This is the first of a two-part series. “The Putin Illusion: The Fragile Russian Doll” will appear on June 6.
With Putin’s unprovoked and unjust invasion, siege, and destruction of Ukraine, it is completely normal that most Americans feel dazed and horrified by Russia’s war-crime-level assaults on a civilian population.
However, as the Russian tactic of inflicting cruelty on innocents is endlessly repeated, daze turns to anger leaving most to ask: What’s wrong with Russia? What’s wrong with Putin? What’s next?
For those of us who have been studying international relations since Moscow ruled the Soviet Union, a world swimming in ridiculous and insane propaganda to justify another Russian land grab is nothing new. In fact, it seems pretty much par for Russia’s forever course.
False flags, invasions, destruction, cruelty, and land theft have all been a Russian norm for centuries. Apparently, they need to invade and dominate every neighboring country to create a “buffer zone.” Ironically, this makes them feel safe from invasion. Somehow, even with one-eighth of the earth’s landmass, they need more, mainly because Putin is threatened by Ukraine wanting to become a more Western European nation.
Thankfully, due to the determination, skill and bravery of the Ukrainian people defending their homeland, along with vital military support from the West, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine now echoes Moscow’s doomed invasion of Afghanistan. That occupation helped lead to the fall of the previous version of a propaganda-controlled, cruel, and greedy authoritarian Russian empire — the USSR. In other words, if Putin didn’t really see Ukraine as a threat before, the numerous Russian soldier casualties now indicate Ukraine could be his Waterloo.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, as Russia’s communist empire came to an end and its captured “buffer-zone” countries began liberating themselves from Moscow’s rule, two main global themes emerged. The first was joy and relief at being able to let go of the daily fear that humanity could end at any moment in nuclear WWIII. The second was an understandable confusion most expressed about how and why the Russian “superpower” disintegrated, with the follow-up question of “What’s next?”
“What’s next?” was also the main question professors told us to think about in school. More specifically, how the world would change from an easy-to-understand, “us vs. them” mentality to a multi-polar world. A world where every country was focused on their own interests, instead of making sacrifices and compromises, to fight off the existential threat of an authoritarian Russia. A Russia that was trying to destroy every democracy, so they could rule the world with authoritarian communism.
What a strange coincidence that a now non-communist Russia is once again trying to destroy democracies by invading them or meddling in elections to install useful idiots, puppets, or wannabe dictators who will do Putin’s bidding. The goal clearly is to weaken and divide us from within so the entire world can be ruled with fascist-like authoritarianism.
Historical Habit of Unrealistic Pride, Unhealthy Narcissism and National Trauma
Throughout Russia’s history, leaders have carried out a relentless psychological operation to convince Russians of their specialness as a people and greatness as an empire. Somehow, these indoctrinated beliefs meant Russia was always entitled and justified in abusing, destroying or annexing anyone who dares say otherwise, or who stands in the way of Russia’s “greatness.” How coincidental that Russia’s greatness was always conflated with the ruler’s greatness, unless their failure was so complete that they must be overthrown, to make Russia great again.
The historical theme has been: Russia is great, getting greater all the time, and if you dare say different, we will attack you until you agree or just kill you. Russia’s long history of using violence, brutality, cruelty, propaganda and murder as primary political and military strategies is undeniable. This means that while Putin’s war-crime tactics are “shock and awe” to Americans, Eastern Europe views them as the same old Russia and explains why they will fight so hard. Their choices are to fight for freedom or surrender to Russia’s cruel dominance, again.
Sadly, despite the steady stream of leaders declaring Russia’s greatness, the Russian people have consistently suffered throughout the country’s long history of leaders’ ambitions exceeding their capabilities. It must be quite the psychological trauma to have reality repeatedly prove your country is not as great as your leaders say it is. This is why fatalism and disappointment seem baked in and accepted by the Russian psyche.
