— -- Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has canceled some of his public appearances this week after coming down with a cold, a Kremlin spokesman said.
"The president has a cold," Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s winter.”
It was a rare acknowledgement of physical vulnerability from the Kremlin around Putin, whom it normally portrays as a fanatically fit workaholic possessed of almost super-human vitality. Putin, 65, has constructed an image built on physical strength, making regular appearances meant to emphasize it, from televised judo matches to shirtless horse-riding, to ice hockey games where the president is most often the runaway scorer.
Last month, he took a plunge in a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake as part of Russian Orthodox Epihany traditions.
Putin will still continue working, Peskov said, but he won’t attend an event planned for Wednesday at Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition, instead hosting participants at the Kremlin or at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo near the city.
The liberal station TV Rain reported that Putin will also skip a trip to Russia’s far east planned for Feb. 19-22, citing two people close to the visit’s organizers. Peskov denied that the trip, which wasn’t publicly announced, had been cancelled, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti.
Putin has been following a busy schedule of appearances linked to Russia’s presidential election due to take place in March and in which Putin is expected to win a fourth term without difficulty.
Each week Putin has been appearing at choreographed events around the country, visiting factories, meeting with school children and hosting delegations. The appearances, however mundane, usually receive substantial coverage on Russian state media, where Putin is a daily fixture.
Any disappearance of Putin from the public's view quickly becomes the subject of popular speculation in Russia, giving birth to jokes and sometimes outlandish rumors.
In March 2015, when he hadn’t been seen for 10 days, rumors appeared he had gone to Switzerland for the birth of a child by a mistress or he had been imprisoned in a coup. On that occasion, interest around Putin’s absence became so intense that his reappearance at an otherwise routine meeting with Kyrgyzstan’s president became news in itself. When Putin canceled a string of meetings in 2016, the rumor mill spun again -- with people speculating that Putin was dead, or having plastic surgery.
That last theory of Putin’s absences being Botox-related likely had more credible grounds. Speculation that Putin has had work done began in 2010 after he appeared at a meeting with bruising around his eyes and has revived each time the president—whose face has become fuller and less wrinkled as he gets older -- drops out of view.