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Putin and Parkinson′s: What experts say about his health | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW


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From US Senator Marco Rubio to political science university professors to the UK tabloids, many people appear to have an intimate understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health.

But one important voice has been missing from the flurry of articles and discourse speculating that Putin, who is leading the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has Parkinson’s or thyroid cancer: Medical experts.

Putin was shown tightly gripping a table during a 12-minute video clip of a meeting with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu. He tapped his foot and slouched throughout the course of the clip, which was released by the Russian government late last week. His face was noticeably bloated.

The video prompted some online commentators, including former UK Conservative Party parliamentarian Louise Mensch, to draw the conclusion on Twitter that the Russian president has Parkinson’s disease.

The claim has also been reported by a number of UK tabloids. The stories featured comments from a professor of strategic communications, a couple of political analysts and a professor of body language. But no doctors.

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Parkinson’s disease – our interview

No diagnoses without examinations

That’s probably not a coincidence.

“Real neurologists are unlikely to comment because they are taught never to comment on people who are not their patients,” John Hardy, a neurogeneticist at the UK Dementia Research Institute, told DW.

Stressing the fact that he’s a neurogeneticist, not a neurologist, Hardy shared his opinion on Putin’s condition as someone who has studied brain diseases.

“No sign of parkinsonism in my view,” he said. “He did not look well…but not Parkinson’s disease.”

Ray Chadhuri, a neurologist at the University of London, agreed.

“Looking at the short clip, I can find no evidence that I can tell of parkinsonism in Putin,” Chadhuri told DW.

Parkinson’s disease and parkinsonism are incredibly difficult to diagnose and can only be determined by thorough neurological examination in person, Chadhuri explained.

“Bloating of [the] face or tremors can be caused by many reasons and I did not see any tremor either,” said Chadhuri.

Caroline Rassell, chief executive of Parkinson’s UK, echoed Hardy when asked for an expert opinion on the clips. She said Parkinson’s is a complex condition with over 40 symptoms ranging from physical to mental, and it is therefore impossible to diagnose via a 12-minute video clip.

“It affects everyone differently,” said Rassell. “With no definitive diagnostic test, it’s something that can only be confirmed after examination by a neurologist or specialist. Media and online speculation is unhelpful.”

A tight-lipped Russia makes speculation inevitable

It is not uncommon for people to speculate about the health conditions of the world’s most powerful leaders. The media extensively covered former US President Donald Trump testing positive for COVID in 2020, former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s shaking episodes in 2019, and Pope Francis’s colon surgery last summer.

For years, the Kremlin has kept tight-lipped about the state of Putin’s health, prompting journalists and political scientists to analyze the president’s every move in attempts to detect any sign of frailty or illness. Rumors claiming Putin has thyroid cancer, serious back problems and even psychosis have become part of the regular discourse surrounding the president.

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Western intelligence: Putin mislead by inner circle

This was compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Putin went into full isolation, refusing to come near other world leaders at world summits and conferences and requiring those he met with to isolate and test themselves repeatedly before seeing him.

Russia’s Putin-directed invasion of Ukraine in February saw media outlets and analysts speculate that with Putin in isolation and most intelligence coming from a select few people who may or may not have been telling the full truth, the president could have plunged into a state of narcissistic psychosis.

Journalists seemed to latch onto this idea as a way to explain Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has left at least 1,800 Ukranian people dead and thousands injured.

Whether Putin is on his death bed and is using this war as a way to cement his mark on history, or whether he’s truly being guided by a kind of psychosis  without any information from the Kremlin, it’s all speculation.

And at the end of the day, no one — neither the Twitter commentators, the neurologists watching Kremlin-released video clips, nor the so-called Russia experts — knows what’s happening in Putin’s brain.

  • Putin welcomes Merkel in Moscow in 2002 (picture-alliance/dpa)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    Up-and-coming leaders

    In 2002, Angela Merkel was the head of what was then Germany’s main opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Putin was the fresh-faced president of a new and modern Russia. After meeting Putin in the Kremlin, Merkel reportedly joked to her aides that she had passed the “KGB test” of holding his gaze — an allusion to Putin’s earlier career in the Soviet security agency.

