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?

Boris Yeltsin Dead at 76

Boris Nikolaievich Yelstin is dead. Many are sure to evaluate his legacy over the coming days and years. Almost universally hailed as “democratic” in the West, Yeltsin’s rule was a complicated mix of democracy, authoritarianism, oligarchy, theft, corruption, crime, and gangster capitalism. It was a time of hope and fear for the average Russian. Gone was the authoritarianism of the Soviet system, but that vacuum also produced an uneasy feeling of what came next. A spirit of democracy quickly filled that vacuum only to flutter out as “western” democracy became associated with the utter destruction of the Russian social and economic base. Time doesn’t permit to cite the relevant statistics on the precipitous collapse of the standard of living in the 1990s.

Yeltsin, among many things, will be remembered for standing on a tank in Moscow thus preventing counter-revolution, bombarding the White House with tanks, shaking his tail feather during his election campaign, arriving to Berlin drunk, and playing tennis.

Yeltsin will also be remembered for the Chechen War. It was hardly a “small victorious war,” as he and his handlers hoped. Russia’s defeat led to a brief d?tente between Moscow and Grozny in the form of a quasi-independent, though not internationally recognized, Ichkeria.

Yeltsin will be remembered for introducing the world of Vladimir Putin. A virtually unknown figure in 1999 when he became Prime Minister, Putin was originally viewed in Russian oligarchic circles as a manageable bureaucrat who would rule in their name. He wasn’t and what Russia looks like today is very much a result of Putin’s efforts to tame the oligarchy. In this sense, present day Russia is also in part laid in Yeltsin’s lap.

Lastly, in thinking about Yelstin’s presidency, one can’t help make analogies to the 1920s. Also an economically chaotic and socially disastrous yet politically and culturally vibrant time, the 1920s was the hope for a new, democratic Russia. Small “d” democracy was too squashed in the 1920s resulting in Stalin. Stalin, like Putin, was also viewed as manageable by the Bolshevik oligarchy. This underestimation ushered in their demise in the Terror of the 1930s.

While I reject any comparison of Putin to Stalin, the similar historical trajectory of the 1920s and 1990s can’t be denied. Chaos begot stability, but stability came with the cost of crushing of democracy. In my view, it is Yeltsin’s role in this historical echo that will stand out as his most enduring legacy.

Obituaries on Yeltsin abound. Here is a tentative list.

NY Times

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s First Post-Soviet Leader, Is Dead

Defining Boris Yeltsin

LA Times

Boris Yeltsin, former Russian president, dies

Major events in the life of Boris Yeltsin

Washington Post

Former Russian Leader Boris Yeltsin, 76, Dies

BBC News

Obituary: Boris Yeltsin

RIA Novosti

Russia’s first President Yeltsin dies at 76

More obituaries and analysis are sure to follow in the coming days.

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