Russians Speculate About Putin’s Spine

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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What’s happening with President Vladimir Putin’s spine? This is the question that has Russians guessing as their leader engages in the time-honored tradition of denying his health problems.

Top Russian officials have long preferred to hide their illnesses, an instinct that can turn even minor ailments into global media events. The practice harks back at least to the Soviet era, when Kremlin watchers divined policy shifts by noting which geriatric Communist leader was absent from the top of Lenin’s tomb as the May Day parade went by. General Secretaries Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were both hospitalized for months before the public knew of their conditions. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, kept the world in the dark about a heart attack until after he had won the 1996 elections.

Now, Vladimir Putin has a bad back, and his refusal to comment on it is fueling intense speculation. Versions range from spinal cancer to the complete disappearance of the president’s backside. “The interest in Putin’s back can only be compared to that in the hind parts of Jennifer Lopez,” wrote Olga Pershina on the St. Petersburg site

The ailment doesn’t look life-threatening, just extremely uncomfortable as Putin walks or sits down. The president has canceled some official events and stopped traveling to his Kremlin office from his country house every day. On Dec. 3, during a visit to Istanbul, he winced as he lowered himself into an armchair, prompting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to bend solicitously as if to help him. State-controlled Russian TV chose an angle that made the moment look innocuous.

Spokesmen and supporters say the back trouble is simply a sign of the president’s athleticism. “He likes to wrestle,” Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko was quoted as saying. “So he was wrestling, he lifted a man to throw him over his back and sprained his spine.”

Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, chief of staff Sergei Ivanov and presidential press secretary Dmitri Peskov have all stuck to the sports version since September, when Putin limped visibly during a summit meeting in Vladivostok. Peskov has noted that Putin, a judo black belt, likes to spar with a much heavier partner.

At one point, Peskov blew up. “I am sick of explaining,” he fumed to the official news agency RIA Novosti. “I see no point to it anymore. Those who refuse to listen to the obvious apparently just want to keep speculating.”

The president himself has kept mum, allowing the ailment to take on a life of its own. In the absence of reliable information -- who would believe Peskov and Medvedev? -- rumors abound. One widespread theory suggests Putin has cancer of the spine. A fake obituary circulated briefly on the Web. “Peskov: Putin does not have a back and has never had one,” ran a much-circulated tweet.

Some commentators have identified the back pain as the motivation for the large-scale anti-corruption campaign that has shaken up the Moscow bureaucracy in recent weeks. “If Putin’s back starts hurting, the least useful ministers’ butts start burning,” blogger Konstantin Voron tweeted.

The tabloid MK, in a column titled “Putin’s Back as the Mainstay of Power,” focused on the deep symbolic significance of the president’s spine. “The viability of the vertical system of power directly depends on the viability of the man who controls it,” wrote journalist Mikhail Rostovsky. “If he weakens, the entire system will tremble.”

Putin’s injury might have triggered a karmic chain reaction. On Dec. 3, Turkish media reported that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had broken his arm at an Istanbul hotel. The entourage of journalists accompanying Lavrov on the trip failed to report the incident. “There is nothing shameful about a minister breaking his arm, but it is a disgrace to hide the fact,” journalist Pavel Sheremet wrote on Facebook.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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