IN NOVEMBER, the rumor mill went into overdrive about Russian President Vladimir Putin's health, when Putin, usually an active traveler, did not venture outside Moscow for nearly two months. The Kremlin kept mum, rejecting allegations of a serious illness, while the media speculated wildly about reports ranging from a judo or crane-leading injury to something far more serious. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda confirmed that not all was well in the Kremlin, that the head of the Russian state was ill.
Even official pictures showed the Russian leader clutching at backs of chairs while dignified officials, such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, helped him sit down.
As in the Soviet era, the Russian public pricked their ears for any cues – changes in the President's gait, his expressions, and quotes by anonymous sources about what ails him – knowing, of course, that the official Kremlin position would be to deny any allegations that Putin is not his usual flying, swimming, and black-belt-wrestling self. "Putin's back is more popular than J Lo's derriere," one headline said. One paper quoted sources as saying that Putin's image was being recast from that of a physically active macho man to a more subdued patriarch of Russian values.
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