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Being a Daddy Might Be Good for Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It increasingly seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin's disappearance from public view was carefully staged. Although he still hasn't surfaced after a week-long absence, there's reason to believe Putin's disappearing act was an instance of paternity leave. It's probably not true, but I wish it were.

According to the Swiss tabloid Blick, it's the talk of Ticino -- the country's southernmost canton -- that former champion rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva recently gave birth at a private clinic in the region called Sant'Ana. (The facility, in the town of Sorengo, was once used for the same purpose by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's daugher, Barbara.) Blick had no proof, and neither did the far more serious Neue Zuercher Zeitung, which sent a reporter to the town, a suburb of Lugano, to investigate. 

It may just be that the press were too late on the scene. The local newspaper Corriere del Ticino, which has been fielding inquiries about Kabaeva from far-off countries, wrote today that it had managed to confirm she stayed at Sant'Ana, but only for a short stint about two weeks ago. The Italian-language Swiss TV channel RSI also reported that Kabaeva had sojourned at the clinic, where a second room was reserved for her bodyguards, but that she was no longer there.

You might be wondering what Putin's disappearance has to do with an ex-athlete's maternity arrangements. Well, Western tabloids have long reported that they are a couple -- and even that they have other children, born before Putin divorced his wife Ludmila in 2013. In Moscow, too, Putin and Kabaeva are often discussed as a couple, but when a newspaper called Moskovsky Korrespondent wrote about it in 2008, its owner closed it within days -- after Putin, looking very angry, scolded journalists for poking their noses where they shouldn't. 

In 2013, Kabaeva revealed she had met "a very good, excellent man" whom she "loved very much," but she never mentioned his name. Putin, for his part, said this about his love life at his most recent major press conference:

A friend of mine from Europe, a big boss, recently asked me: "Look, do you have love in your life?" I said, "What do you mean?" -- "Well, do you love anyone?" I said, "Well, yes." -- "Does anyone love you?" I said, "Yes." He must have decided I was a total beast. He said, "OK, thank God" and he downed his vodka. So everything's OK, don't worry.

Both Putin and Kabaeva, then, have mystery lovers neither cares to name.

If it's true that Kabaeva gave birth two weeks ago, it might explain her unexpected decision last September to give up her membership in the Russian parliament and join National Media Group, a company controlled by Putin's close friend Yury Kovalchuk, as chairman of the board. She would have been about four months pregnant -- and, given her refusal to discuss her private life, unwilling to appear in parliament when the pregnancy became obvious. At NMG, she would not have to be seen at all: As someone who had never worked in the industry, she brought no expertise to the business and was not expected to be involved day-to-day.

When the Swiss story dropped, Russia's rumor mill, which had been churning out rumors that Putin was unwell, quickly changed course. "Not only isn't Putin dead, quite the contrary," Leonid Volkov, an anti-Putin politician, tweeted. The Russian public treated itself to a round of secret paternity leave speculation.

The Kremlin, however, kept up appearances. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the Russian president had fathered a child. The official presidential website maintained that Putin was in Moscow, working as usual: Today, it published a report of his meeting with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, though it wasn't clear exactly when it had taken place. And, apparently in an attempt to quell all the rumors, the site carried news that Putin would hold public meetings with the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and South Ossetia on March 16 and March 18.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would conclude the disappearance and the Swiss rumor were orchestrated by Putin to underscore his overwhelming importance for Russia, his virility and the enigmatic nature of his power. I am, however, but a reluctant gossip columnist. I hope the Kabaeva story is true. 

I want the president of my country to be normal. I want him to worry about the woman he loves and fly to a Swiss clinic to hold her hand when she gives birth. I want him to drink too much champagne after holding the baby for the first time, and perhaps take a few days off work. (I did when my kids were born.) I want him to remember in Lugano what he did to Luhansk, and regret it, and put it right.

More importantly, however, I want him to stop lying and dissembling. It would be nice if he could come clean about what his plans are in Ukraine, what he really thinks about the murder of Boris Nemtsov and its perpetrators, what kind of life he wants for his daughters in Russia 10 years from now. I would respect him more for being truthful and open about the important things. Taking the plunge and naming his girlfriend could be a first step toward breaking out of the hardened bubble of mistrustful relationships and conspiracy theories he's enveloped in.

I'm not sure Putin is capable of it. But given how worried my compatriots get when he goes missing for a day or two, I hope for their sake that someday he'll allow something to make him more human.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net