  • Merkel and Putin shake hands in Russia's Berlin embassy in 2005 (imago/photothek/T. Koehxler)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    New chancellor in town

    Putin had built a friendship with Angela Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, and the two men remain close to this day. By late 2005, however, it was clear that Merkel was set to dethrone the Social Democrat Schröder. Talking to Merkel in Russia’s Berlin embassy, Putin pledged to expand the ties between the two countries. Merkel described the dialogue as “very open.”

  • Merkel and Putin in Dresden 2006 (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hiekel)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    A friendly ear for Putin

    About a year later, Putin shared his impressions of the woman who had since become Germany’s chancellor: “We don’t know each other on a very personal level, but I’m impressed by her ability to listen,” he told Germany’s public broadcaster MDR from Dresden, adding that listening was a rare skill among female politicians.

  • Merkel and Putin sit at a table in Sochi with Putin's dog looking on (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Chirikov)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    A gap in Merkel’s armor

    The German chancellor has a well-known fear of dogs. Still, Putin let his black lab Konni wonder around the Sochi venue when he welcomed Merkel there in January 2007. Was he trying to intimidate her? Merkel seems to think so: “I believe the Russian president knew very well that I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of meeting his dog, but he still brought it with him,” the chancellor said in 2015.

  • Merkel answers questions while sitting next to Putin in Sankt Petersburg, 2012 (picture-alliance/dpa)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    Too thin-skinned on media

    By 2012, Vladimir Putin had taken on a harsher course towards the press and political dissenters. When asked about media freedom while in Saint Petersburg, Merkel responded with a barely hidden jab at her fellow leader: “If I were to get sulky every time I opened a newspaper, I wouldn’t last three days as chancellor,” she said.

  • Putin being interviewed by Bild reporters in Sochi (picture-alliance/dpa/A. Nikolskyi)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    Talks continue into the ice age

    Relations between Moscow and the West took a steep plunge after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, Putin told German media that he still maintained a “business-like relationship” with the German chancellor. “I trust her. She is a very open person. She, like anyone else, is subject to certain limitations, but she is honestly attempting to solve the crises,” he told Bild, a German daily.

  • Putin in Sankt Petersburg, 2017 (picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Lovetsky)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    No insult intended but …

    “I don’t mean to insult anybody, but Ms. Merkel’s statement is an outburst of a long-accumulated anger over limited sovereignty,” Putin told the press in 2017, commenting on an election campaign address that the German leader had given in Munich. Merkel’s so-called “beer tent” speech saw her urge Europeans to rely on themselves amidst disputes with US President Donald Trump.

  • G20-Gipfel in Hamburg Merkel und Putin (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    Rolling with it

    Just a month after Putin’s remarks on sovereignty, the two leaders were photographed talking at a G-20 summit in Hamburg. While the topic remains a mystery, both Merkel and Putin used strong gestures. At one point, as Putin wags his finger Merkel looks away from him and rolls her eyes. The moment quickly went viral.

  • Putin welcomes Merkel with flowers in 2018 (picture-alliance/Sputnik/S. Guneev)

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    ‘We have to talk to each other’

    When Merkel arrived in Sochi in 2018, Putin welcomed her with a bouquet of flowers. An offer of peace? An act of gallantry? Sexism? The rationale didn’t really matter in the big picture. Appearing alongside Putin, Merkel said dialogue needed to go on. “Even if there are grave differences of opinion on some issues, we have to talk to each other, because otherwise you just sink into silence.”

  • Merkel und Putin shaking hands

    Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel: Through good times and bad

    Handshake in 2020

    Angela Merkel met with the Russian President in the Kremlin in January 2020. Later, relations again deteriorated over the Russian involvement in Ukraine, but also over its treatment of dissidents. Most notably of dissident Alexei Navalny who was arrested upon his return to Russia from medical treatment in Germany.

    Author: Jan D. Walter, Darko Janjevic

Edited by: Louisa Wright