The biggest question in Russia these days has nothing to do with Ukraine or the country's collapsing currency, but rather, where in the world is President Vladimir Putin?
The Russian leader has not appeared in public for more than a week, since he was last seen at a March 5th meeting with Italy's prime minister. He cancelled several high-profile events, including a trip to Kazakhstan and an important meeting with top officials from Russia's intelligence service, F.S.B.
Rumors of his whereabouts have been steadily circulating as his absence continues, with various degrees of alarm, amusement and outlandishness. According to some European tabloids, Putin has escaped to Switzerland for the birth of his illegitimate love child by rumored mistress Alina Kabayeva. Others link Putin's disappearance to internal political tensions surrounding the Kremlin after the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Putin's former economic advisor Andrey Illarionov, wrote on his blog Thursday that Putin had been "disappeared" in an apparent coup. An anonymous employee at a Moscow hospital reported that Putin had been admitted after suffering a stroke.
But Dmitry S. Peskov, Russia's presidential spokesman, denies that Putin is sick. When asked if Putin was healthy, Peskov told Reuters, "Yes. We've already said this a hundred times. This isn't funny any more."
Peskov told Russian media on Thursday that Putin simply has a busy schedule of meetings, not all of which are public, but that his health is "all right". Peskov added that Putin is so healthy that he is still "breaking hands" with his strong handshake.
Rumors of Putin's whereabouts have ignited a wave of mockery on Russian social media, subverting the myth that all Russians are loyal supporters frequently proffered by the Kremlin. On Friday, the hashtag #putinumer (Putin died) began trending on Twitter and was accompanied by images, theories, and jokes of where Putin currently is.
A Russian musical duo released a music video titled "Putin is Dead" which quickly racked up tens of thousands of views on Youtube. Photo-shopped images circulating online include one of Putin shirtless in a coffin and another of Prime Minister Dmitry Mededvedev taking a selfie with Putin on his death-bed.
A website putinumer.com was set up to compile some of the more outlandish theories that the media has been saying about Putin's whereabouts. When asked if Putin is dead, it offers answers such as, "Look out the window. Are people happy, leading dances, setting off fireworks? No? So he is not dead yet."
This would not be the first time a Russian president has mysteriously disappeared. Josef Stalin infamously was absent for the first 10 days of World War II, and Gorbachev was on vacation in 1991 when hardline opposition forces sent tanks into Moscow at the brink of the Soviet Union's collapse. Putin's disappearance comes at a similarly fragile time in Russia, where political tensions are high, the economy is effectively falling apart, and a war continues to rage on the border with Ukraine.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928