The Putin Illusion: The Fragile Russian Doll

12 mins read

A Russian doll is an apt analogy for Putin. In an attempt to analyze the multiple layers of his persona, it is possible to imagine him starting out as a tiny, little Putin who goes through several stages and is eventually engulfed by a massive Kremlin-sized ego.

When I sought out the psychological questions that experts and others have about Putin, to help me better analyze him, some asked whether Putin has a Napoleon complex? Well, he was small during puberty and bullied, and he is reportedly the same height Napoleon was, so there seems some validity there. 

But the most consistent question I came across was: “What is he sick with?” Parkinson’s and cancer were the main suspicions. Then a doctor friend suspected steroids due to lingering Covid, because a rounder face and a bloated belly can be symptoms of steroid use. Once steroids were mentioned, a light bulb came on. 

Given that Putin only respects strength and despises weakness, is getting too old to play the tough guy on TV, and that in his era, Russian athletes keep getting caught cheating with steroids, it almost seems a certainty that he has been taking steroids for several years to “pump himself up.” It is only circumstantial evidence but fits the facts.

Additionally “roid rage” could explain how he deluded himself into thinking that invading Ukraine was a good idea. Economically, politically and militarily, it has been a massive miscalculated disaster that has backfired on him spectacularly, and only looks to get worse for Russia, unless his inner circle ends his mad reign in a coup. 

Some Putin experts, including those who know him well, have noted that his actions seem like those of an old man who knows he is running out of time. Illness is the assumed reason but is only speculation. However, abuse of steroids also is known to cause illnesses, including cancer, so these may be chicken or egg questions.

Whether steroids or illness contributed to Putin’s aggressiveness, arrogance, delusions of grandeur, narcissism and conspiratorial thinking, all of those traits have long been recognized as central aspects of his underlying psychology.

Putin’s Root Motivations From a Psychological Perspective

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Winston Churchill, 1939

What inhibited Churchill’s ability to forecast Russia is a thorough 21st century understanding of how narcissist psychology makes authoritarians like Putin predictable. 

As I stated in Narcissism Is Trumpism, Part 1, in the course of learning how to rescue a friend from a sociopath, I found an area that explains Putin (and the GOP and trump): “Pathological narcissism is in essence compulsive self-serving behavior so their entire purpose in life is to fill an empty hole they can never fill. That is why there is no bottom to the depths these greedy, toxic abusers will go, and there is little to nothing society can do to help them change. What we can do is wisely limit the damage.” 

“Putin is a man who only understands strength,” Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said recently. Indeed, first and foremost, the thing every pathological narcissist respects and fears is a greater strength and power, and in particular higher-level narcissists, because these people know their every move and are superior at their entire “game.” 

To better understand the dynamic between narcissists like Putin and trump, I find a scene from The Chronicles of Riddick a helpful conceptualization. Just before a big battle, Riddick and his protégé discuss playing their favorite game, “Who’s the better killer?” 

From the moment narcissists, sociopaths and/or psychopaths meet, they instantly play the game, “Who’s the better (and more powerful) narcissist?” Normally, a grandiose narcissist dominates more insecure narcissists, while a sociopath dominates most grandiose narcissists, but all narcissists normally bow and submit to intelligent organized psychopaths, who are the best narcissists. At each level of unhealthy narcissism, the “better narcissist” instinctively knows how to push all their lessers’ buttons and triggers, to assert their dominance as the “superior.”

This dynamic clarifies why trump is so psychologically subservient to Putin and why trump’s narcissistic followers are so subservient to him. Each bows to the better narcissist. So next time you wonder about the dynamic between two self-serving people, try asking, “Who’s the better narcissist?” Also consider a Russian doll as an analogy for how narcissists exist on a spectrum, ranging from the slightly selfish functioning person to highly intelligent psychopaths, and how differences in between the different levels of narcissists reveal the most about these individuals.

We are currently dealing with Russia’s best narcissist — or at least the one he has turned himself into — in the past 22 years. As Alexandra Tolstoy said about her oligarch ex-boyfriend and Putin’s inner circle, “they are inevitably massive narcissists.” 

