Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off his 10-day absence from the public eye Monday with the aside that life "would be boring without gossip," a reference to the wild rumors of the past week that he was gravely ill, dead or ousted from power.
Putin returned to the limelight to receive the visiting president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, at the ornate Constantine Palace near St. Petersburg, his hometown and the imperial capital of Russia.
He appeared healthy and long-winded, expounding on the value of economic collaboration among former Soviet states as a clatter of camera shutters captured his first public event since March 5.
The official Sputnik news agency made light of the rampant speculation about Putin's whereabouts with a list of what it called "the five most ridiculous theories" on his absence: He died, he has cancer, he was abroad attending the birth of a love child, he'd been overthrown and he was binge-watching "House of Cards."
Outside the carefully choreographed palace meeting, though, a more ominous mood prevailed. Monday was the first anniversary of the Russian-organized referendum on Crimea's secession from Ukraine, a cause for celebration on the Black Sea peninsula and self-congratulation throughout the Russian mainland that its historic naval port and vacation playground has been recovered.
Putin had appeared Sunday night in "Crimea: Path to the Motherland," a 2 1/2-hour film recounting the armed takeover of Crimea after a pro-Europe uprising in Ukraine ousted Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich. The film -- part documentary, part dramatic re-enactment – cast the land grab as necessary to protect the Russian population from the rebellion's blood-thirsty victors.
Although the film's interview with Putin was obviously recorded earlier, the Kremlin leader's ardent defense of the action that has plunged Russian-Western relations to a post-Cold War low and his allusion to having considered arming the nuclear arsenal served to present him as valiant guardian of Russian might.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu added to the atmosphere of heightened vigilance as the Wednesday anniversary of Crimea's annexation approaches with the announcement of massive military readiness drills. About 40,000 troops, 50 warships and submarines and 110 combat aircraft were to be tested over the next five days in Northern Fleet exercises, as well as rapid deployment maneuvers for moving units to European fronts from Central Asia, Shoigu said in the televised announcement.
A threat of violence has remained palpable in Russia since the Feb. 27 assassination of one of Putin's harshest critics, Boris Y. Nemtsov. The former first deputy prime minister and opposition leader was gunned down gangland-style as he walked home from a late dinner across a bridge near the Kremlin, prompting accusations that Putin was at least complicit in creating an atmosphere of impunity for political murders.
Five men of Chechen origin from the restive Caucasus region of southern Russia have been arrested in the case, two of them charged with killing Nemtsov. One of the accused, Zaur Dadayev, is a former Chechnya police commander and a close ally of Putin's appointed Chechnya overlord Ramzan Kadyrov. His arrest has given rise to rumors of a breach or power struggle between the Kremlin leader and his Chechen lieutenant.