A smiling Vladimir Putin reappeared in public Monday after a still-unexplained 10-day absence that sent Russia's notorious rumor mill into overdrive, including speculation that he might be dead, sick, removed by a hard-line coup, or even attending the birth of his "secret love child."
It's a movie that veteran Kremlin-watchers have seen many times before. In Russia's opaque, leader-oriented political system, where one man is all that seems to stand between order and chaos, President Putin's slightest disappearance inevitably cues mass anxiety and waves of gossip. Like Soviet leaders before him, he is obsessively secretive about his private life. No one even knows where his ex-wife and two daughters live.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin's press service, which ought to provide an informative window on the president's activities, confined itself over the past week to chiding reporters for what it denounced as their silly pursuit of gossip.
Some experts suggest Putin may have even staged his own extended absence from the public eye, perhaps to distract attention from the recent murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, or just to see what would happen.
"He's trolling everyone," says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy expert. "He's the boss, he can do that. His people are shrewd manipulators and, look, they've got everyone talking about Putin."
Putin certainly looked as if he had enjoyed the frenzy of conjecture over his whereabouts when he resurfaced Monday at meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St. Petersburg.
"Life would be boring without rumors," he told journalists.
The Kremlin press service and Russian media have been furiously scolding all those, particularly the Western media, who ran with gossip rather than waiting for the facts. But there is still no explanation for Putin's disappearance after he canceled a string of meetings last week and his website posted a photograph of him with a regional leader, labeled "March 11," which had reportedly appeared in a local newspaper a week earlier.
"Our political system is totally concentrated on the leader," says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian TV personality. "We do not have a reliable system of succession, so can you blame people for getting scared when Putin suddenly falls off the radar screen?"
The Russian constitution mandates that the prime minister – who happens to be former President Dmitry Medvedev – should take charge if the president is incapacitated, followed by elections within three months. But Mr. Medvedev, whose presidency was little more than a placeholder for Putin, inspires little confidence among Russians.
"Our institutions are not working. Putin has substituted himself for them, and so obviously people fear disaster if he should suddenly go," Mr. Svanidze says.
Health-related rumors were a monthly staple under former President Boris Yeltsin, who had serious heart trouble and constant sobriety issues. He actually suffered a heart attack days before the crucial 1996 presidential election, which his aides kept secret for weeks. On Election Day, a fake polling station was set up in Mr. Yeltsin's intensive care unit in a carefully staged ploy to convince the public that he was in good health. The extremely ill president was briefly shown on TV casting his ballot.
A much more vigorous and apparently sober Putin has had fewer public disappearances, but he too has been dogged by rumors about his health. His occasional absences from the public spotlight have even prompted nervous speculation.
"The bottom line here is that the Russian president must be seen to have irreproachable good health. Nothing else is acceptable," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "That's why even the slightest illness has to be covered up, because it might tarnish the image of our indispensable leader."