MOSCOW -- If you believe the Kremlin's PR, President Vladimir Putin is an alligator-wrestling action hero. But if you believe the deluge of rumors about his health in recent years, he's an ailing and psychologically disturbed man.
Tongues have been wagging again this week now that the Russian leader has not been seen in public for several days. Here's a rundown of some of the rumors that have previously surfaced regarding Putin's physical and mental health.
On February 4, USA Today reported that a study commissioned by the Pentagon in 2008 suggested that Putin may be displaying some of the symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, "an autistic disorder that affects all of his decisions."
The conclusion -- by the Office of Net Assessment, an internal Pentagon think tank -- was based exclusively on videos of Putin.
On February 6, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report as "stupidity that doesn’t deserve comment."
In October, the U.S. tabloid The New York Post quoted unidentified "sources" as saying that Putin was suffering from deadly pancreatic cancer. The newspaper suggested the information originated with an elderly German doctor who had treated Putin.
The Kremlin dismissed the report. Peskov told reporters in Moscow that "everything is okay" with Putin's health. "They will wait in vain. May their tongues wither," Peskov said of those who claim Putin is ill.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as U.S. national security adviser from 1977-81, told the U.S. magazine The National Interest in April 2014 that Putin displays the same "narcissistic megalomaniac" tendencies as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini once did.
LIkewise, the U.S. magazine The Atlantic noted in an April 2014 report that Putin's frequent macho stunts -- including "scuba-diving, piloting a plane, [sitting] behind the wheel of a race car, demonstrating his skill in martial arts, and baring his chest on horseback" -- suggest that he suffers from the "severe psychological disorder" of narcissism. The article concludes that "Putin may or may not be a clinical narcissist, but it may be wise just to treat him like one either way."
Spinal Cord Cancer
In January 2014, the U.S. magazine The Week reported about apparent rumors that Putin is "seriously ill" and "perhaps" has cancer of the spinal cord. The piece cites "seasoned observers" as its source. It speculates that Putin at the time was "clearing his conscience" with acts of graciousness such as granting amnesty to then-jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The act, The Week wrote, was "out of character" for Putin who "is known for pursuing vendettas against his perceived enemies with near Sicilian zeal."
When Putin in September 2013 surprised the country by sketching a cartoon of a cat's backside on a school whiteboard, many Russians saw a man showing off his creative and childish side. But not everybody.
On Dozhd-TV, a psychologist and a doctor said the sketch suggested that Putin is a man "not inclined toward human contact." They also said it suggested that Putin is "withdrawn," a "lonely" man, and "out of touch with his emotional sphere."
In November 2012, Putin displayed a rare moment of weakness when he succumbed to an apparent back injury that led him to scale back his schedule.
The Kremlin played down the injury. Peskov said it "had been greatly exaggerated."
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told Reuters at the time that his Russian counterpart had damaged his spine during a bout of judo. "He loves judo. He lifted a guy, threw him, and twisted his spine,” Lukashenka said.
Botox Black Eye
In October 2010, Putin appeared at a press conference in Ukraine sporting what appeared to be a black eye, badly disguised under a thick coat of makeup. Andrei Kolesnikov, a journalist close to Putin, speculated that the bruise may have been inflicted during a rigorous judo session.
Ukrainian media, however, displayed a little more skepticism, claiming that the darkened skin was the result of Botox treatments designed to keep Putin looking young and in robust health.