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Has he produced a heir with Alina Kabaeva? Is he plotting nuclear war with the West from his bunker at Mount Yamantau? Has he been abducted by aliens? Or is the Mausoleum about to get a new occupant??
Let’s consider the possibilities one by one:
Putin is ill
This is according to an anonymous Kazakh official, following the cancelation of a planned visit to Astana. This is being denied by Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said Putin was “breaking hands” in response to a question about his handshake. Naturally. But it has to be admitted that a week and counting is a long time in politics. Still, everyone gets the flu now and then, and in a highly personalistic power system like Russia’s it might not do well to display the fact. When alpha male chimps become ill, rather than weather challenges from young upstarts while they are relatively incapacitated, they prefer to wander into the forest, come back when they get better, and act as if nothing out of the norm had happened (or they die). It would not do for people to see the Tsar and arbiter of the Kremlin clans coughing, sneezing, and bedridden like some old geezer.
Putin is incapacitated or dead
Perhaps he had a stroke or heart attack. Maybe he’s dead, and Maidanist Ukrainians can jump in glee, like the Prussians did in the correct belief that Elizaveta had died and the war against them would soon end, or the top Nazis in 1945 on the incorrect belief that the death of FDR would presage the unraveling of the Alliance.
Unfortunately for them, this is almost certainly out of the question, and not only because keeping such a development in Russia, which after all is still a largely open information space, is practically unfeasible.
The first reason to treat rumors of Putin’s death from health complications is that he is an extremely healthy physical specimen, a genuine judoka who starts his day with a few laps in the swimming pool and rarely drinks. This alone would make the average Russian male life expectancy of 65 years completely inapplicable to him. Second, he enjoys basically billionaire-level healthcare. Yeltsin, an obese alcoholic who suffered from heart attacks every other year, still managed to eke out 76 years with the help of elite healthcare. Finally, the Putins appear to be an unusually long-lived family in general. His mother, Maria Ivanovna, died at the age of 87, and his father, Vladimir Spiridonovich, at 88. His paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, who incidentally happened to be a cook to Lenin and Stalin, died at the age of 86. His other children also tended to die at advanced ages – Anna at 80, and as far as I can establish, Alexander (born in 1920) and Ludmila (born in 1926) were alive at least until 2000, though I’m uncertain about Mikhail (born in 1913). Only one of Spiridon Putin’s children died early, but that was from a German shell or bullet in 1941. Longevity is moderately heritable, and such consistently high lifespans are highly unusual for 20th century Russia. Of course a healthy lifestyle, genetics, and elite healthcare are no absolute guarantee against a premature death, but when virtually all the variables are stacked in your favor, it makes it very unlikely. I may have to eat a bullet on this, but I fully expect Putin’s lifespan to be comparable to Castro’s.
One final reason to treat claims of Putin’s premature demise with skepticism is that this is hardly the first time it’s happened. There is a small minority of Russians who desperately and fervently wish him dead, and are more than happy to provide grist for the rumor mill, and there is a much larger group of Westerners who would be very happy at treat the resulting product as wheat when all the evidence points to it being chaff. There was an analogous case in 2012, when Putin also disappeared for a few days following what was likely a minor back injury during judo practice. That didn’t stop Russian emigre journalist Leonid Bershidsky from upgrading it to spinal cancer, a claim which seems to have been originally posted by a minor Russian oppositionist and soon afterwards actively propagated by the Chechen Islamist terrorist website Kavkaz Center:
Today I learned from a source in the presidential administration, that our alpha dog is not simply sick but he is sick with spine sarcoma (spinal cancer,) and 3 months are left for the life of this guy. The cancer cannot be treated, and there is already a struggle inside the KGB for powerful positions.
A probable successor will actually be the shaman Shoigu (Russia’s new defense minister), and soon there will be a lot of interesting events, in particular, before the next special operation to transfer the throne from one thief to another; half of the of weapons are planned to be confiscated from the population. So, in 2013 there will be fun. We must prevent a new thief from the Putin’s gang to move to the Kremlin.
This has all the usual Kremlinological dreck, which we’ll come to in a sec, but first, a litte aside: The reference to “shaman” is on account of Shoigu’s Buddhism. I did say this is an extremist Islamist website, which openly and proudly celebrates terrorist attacks on Russian soil. But funnily enough, it happens to be hosted without any problems on a Finnish server. One can only imagine the problems, say, Al Qaeda or ISIS would have if they were to try to get hosting in a Western country. It pays for an Islamist terrorist group to have the right sugardaddy.
