MOSCOW - Russia's leader is back.
More than 10 days after President Vladimir Putin dropped from public sight without an explanation, he reappeared Monday relaxed, smiling, and joking- although perhaps with a touch of the sniffles.
His long absence from public view spurred furious speculation in Russia that he had suffered acute health issues or that there had been a serious bout of Kremlin infighting. There were rumors that a girlfriend had secretly delivered a baby. Some longtime Kremlinologists even posited there had been a coup.
The intense guesswork, however, carried at least one clear message: how deeply Russia now depends on the whims of one man.
In the absence of any real institutions or alternative structures of authority, power has centralized around Putin more than any leader since the era of Joseph Stalin's iron-grip rule. Other Soviet leaders were accountable to the Communist Party. One of them, Nikita Khrushchev, was even removed.
"It would be boring without gossip," Putin, 62, told reporters outside St. Petersburg in his first public event since March 5. He met Almazbek Atambayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, in the Constantine Palace.
In comments apparently encouraged by the Kremlin, Atambayev gave a personal appraisal of Putin's health, telling reporters, "Vladimir Vladimirovich showed me around, drove around, he himself was at the wheel - so that there will be less gossip."
Putin smiled broadly, stroked his nose, then laughed. But he made no further public comments about his health before reporters were ushered from the room where the two leaders were sitting in gilded armchairs. Putin appeared to wince briefly as he sat down in his chair after strolling in with his Kyrgyzstani counterpart. The appearance lasted a little over two minutes.
Neither Putin nor the Kremlin offered any details about why he missed a series of meetings and postponed one state visit during the period.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on Monday mocked the rumor mill. "Have you seen the paralyzed president who was captured by the generals? He has just come back from Switzerland, where he attended the delivery" of the baby, Peskov told journalists.
There still has been no official comment from the Kremlin on why Putin was out of the public eye - nor any acknowledgment that anything was out of the ordinary. It was a rare absence for a leader who has built a reputation for hands-on leadership and personal vigor.