  • This is why it’s impossible for the Kremlin to lie about Putin’s weird disappearance –The president’s carefully cultivated image rests on never showing weakness; at the Washington Post;

  • Disappearing acts have served past Russian leaders well; at the Economist;

  • Putin Has Vanished, but Rumours Are Popping Up Everywhere; in New York Times;

  • Putin’s Spokesman: Russian Leader in ‘Really Perfect’ Health; at the New York Times;

  • The latest explanation for Vladimir Putin’s mystery disappearance … flu; at the Guardian;

  • Rome Journal; Is Berlusconi Remaking Himself With Eyes to the Future? at the New York Times.


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