If we accept the theory that Putin is a pathological narcissist, then his war on Ukraine is little more than his compulsive need to assert dominance and cruelly exact revenge on a people who committed the unforgivable sin of not submitting to his “greatness.” It also is his pathological need for absolute rule over anyone who dares challenge him, as he aggressively attempts to rebuild the Russian empire, purely for his own glory. 

The theory also reveals that Putin does not believe much of anything he claims to believe or stand for. Most political science experts believe he is sincerely dedicated to Mother Russia and rebuilding the Russian empire. Based on pathological narcissism, however, this has nothing to do with benefiting Russia or its people, and everything to do with his delusional fantasy of himself as an absolute ruler. Putin believes he will be remembered  for leaving a legacy of rebuilding the empire, as Czar Vlad the Great.

What a coincidence he always lied and manipulated his way up the Russian ladder of power, such as when he led previous President Boris Yeltsin to believe he was a democratic reformer too, and then kept up that illusion until he consolidated czarlike powers. 

What has now become obvious is Putin doesn’t distinguish between himself, the state and Russia itself. This is because pathological narcissists don’t distinguish between their fantasies and reality, which confirms that when he says he is doing something for Russia, he is really only doing what is best for himself. It is never about Russia’s national interests. It’s always about the narcissist’s personal compulsive cravings and desires. 

“What’s Next?”

What we must understand is Putin gives an excellent impression of a sociopath/psychopath, and whether he clinically is one or not, he is so close that pathological narcissist psychology explains how we need to view and deal with him. 

First, we must understand cruelty is his point, because inflicting pain gets people to react emotionally instead of strategically, creates more trauma, produces more unhealthy narcissism, and makes small men feel big. Remember, this is the big man who legalized wife and child beating in 2017. This is the big man who is so scared of his political opponents and critics that they are almost all banned, in jail, exiled or murdered.

Second, we must understand that Putin will keep hitting our fear buttons, but like during the Cold War, we must unite in understanding that threatening nuclear weapons and starting WWIII are gaslighting fear traps. If he thinks we won’t respond, he might use a few, but if he understands the Kremlin will be turned to dust in response, he won’t consider it. Unlike trump, Putin understands 100 nukes will block out the sun for two years, ending most of humanity, and he wants Russia around to worship Czar Vlad the Great’s legacy. There’s no glory in ending humanity.

Third, know he is driven by his own fears of being removed from power, being put in jail, or becoming another failed czar who meets the predictable end. Yes, he’s highly sociopathic/psychopathic but his outward behavior is him trying to mask his fears and appear scarier. Anyone who sits far from people at the end of a long table because he is a germaphobe and won’t ingest any food or drink that is not tested wants to live. 

Fourth, narcissism psychology dictates that no one should ever need to guess what Putin’s intentions are again. He will always do what he craves and will relentlessly keep pushing for what he wants until blocked or stopped by harsh consequences, firm barriers or reality itself. 

Cult expert Steven Hassan only escaped his cult when he finally realized the leader was a liar. Sadly, most Russians have spent many years living in a 1984, Big Brother dystopian lie, so they are conditioned to expect lies from everyone. The question for Russia’s remarkable civilization is, when does being a failed country of lies for the glorification of another terrible czar become too much for the Russian bear to bear? 

On the bright side, Putin is showing the world the self-destructive overconfidence blindspot that is, by definition, the fatal flaw of every authoritarian narcissist.

In case you missed it, be sure to read the first part of the article, The Putin Illusion: The Wizard of Id.

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Sam is an international strategist, writer and traveler. He grew up in the multicultural SF Bay Area with a liberal teacher mother and conservative stockbroker father, which gave him a natural desire to bridge cultural and political differences. In the 2000s, Sam recognized a friend needed rescuing from a bully, so he studied bullying psychology. He later discovered he had accidentally become an expert in the psychology of narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths when others kept asking for help. Sam went on to write his dream book explaining America.

*Find Sam on Twitter @slipperyhero.

*Book link:

*Hear him discuss narcissism on the Backwards & In High Heels podcast:

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