Putin the Traumatic

Are Putin and his cohort afflicted with trauma? This is the question Richard Lourie poses in an interesting column in the Moscow Times. Lourie rhetorically asks, why does an administration with 70 percent approval use such force against a small and politically insignificant opposition. Was it yet another sign of the “turn toward authoritarianism or pre-election jitters?” Lourie writes that:

It was a bit of both, but behind both lies a deeper cause. President Vladimir Putin and his generation were shaped by the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union, just as previous generations were shaped by revolution, terror or war. Their own personal relationship to the Soviet Union and its demise — their sense of loss, regret and acrimony — is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the event itself. Their shock resulted from seeing that something as mighty and gigantic as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics could vanish so suddenly and so easily. The Titanic of empires, it was the biggest ship of state that ever sank.

Putin’s often quoted and often misunderstood remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” should be understood as much psychologically as politically. People will argue for years to come about the cause of its demise, but for people like Putin who were on board the ship of state as it began sinking, the one lasting lesson is that if something so seemingly invincible as the Soviet Union can go down so swiftly, there’s no reason the same thing can’t happen with the new Russia, which is smaller and less fearsome.

A great deal of Putin’s behavior — the brutality in Chechnya, the fear of a Ukraine-style revolution and nongovernmental organizations, the centralization of authority, the control of the media and the beating of demonstrators — makes more sense if seen as a pattern stemming from the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin himself said in his book “First Person”: “[M]y mission, my historical mission — and this will sound lofty, but it’s true — consisted of resolving the situation in the Northern Caucasus … and Chechnya [which is] a continuation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. … If we don’t put an immediate end to this, Russia will cease to exist.”

Lourie states, and I emphasize, that while trauma provides another layer for understanding, it is no excuse for these acts. Given my own recent work on the trauma of the Russian Civil War in the Komsomol, Lourie’s thesis jives well. As many Soviet psychologists in the 1920s noted, the “traumatic neurosis” caused by the violence and brutality of the Civil War prevented veterans from adjusting to peaceful conditions. One Russian historian recently argued that the “war syndrome” infected the Bolshevik Party so much that it contributed to the Terror of the 1930s. Could a trauma from the collapse of the Soviet system explain Putin’s governance?

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