Vladimir Putin hasn’t been seen in public in a week, prompting many to question his health and social media to even speculate about his death. The hashtag #ПутинУмер (“Putin is dead”) trended on Twitter.
But Putin is not dead. According to RT and Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin is not even sick. Putin is healthy. Putin is strong. “His handshakes break hands.”
The last time Putin disappeared and his health came into question was November 2012, after state visits were cancelled (as they were this week). Both times RT reported on these health concerns and both times they used the exact same photo of Putin. In the picture, the Russian President is mid-judo throw, dropping a black belt opponent to the mat.
Here’s RT’s story from yesterday:
And here’s RT’s story from November 2012:
Clearly the same shot and clearly not a new one if it was used in 2012.
Peskov explained the 2012 public absence as due to a “light” and “ordinary sports injury.” This time around, the spokesman attested to his health without adding any detail beyond the President’s hand-crushing abilities.
RT’s reporting filled in though, asserting at the end of yesterday’s story: “As with any sportsman, he nurses a lot of old injuries, but they do not limit his professional activities in any way.”
Those are RT’s words yesterday, but they sound very familiar to another November 2012 RT story that reads: “The spokesman reminded that Putin had been a semi-professional sportsman and, as with any sportsman, nurses a lot of old injuries that do not limit his professional activities in any way.”
RT doesn’t just recycle Kremlin-supplied photos to explain Putin’s absences. They recycle their words too.
As the internet knows well, Putin projects the image of a manly outdoorsman. He’s been photographed hunting tigers, polar bears, and even whales. State photos often show him shirtless, mounted on a horse, firing a rifle, swimming Siberian waters, and of course throwing a judo opponent. Silly and stagedas many of these events may be, their purpose is a serious one. Without a clear successor to power should he pass away, Putin has to ceaselessly project health and vigor. As Amanda Taub explained in Vox yesterday, the uncertainty of Russia’s succession feeds a dangerous instability simmering beneath the surface and helps explain the explosion of rumor surrounding his absence.
After Putin’s 2012 disappearance, the health rumors were seen as serious enough to warrant what RT called a “major press conference” in which the President blamed the stories on “political opponents who sought to question his ability to run the country.”
During both absences, the health stories originated with officials of foreign governments repeating what the Kremlin had apparently told them (in 2012 it was Japan, this time it was Kazakhstan). Russia has only spoken about the absences to refute health rumors, but otherwise offers no explanation. For all we know, Putin is “hiking the Appalachian Trail” and his disappearance actually has nothing to do with his health. That very opacity though, Leonid Bershinsky argues in Bloomberg View, is “evidence enough that Russia has become an outright dictatorship.”
RT may contain multitudes, but it doesn’t exactly report vigorously on the government that funds it. That limitation has been clear this week with Putin’s absence. The state narrative of a healthy, athletic President doesn’t just appear on RT, the network recycles the exact same words and judo photo to underline it.
And considering the importance of his perceived health, Putin acted like any good judoka: he reversed his opponent and used their own weight against them. Illness rumors are spun into further proof of his health. He’s not sick, he’s just an athlete. So says the Kremlin and so says RT.