It was the question preoccupying Moscow and much of Russia on Friday, as speculation mounted about why President Vladimir Putin had not been seen in public since last week.
He canceled a trip to Kazakhstan; postponed a treaty signing with representatives from South Ossetia who were reportedly told not to bother to come to Moscow; and, unusually, was absent from a meeting of top officials from the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service.
The last confirmed public sighting was at a meeting with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy on March 5 – although the Kremlin would have citizens think otherwise.
On Friday, the Kremlin released video and posted a still picture of Putin meeting with the president of Russia’s Supreme Court, but since the video was not live, questions lingered.
The simplest explanation appeared to come from an unidentified government source in Kazakhstan, who told Reuters “it looks like he has fallen ill.”
But there also appeared to be a certain reluctance to concede that Russia’s leader, who cultivates a macho image of being in good health at age 62, might have been felled like a mere mortal.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, told any news media outlet that called (and most did) that his boss was in fine fettle, holding meetings and attending to his duties.
“Perfectly healthy,” Peskov told one news agency. “Fine,” he told another.
Putin’s predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, used to disappear frequently as well. But that was either because of drinking bouts or, in at least one instance, an undisclosed heart attack. His spokesman settled on a standard explanation that Yeltsin still had a firm handshake but was busy working on documents.
Peskov referenced that wryly this week, saying on the radio station Echo of Moscow that Putin’s grip could break hands and that the president was working “exhaustively” with documents.
Given the uneasy mood in Moscow – stemming both from Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine and the Feb. 27 killing of the opposition leader Boris Y. Nemtsov just steps from the Kremlin – much darker explanations have emerged.
Andrei Illarionov, a former presidential adviser, wrote a blog post suggesting that Putin had been overthrown by hard-liners in a palace coup and that Russians could anticipate an announcement soon saying that he was taking a well-deserved rest. Conspiracy theorists bombarded Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media along similar veins.
Since the Kremlin borrows all manner of items from the Soviet playbook these days, there even appeared to be an attempt to doctor the president’s timetable to show that all was well.
The daily newspaper RBC dug into Putin’s schedule as reported on the usually reliable presidential website, Kremlin.ru. The newspaper reported that a meeting with the governor of the northwestern region of Karelia, depicted as taking place Wednesday, actually occurred March 4, when a local website there wrote about it. A meeting with a group of women shown as having occurred Sunday actually happened March 6, RBC said.
Early in his presidency, Putin dropped out of sight when the submarine Kursk sank in 2000 and again two years later when terrorists seized a Moscow theater and took hundreds of hostages. But since those two crises, which spawned all manner of questions about his leadership skills, he has been very much an almost daily public presence.
Now, all eyes are on Monday, when Putin is scheduled to meet with the president of Kyrgyzstan in St. Petersburg.