In 1905, the backward yet seemingly mighty Russian bear was repeatedly humiliated in war by the tiny, little-known country of Japan. This shocking defeat and trauma caused the first revolution, which signified the beginning of the end of the Russian czarist monarchy. Vladimir Lenin called the 1905 revolution “The Great Dress Rehearsal” for the 1917 Communist revolution.
Once Russia’s brutal civil war for power ended in 1923, communist dictators Lenin and later Joseph Stalin imposed many more decades of trauma on the Russian people by rejecting any kind of free democratic socialism in favor of absolute dictatorship. As an authoritarian police state, the elites of Russia once again inflicted massive psychological and emotional damage and delusional thinking on the Russian people, until the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
Indeed the fall of the USSR was another colossal humiliation and trauma for the proud Russian people since they lost their “superpower” status and empire. They were forced to confront the truth that so much of what they were taught to believe with absolute certainty was mostly manipulative propaganda.
Putin himself returned to Russia from Germany as an unemployed mid-level KGB officer who quickly leveraged his spy training and foreign experience into political operative jobs that required similar skill sets. In post-communist Russia, the only people who really understood capitalism were the Russian mafia, so Putin’s training in using kompromat on foreign businessmen and making deals with corrupt figures for the state’s benefit came naturally to him, as did using the power of the state in the shadows.
Putin maneuvered his way into becoming president by pretending to be a democratic reformer and appealing to Russian machismo by promising brutality against “Chechen terrorists.” Then he turned Russia into a giant gas station owned by former KGB officers, the mafia and anyone else willing to pay to play and let Putin be czar.
Of course, every dictatorship or authoritarian kleptocracy, whether czarist, communist or Putinist, has fatal flaws. Everyone is afraid of telling “dear leader” the truth, or even reporting bad news, since the leader doesn’t want to hear it and often kills the messenger. Corruption undermines everything, which is why the highly feared Russian military has been so ill equipped in Ukraine. The army Putin thought he built was an illusion because no one wanted to tell him that the money intended to modernize it was pocketed by his kleptocrat “allies.”
Authoritarian corruption of czars, communists, and for the last 22 years, a KGB-trained manipulator is a big part of why the Russian people must be constantly groomed with pro-Russian propaganda. Russia’s leaders understand that nothing can ever be their fault. When Russians realize that their leader is to blame for Russia’s failure or humiliation, that is when they rise up in revolution. Hence, whenever the inflated image of Russia falls short of reality, the leader tries to blame everyone else. This tactic of blaming failures on a scapegoat is standard operating procedure for every authoritarian leader and deflects the people’s rage and anger from their own incompetent leader.
Putin plays the victim by claiming an American/Nazi conspiracy intends to keep Russia down. He also promotes the contradictory idea that liberal values of democracy, diversity, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights are against God and threaten Russia’s existence. The latter is why misogynistic, bigoted and racist “Christians” love Putin, and since they tend to be insecure narcissists, they are easily manipulated and always the easiest marks for spies.
The foundation of understanding Putin is understanding “What’s wrong with Russia?” and its long traumatic history of excessive violence. It is a story of entitled rulers who enslaved (serfdom/communism), brutalized, manipulated, and consistently used the proud Russian people as cannon fodder, in the name of Mother Russia, while usually only serving themselves. Putin’s leadership style is pretty much the norm for Russia. Peter the Great, the Westernized and Enlightenment-minded Catherine the Great, and Mikhail Gorbachev are among the few notable, quasi-modernizing exceptions.
In other words, selfish rule, corruption, cruelty, propaganda, militarism and murder have been consistent themes of nearly every Russian system of government. One can only imagine how centuries of physical, psychological and emotional abuse have affected the neurochemistry of the Russian people. So when trying to understand Putin via a “What’s wrong with Russia?” framework, the foundation seemingly is a centuries-old cycle of leaders conditioning the Russian people with brutality and false confidence. This history has resulted in centuries of inherited trauma, which is simple for a spy who controls the levers of power to manipulate to his own advantage.
DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.