MOSCOW—Russians have been gossiping about Vladimir Putin’s health from the very start of the pandemic—and the Kremlin has always dismissed the flood of rumors as “absolute nonsense.” But on Tuesday, Putin announced that he will be self-isolating due to several COVID-19 infections within his inner circle.
The announcement—made by the Russian leader in a phone conversation with his Tajik counterpart, according to a Kremlin readout—came after the typically stone-faced Putin struck a different tone Monday as he admitted that the latest COVID-19 surge is threatening his own inner “circle,” and that he may have to quarantine as a result.
In a video meeting with government officials later Tuesday, Putin said a staffer with whom he had worked quite closely was sick with the virus, and that the encroaching coronavirus cases would be a good test for how effective Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is.
“I interacted with him yesterday very closely for the entire day. This is a natural experiment—we’ll see how well Sputnik V really works,” Putin said in comments from the meeting carried by RIA Novosti. “I hope everything will be just as it’s supposed to be, and Sputnik will demonstrate its high marks in defending against COVID.”
Speaking at a public event at the Kremlin a day earlier, Putin had hinted at his need to self-isolate: “The problems with COVID-19 have even occurred even in my circle. We need to figure out what is really going on. I think I will soon have to quarantine. A lot of people are ill around me.” The president did not specify who in his circle had been infected.
The third COVID-19 wave in Russia has been particularly brutal. According to a government report released last month, 215,000 Russians died of the virus in July, a 42-percent increase from the same time period last year. But even considering the awful death toll, the statement from the country’s leader, known for his “macho” lifestyle, came across as uniquely vulnerable, surprising journalists who’ve been covering Putin for decades.
“At a maximum, what we have confirmed [in the past] are his sports traumas, damaged foot or back,” Pavel Lobkov, a veteran Russian television journalist, told The Daily Beast. “I remember during his first term in 2001 to 2004, Putin basically drank beer from the same cup as us reporters from the Kremlin’s pool. He was never germophobic, like [former Romanian dictator] Nicolae Ceaușescu, who washed his hands in alcohol after every handshake.”
Russians are paying a heavy price for the nation’s classic fatalism. The Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is sweeping the country, killing thousands. Making matters worse is the fact that Russians are still skeptical about the state’s registered vaccines; only 31 percent of Russia’s 144 million people have been vaccinated. Putin received his Sputnik V anti-COVID shot in the spring. “I can say that our vaccine really shows results,” he said at the time.
Several of the Kremlin’s top officials, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, were infected with the virus in the early months of the pandemic last year. Through it all, the Kremlin would often boast about the president’s “perfect health” and the “disinfection tunnels”' at his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, in Moscow’s outskirts. Everybody visiting the president must pass through the tunnels, which are equipped with facial recognition technology and test visitors’ body temperature, according to the RIA state news agency, which has published what it says is video footage of the tunnels.
Putin has also spent a considerable amount of time during the pandemic hidden away at his beach house in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. Last year, a Russian investigative news outlet, Proect, reported that Putin had set up identical offices in both of his residences for television addresses, so that Russians would not know if the president was in Moscow or in his house on the beach.
In September 2020, The Daily Beast interviewed several hotel owners and taxi drivers in the mountains of Altai, a beautiful region bordering Central Asia. At the time, rumors that Putin had been spending weeks at the Gazprom residence in the Republic of Altai were swirling. “While Russians die like flies, the Kremlin hides Putin in some underground cave,” Leonid Zaitsev, a local taxi driver and guide, told The Daily Beast at the time.
Since then, the virus has continued to spread through Russia’s parliament, infecting and re-infecting deputies in the lower and upper chambers. By December 2020, out of 11 infected deputies, at least five MPs had tested positive for a second time, according to State Duma Speaker Vladimir Volodin.
Fast-forward to June of this year, when Moscow beat its own pandemic record, recording 9,120 new cases of COVID-19.
Discussing what special precautions are being taken to protect the president from the virus, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in July: “You know that in the process of work some people might contact sick people, some of the President’s interlocutors could have recently been sick.” Peskov added that Putin’s visitors go through “very thorough testing.” Still, the situation was “far from normal,” Peskov admitted.
But there are often underlying motives to such statements from Putin and his mouthpiece.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst, offered up his interpretation of the president’s recent remarks to The Daily Beast: “The President talked about the quarantine to prepare Russians for forced vaccinations,” Markov said. “The obligatory vaccination will begin right after the parliamentary elections this week.”