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Antler baths and isolation As Putin approaches 70, investigative journalists look into the state of his health
Since the moment Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, the Kremlin has kept information about his health secret. At first, no one really noticed. But later, when, from time to time, Putin disappeared from public view, many suggested (without presenting conclusive evidence, mind you) that he might be undergoing some kind of medical treatment. What’s more, Putin has been accompanied on all of his trips by a sizeable retinue of doctors. In a new report, the investigative outlet Proekt looks into the health of the Russian president (Meduza’s special correspondent Svetlana Reiter contributed reporting). We’ve summarized the investigation’s findings here.
At the beginning of his presidency, Vladimir Putin “exploited the image of an active man in the prime of his life,” recalls Proekt. Back then, according to a government official who worked with him, the Russian president rarely underwent checkups and paid little attention to the state of his health (if he had a fever, for example, he brushed it off). Meanwhile, Kremlin officials, busy constructing a macho image of Putin, decided not to tell the public anything negative about his health.
In those years, Putin’s fondness for horseback riding created problems as he sustained injuries from falls, reports Proekt. An acquaintance of the president said that after one such fall from a horse, Putin “couldn’t even get back on his feet” for some time, and required lengthy treatment.
During a flower-laying ceremony at the Monument to Minin and Pozharsky on Unity Day in 2012, Putin had a noticeable limp. As Proekt notes, TV broadcasts tried not to show Putin, footage of the event was never posted on the Kremlin’s website, and news agencies were strictly forbidden from mentioning that the president had been limping. By the end of 2012, Putin’s limp had worsened — and because of this all events involving the president were limited to one hour.
It was at this time that the Kremlin first started using pre-recorded videos of Putin’s meetings with his subordinates, Proekt writes. This “canned footage” allowed the president to quietly disappear from public view for periods of time as needed. “As time went by, the number of these disappearances increased. As did the number of his health problems,” Proekt claims. Pre-recorded footage of Putin was rolled out during noted absences in March 2015, August 2017, February 2018, and September 2021.
As Putin got older, he began to take an interest in alternative medicine as well, Proekt notes. According to one of Putin’s acquaintances, for example, the Russian president allegedly bathes in an extract made from boiled deer antlers. This alternative therapy, which supposedly boosts the cardiovascular system and rejuvenates the skin, was recommended to Putin by Russia’s current Defense Minister Sergy Shoigu. Though there is no convincing evidence of the benefits of “antler baths,” Putin taking an interest in this and other alternative therapies aimed at “prolonging youth” have made them popular among other senior Russian officials, Proekt says.
Proekt emphasizes that “Putin’s interest in unscientific medicine sounds strange” given that several of his close relatives hold medical degrees — including his daughter Maria Voronotsova, who graduated from Moscow State University’s medical school. The president’s cousin, Evgeny Putin, is a pediatric surgeon, while his wife is a gynecologist, and their children trained as psychiatrists. Tatyana Ptashuk, Putin’s first cousin once removed, is also a doctor — she currently serves as deputy head of a Moscow hospital where top Russian officials are treated.
Putin’s medical entourage
Over the years, Putin began visiting the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow’s Kuntsevo district increasingly often. According to a Proekt source, the hospital has a “department of personal doctors” responsible for tending to Putin. These same doctors accompany the Russian president on trips and fly to his residence for house calls.
By studying contracts and acts of acceptance of services rendered published on Russia’s state procurement website, Proekt confirmed that the dates of the doctors’ flights to Putin’s residence coincided with the president’s official visits or with periods when he didn’t make any public appearances.
These contracts allowed Proekt’s journalists to determine that in 2016–2017, the Russian president’s retinue included five doctors on average, although sometimes the number of medical personnel increased “dramatically.” In November 2016, for example, Putin didn’t appear in public for five days — during that same time period, 12 doctors immediately set up shop at the Rus Health Resort in Sochi. First to arrive was a group of Putin’s personal doctors, followed by a group of neurosurgeons from Moscow’s Central Clinic Hospital, and a rehabilitation specialist.
“The treatment obviously went well — already on December 1, Putin made an address to the Federal Assembly. A year later the president awarded [the head of the group of neurosurgeons Oleg] Myshkin the title of Distinguished Physician of Russia,” writes Proekt.
By 2019, Putin was traveling with nine doctors on average, according to Proekt. The journalists note that the president was most often accompanied by two ENTs (ear, nose, and throat doctors) named Alexey Shcheglov and Igor Esakov, as well as a surgeon by the name of Evgeny Selivanov. Proekt underscores that Selivanov, until recently at least, specialized in treating cancer and thyroid problems. The journalists also note that thyroid diseases, including cancer, are “usually first diagnosed” by ENTs. Putin has publicly demonstrated an interest in the problem of thyroid cancer, Proekt adds.
According to Proekt’s sources close to the leadership of a major Russian hospital, the “president’s health problems” are a hot topic in medical circles. Allegedly, these conversations became increasingly common in the fall of 2021, when, after a long period of self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Putin began attending public events again. This was especially the case after a meeting with Paralympic athletes on September 13, 2021, where Putin announced that he had to self-isolate because too many people around him had come down with the coronavirus. As Proekt writes, even the president’s entourage was “surprised” by this news.
Putin didn’t appear in public for the rest of September 2021. However, whether he underwent any medical treatment during this period remains unknown, Proekt writes. As the journalists note, after this period of isolation, Putin began keeping his distance from others during meetings — usually, by sitting at the opposite end of a very long table.
You can read Proekt’s full investigation in English here.
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