MOSCOW—Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with such a thick fog of secrecy that it’s now unclear where he is living, how many children or lovers he has, if his health is failing, or whether he’s planning to stay in power.
The old KGB man’s love of secrecy has long boosted rumors and conspiracy theories that would race quietly around Moscow. But 2020 was the year the rumors span out of control. Encouraged by the omnipotence of the online rumor mill, the Russian media is now daring to commit them to publication.
Tabloids this year dabbled in stories that the Russian president was sick and poised to quit the Kremlin. After Putin, who is 68, coughed at a meeting with the government on Nov. 19, the gossip went into overdrive.
Some claimed the president was suffering from cancer, others diagnosed him with Parkinson’s disease. A video of Putin absentmindedly playing with a folder in October fueled the rumors that he was suffering from some kind of degenerative condition.
As pro-Putin ideologists often emphasize “Russia is Putin,” so media reports analyzed Putin’s health as a vital matter of Russia’s future.
All of it without a shred of evidence. The closest thing you get to an official Kremlin health report is the occasional shirtless photoshoot.
Professor Valery Solovey, who has become one of Moscow’s most notorious sensationalists, this year fanned the speculation on YouTube by claiming that Putin was planning to quit any time now as a result of some “force majeure.”
The speculation over Putin’s long-term health would seem to be at odds with his decision to push through legislation that allows him to stay in power until 2036. The work for that formally began last January, and he decided to rubber-stamp it with a nationwide referendum over the summer that was not legally necessary but offered Putin the chance to show that he was still the boss when—as expected—he won the referendum comfortably.
The power move failed to quell the speculation among Moscow’s elite, where names of potential successors buzz around incessantly.
On radio Echo of Moscow, known as Moscow’s ear, the editor-in-chief Aleksey Venediktov reports that the top two contenders are ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy chair of the Security Council, and Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Foreign Intelligence.
Others claim there will be another Putin after Putin. The president’s nephew Roman Putin seems to have big political ambitions—the businessman with the familiar name founded a new political party this month called “Russia Without Corruption.”
Speculation over Putin’s intentions was further inflamed in November when the duma—Russia’s Kremlin-friendly parliament—passed the first reading of a bill that would grant Russian presidents and their families immunity from prosecution after they leave office.
Vladimir Solovyov, a well-connected Kommersant newspaper commentator, says Putin has left Russia with a terribly confused picture. “This year, he changed the constitution to secure more terms but now he lets more fog in and says he does not know, if he is going to run again in 2024,” he said.
Solovyov told The Daily Beast that he—and many others—had assumed Putin would try to hand power to a close ally and remain a powerful figure behind the scenes like Nursultan Nazarbayev has done in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev stood down after almost 20 years as president but retains his position as head of the security council and “power behind the throne.”
Watching Putin put his support behind Alexander Lukashenko, whose post-Soviet population in Belarus is attempting to force him out of office, has changed Solovyov’s analysis.
“If before we thought he would choose a peaceful way to transfer power, like in Kazakhstan, now it looks like he will go for the Belarusian bloody and violent scenario,” he said.
Putin has already clamped down on protests this year, deciding that even one-person demonstrations were unacceptable.
The thrust of Putin’s strategy has remained unchanged for decades: the Russian president has brought former KGB officers like himself into all key management areas in public life in order to provide security for what he calls the vertical of power.
Ever more public debate in Russia is being defined as spy intrigue. Reports, myths, legends about Putin’s whereabouts, his associates’ business life, his personal life is described by the government as a spy verses spy story, and not as a matter of public information, which they should share.
Where, for example, is Putin riding out the pandemic, which has already dented his popularity?
No one knows. One media report this year claimed that Putin built an exact replica of his Kremlin office in Sochi so as to keep his location hidden even to people he speaks on camera. Officials hinted that claim was misinformation peddled by foreign spy agencies.
Putin is also believed to have a secret hideout in the remote Altai mountains close to the border with Mongolia.
Any taxi driver in the Republic of Altai, in Siberia, reckons they know the approximate location of Putin’s residence. They say it is somewhere around the 600-kilometer mark on the Chuisky highway, and he is there often. The constant helicopters in the sky create a local belief that Putin spent much of his spring and summer quarantine in the mountains of Altai, though of course nobody knows for sure.
Putin’s private life has also been hidden for decades, which has led to much speculation over the years, but again that has accelerated in recent months.
In November, several media reports suggested that Putin had a secret daughter in St. Petersburg with Svetlana Krivonogikh. The story raised curiosity about the life of the teenager involved but also raised questions of corruption.
How had Putin’s alleged lover—a former cleaner—acquired a significant shareholding in Bank Rossiya, a bank run by some of Putin’s longtime associates?
The U.S. Treasury sanctioned Bank Rossiya’s owners and partners in 2014, on the day Russian parliament passed a law admitting Crimea to the Russian Federation.
Corruption has been a feature of elite Russian circles since the Soviet era. “Nobody is surprised any more that top men in power are corrupt,” Boris Vishnevsky, deputy of Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg told The Daily Beast. “But more and more millions of people watch Alexey Navalny’s independent investigations just to learn the details.”
Navalny’s online exposés and his political campaigning on the ground have made him effectively Russia’s leader of the opposition.
And here the spy games come into play once again.
Navalny was poisoned with a dose of Novichok while he was out east, in Siberia, where anti-Putin demonstrations have been growing. Navalny survived, but by early September, 77 percent of the Russian population knew about the attempted assassination.
Bellingcat published a painstakingly detailed account of the attack, which included specific names of Russian secret service operatives who were trailing the opposition leader at the time he was poisoned. It looked like damning evidence the security services were to blame.
When Putin was confronted by this report at his annual press conference, he did not deny the main points in the report that Navalny had been trailed and the cellphone records mentioned in the report actually belonged to the Federal Security Service, FSB officers. But the spy games deepened from there.
“That patient of a Berlin clinic has the support of U.S. intelligence services,” Putin said, not naming Navalny, who is receiving treatment in Germany. “Therefore, the Russian special services should track him.”
The Russian president claimed that Bellingcat, CNN, the Insider and Der Spiegel magazine had helped American intelligence agents to “legalize” disinformation from foreign spies.
Putin believes he and his secret services have outsmarted Navalny.
The president dismisses all efforts at openness, including about his own family life, as “tricks” in the information war.
A former member of parliament, Dmitry Gudkov, is convinced that public frustration with Putin will only increase, especially since the even the FSB agents are not keeping their end up. “It takes nothing to find the truth about Putin’s agents—the data of cellphone calls can be purchased without any problems,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast.
Putin is relying on the spy games of his FSB agents to secure his future, but in a world of online reporting and whirlwind rumors that undermine all of their authority, his hopes of maintaining the pretense dwindle by the day.