Anyhow, moving on. Images of tanks and APCs on Red Square… that happened to be several years old. Rumors that the Kremlin was to make an important announcement this weekend, and orders to journalists to remain in Moscow… soon proved a fake. Black helicopters over the Kremlin. Medvedev is now calling the shots. Or Primakov in a liberal palace coup. Or Sergey Ivanov in a hardliner uprising. Or maybe Putin himself is preparing a massive political reorganization, such as firing Medvedev’s Cabinet in favor of Ivanov, the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration.
Problem: Mounting a coup against Putin is hard. No major interest group has beef with him: The non-systemic opposition is impotent, truculent oligarchs have long since been purged or coopted, and the political elites – especially the siloviki, or security personnel – are largely agreed with his domestic and foreign policy course. The civiliki, or liberal technocrats, might not be quite as happy, but they are also divided and frankly don’t have the requisite balls to attempt a coup anyway. Even if they did, they would still have to figure out how to manage a population that at this point in history virtually adulates Putin; at last count, his approval rating was at an astronomical 88%.
And the last, concrete argument against the coup theory is that the events of the past week don’t hew to the standard patterns of historical coup. The hard men at the FSB or the MVD would not be taking so long about it. The Army would be getting involved. Considering that they overwhelmingly sided with Gorbachev in August 1991, when his popularity was already at rock bottom, it is inconceivable that Russia’s apolitical generals would side against Putin. There would almost certainly be blood in the streets. No, the chances of a coup are infinitesimal. Putin is more likely dead from a stroke than under house arrest or something that approximates to it.
Out of all these options, the only more or less remotely feasible one is that Putin is preparing some kind of major new denouement, such as the formation of a new government, or a major change of policy – there are mixed signals, so it could be in either direction – on Ukraine.
The Grozny Gambit
In 1564, getting tired of the aristocracy’s incompetence and venality, Ivan Grozny (mistranslated as “The Terrible”) left his throne for a monastery in disgust. Unable to govern and threatened by the Moscow mob, the boyars begged him to come back. Ivan agreed, but only on condition that they vest him with absolute power. The boyars acceded to his ultimatum. Ivan returned in 1565, and created the infamous oprichnina, with their Nazgul-like black attire and black horses, and pommel-mounted dog heads and brooms to “sniff out and sweep away” treason. The Russian state became centralized as never before, but at the cost of eventual ruin and economic collapse.
Is Putin doing the Grozny Gambit, betting that Russia will become ungovernable in his absence and that the boyars and the people will demand his return on any condition?
Much as this image of Tsar Putin would satiate the hearts and minds of romantics and neoreactionaries… no. Just no. Putin isn’t one for the melodramatic, or the taking of unnecessary risks for gains that he doesn’t even aspire to it in the first place.
Kabaeva love child
Putin’s amorous relationship with rhythmic gymnast and Olympic champion Alina Kabaeva has been the stuff of Kremlin rumors and febrile imaginations for the past seven years. The general story is that Putin and Kabaeva became engaged in 2008, married in 2013, and had a child in Switzerland this February. Though strongly denied by Putin’s spokespeople, the timing of his divorce from his first wife Ludmila, in 2013, is certainly interesting. And a Twitter account, most convincingly named @kabaeva_russia, claimed that she “just had a son” two days ago.
Which doesn’t square with the “Es ist ein Madchen!” soundbyte adopted by the media. Or with why a privacy-conscious Putin would go to Switzerland; it’s not like Russia doesn’t have any elite obstetrics facilities. Or with Kabaeva’s figure a couple of months ago, which doesn’t exaclty look seven months pregnant.
Frankly, the likeliest possibility is that Putin’s team tolerates and even gently promotes these rumors, since virility is generally considered to be a good thing in leaders – better than being sick, at any rate.
Still, Leonid Bershidsky is ON IT, so that must at least count for something.
My bet is still on a particularly nasty flu or maybe a mild-to-moderate health issue, which if so would probably be highly visual, like Botox gone wrong. 88% approval rating or not, he’d still be a laughing stock.
But surely I am not alone in hoping for Putin’s glorious emergence on Red Square soon before the assembled people, a cyborg robot suit in place of torso, Monomakh’s Cap on his head, and a swaddled infant-heir in his arms, proclaiming the foundation of the Imperial Russian Horde.
Either way, we’ll find soon enough. Appointments have been scheduled, prior postponements have to be made good; we are unlikely to be waiting for answers for very much longer.